Burying the Dead: A Memorial and a Pledge of Future Salvation

Connecting the Dots: The conclusion to the Register series on the corporal works of mercy.

Detail 'The Works of Mercy' (1504) by The Master of Alkmaar
Detail 'The Works of Mercy' (1504) by The Master of Alkmaar (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“The body,” I was taught growing up, “is just the shoebox for the soul. What matters are the shoes, not the box. So when it’s time to go to heaven, we throw the box away.”

Along with this good dose of gnostic thinking came a certain aesthetic that regarded the human person as a ghost in a machine. Of course, I didn’t live as though I was a ghost in a machine. Nobody does, except perhaps a victim of extreme mental illness.

Practically speaking, I lived as you do: in the instinctive awareness that I am a unity of body and soul. That’s why when Susie stuck out her tongue at me when I was 4, I knew that her soul was, in union with her body, expressing the thought that I was yucky. And when I cried as a result, it was not the tear ducts of my “bio-envelope” that were sad. It was me — the union of body and soul — that felt rejected.

None of that changed as I grew up. When I was 9, I wrote my name all over my older brother’s TV screen with an eraser. Mike would not have been persuaded of my innocence had I been precocious enough to exclaim, “Do not take out your wrath on my bottom by spanking me in a fury, for the actions of the body are disconnected from the purity of the soul!” Nor, indeed, was my brother’s firm bottom-swatting something my soul quickly forgot.

Still and all, despite the constant reminder of experience, gnosticism remains one of the most perennially popular forms of nonsense. Gnostics think like Yoda: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” They assume that the way to figure out what constitutes a human being is to saw the person into two components: worthless body and valuable soul. This notion has infected Christian thought like a virus since the birth of the Church — and it still wreaks havoc today.

So, for instance, some people attempt moral reasoning about abortion by asking questions like “What’s the difference between human life and human tissue?” Beneath that question lurks the idea: “The spirit of Joe Smith is what makes him a person. The valueless bag of genetic chemicals that is the body of Joe Smith is just the shoebox. When we separate the one from the other, we’ll know when Joe Smith comes into existence and when it is okay to abort him or manipulate those chemicals in a lab.”

The problem is, no part of the created order is valueless. Rather, God calls all creation “good” (see Genesis 1) and, as St. Thomas Aquinas observed, God’s grace (the grace that brings every baby into existence) perfects nature rather than destroying, supplanting or ignoring it.

Grace creates a hierarchy of goodness in which each created thing remains itself while becoming part of something greater than itself. So, in the creation of every human being, God raises atoms to participate in molecular existence, yet atoms remain atoms. Likewise, molecules are raised to participate in organic chemistry yet remain molecules. And so on, with organic chemicals, DNA and single-celled and multicellular organisms.

Each is, by the power of God, raised to participate in something higher, yet each thing remains what it is. And at the pinnacle of the hierarchy, one multicellular species is raised by grace to participate not merely in a new level of natural life, but in the supernatural life of God himself. Thus, humans are animals with a rational soul in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:27, 2:7). Yet we’re not thereby “spiritualized” out of our bodies and into the ether. Rather, we retain our hair and DNA. So we are, to be sure, dust. But this dust is — not merely “contains” — a person.

This is not to say it’s impossible to separate soul and body. Indeed, it happens thousands of times every day. It’s called “death.” And death is precisely the bitter fruit of the fall from which Christ saves us. Thus, the sought-for separation of soul and body can never show us the beginning of human life, only its end — leaving only a corpse and a ghost. In a grim way, even sin and death show the essential unity of flesh and spirit.

The real way to approach the question is sacramentally, by asking, “What is the relationship, not the difference, between body, soul and spirit?” Christianity tells us that human soul and body are related, not as milk to milk bottle, but as Mona Lisa to paint. Human beings are not souls poured into disposable, finely tuned bags of genetic chemicals. We are, as Scripture says, an inseparable unity of body, soul and spirit (see Genesis 2:7, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). And if you want to know when a human being begins life, ask yourself, “At what moment did the Son of God become the Son of Man, the paradigm of the human race?”

The answer of 2,000 years of unbroken Catholic Tradition is plain: In the supreme instance of his identification with the human person — by the life-giving power that loved creation into being, blessed the hierarchy of goodness and came to save the world from sin and death — God the Son of Man was conceived by the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:35).

The incarnation of the Son of God is why the Christian Tradition has always hallowed the body, not only in life, but even in death. For the body does not derive its holiness, significance and worth simply from being associated with a soul. It derives it from God, who made the body as the temple — not only of the human soul, but of the living God himself. It is sacred in death, even as the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dead body of Jesus were sacred. For in the risen Christ that body shall be rebuilt.

This sanctity of the body is something that has been intuited since the very dawn of humanity. With the dawn of humankind, we see the very first occurrence of something that did not occur in the three billion years of life on earth before us: the grave. Suddenly, we find not merely animal carcasses strewn on the ground, but the bodies of persons laid with reverence in the ground, buried with flowers, entombed with tokens of things they loved in life, decked with art that speaks of some groping hope that this is not the end for them and surrounded with the love, respect or awe their fellow humans had for them.

The ambiguity of our position as fallen creatures is on full display in how we treat the dead.

In the Old Testament, burying the dead is as much a pious work of mercy as it is in the Christian Tradition. But as in the Christian Tradition, it is also something nobody is especially eager to do. Under the old covenant, touching the dead rendered a person ritually unclean; for instance, just as today it can traumatize you, make you sick or give you the creeps.

There’s a reason every civilization and culture in the world has ghost stories and feels the dead to be uncanny. We sense in our bones that the division of body and soul is wrong. We feel the absence of the one who should be there. And we are none too eager to look on the face of the dead.

And yet, burying the dead remains a work of mercy. For Christians, the archetype of this work was seen in the deposition from the cross and in the women’s later coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. Indeed, so significant is the work of caring for and burying the dead that one woman in particular will be remembered for this act down to the end of time:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:3-9)

The utilitarian approach to the dead and those doomed to die that is exemplified by Mary’s critics is still very much with us — and is growing as the euthanasia movement grows, urging the weak and inconvenient to die and get out of the way, while simultaneously promising us a secular utopia through war and the raw exercise of earthly power. Sometimes it can reveal itself with a white-hot hatred of the weak and those who care for them.

Exhibit A: Mother Teresa founds a home in Calcutta specifically ordered toward honoring those who cannot be saved from death. In doing so, she blasphemes against a central tenet of post-Christian faith in progress: the doctrine that we shall sooner or later conquer death itself. She reminds us, by her home for the dying, that we are all going to end up there sooner or later and that sometimes what is necessary is to reverence the dying by giving them their true human dignity.

This is, in fact, a million miles away from what our culture of death calls “death with dignity,” for Mother Teresa did not murder the dying with poison or blather about weeding out the unfit to make room for the productive. Instead, she simply honored the dying, cared for their bodily needs and prayed for them as they leave this world — just as her sisters continue to do.

The response of atheist Trotskyite Christopher Hitchens to Blessed Teresa’s Christian example? “I wish there was a hell for the b**** to go to.” To embrace our holy sister, the death of the body, enrages the children of this world now no less than it enraged Judas then.

For death is the last impregnable fortress against our pride; the last reminder that sin cannot win, that our power is not eternal, that God is not mocked. It is also, by the grace of that same God, no longer a hole, but a door.

Our salvation has been won precisely through the death of the one whose body Mary of Bethany anointed. It was that dead body, and no other, which was raised from death in glory and that is now the means by which God mediates his eternal life to us in the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood.

The body of our beloved dead is, therefore, like Jesus’ body, both a memorial and a pledge of future salvation. It is the last relic we have of our beloved — and the seed of the person’s resurrection. So we honor it even in death. As Paul says:

“Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:36–55).

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.

Below can be found the other part of his series

on the corporal works of mercy.


Feed the Hungry

Give Drink to the Thirsty

Clothe the Naked

Harbor the Harborless

Visit the Sick

Ransom the Captive