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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 75)

The Corporal Works of Mercy: Burying the Dead
Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead: these are the seven corporal works of mercy. The first six of these require little explanation. Almost all who honor religion will honor these works of mercy, even if many seldom practice them. By utter necessity, the seventh corporal work of mercy, the burial of the dead, is not, strictly speaking, neglected. But I am not sure its quality of mercy is well understood.
Perhaps the place to start reflecting on this question is to remember those disastrous moments when the burying of the dead became an excruciating public problem. I think first of the day we have come to call “9/11”, when finding and sorting and identifying the dead posed so painful a challenge.   During those days, fragments of crushed and blasted bodies of the dead were collected in large sterile  containers some distance from “ground zero”. The hope was that, through the wonders of forensic science, many who grieved the dead would be able to claim at least some part of their loved ones for burial.
The work of sorting would go on for years. But in those first few days after the attack, a young Jewish woman began to show up at the storage sites in order to “say Shiva” according to Jewish funeral custom. Others soon joined her in this wake. And with these gestures of mercy, a site of horror became for a few days a consecrated site of religious faith and human solidarity.
We add to this memory of mercy another one—preserved by St. John the Apostle—concerning the burial of our Lord. Immediately after his death “Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus. . .asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body.    Nicodemus . . . also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes. . . . They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom” (John 19:38-41).That the Gospel Tradition preserves the names of these two men, along with details of the lavish care of the body of Jesus, helps us to glimpse the inner meaning of this corporal work of mercy.
The burial of the dead is not simply an act of disposal. It is an act of love, in which the grieving are comforted and the life of the departed are remembered with reverence and love. For to God our Father, each human being—body, soul, and spirit—is a whole universe of meaning.  And it is precisely the body that we lay to rest with hope and prayer. For the body is the means by which we are present to one another. The human body, each one unique, is a “sacrament” of the human personality (John Paul II). With this last act of corporal care, we witness to the gospel promise of the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

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