“Give graciously to all the living, and withhold not kindness from the dead” (Sir 7:33). The other six corporal works of mercy are taken from the famous parable of the Last Judgment, in which people are saved or condemned because of how they treated the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, and so on (Mt 25:21-46). This work is inspired by the Old Testament figure Tobit, who buried the dead at the risk of his own life.
In one sense, this is a work of mercy we perform without thinking: when someone we know dies, we want to pay our respects by visiting the funeral home or attending their funeral. We even go to funerals of people we do not know well if they happen to be close to people who are dear to us. This is a gracious gesture and offers great consolation to the family of the bereaved. If the person is known to us, the funeral is a time to express our own sorrow and share memories with others. Such actions are a part of every culture and religious tradition.
But this work of mercy also challenges us to reflect on the Christian understanding of death, and thus how we bury the dead. In the Creed we profess that we believe in the resurrection of the body, and that fundamental truth shapes our rich Catholic tradition of funeral rites. We read in the Catechism: “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 2300).
The fact that we see this to be a “corporal” work of mercy flies in the face of the culture around us. Our modern society seems schizophrenic when it comes to the body. On the one hand, we are fitness-conscious and we spend much energy and money on being in shape and looking young and healthy. But then, at death, the body becomes at best an inconvenience and at worst an embarrassment, something to be discretely gotten out of the way. The funeral then becomes simply an occasion to remember the deceased.
How powerful and consoling, by contrast, are our Catholic funeral rites! They speak eloquently of the pain of loss, faith in the Resurrection, the hope of eternal life mingled with prayers to assist the departed on their final journey, and the sacramental life which plunges us, body and soul, into the death and resurrection of Christ.
One problem is that we do not know much about these rites unless we experience them firsthand at the death of a loved one. At such a time of strong emotions, the Church’s ritual touches us on a very deep level, but we may not be aware of what is going on. One simple suggestion for carrying out this work of mercy is to take a little time to read over the Church’s funeral liturgy and meditate on the beauty of the truth of our faith enshrined there.
There are practical ways of carrying out this particular work. Many parishes provide meals after the funeral service, grief counseling, and other services that provide opportunities for us to help bury the dead. Funerals can be very expensive (although they need not be), and our communities can set up funds to help those who cannot meet those expenses with their own resources. We can arrange to have Masses celebrated for the repose of the souls of those who have died, and if our schedule permits occasionally attend funerals in our parish even when the person is not known to us.
The final act of kindness extended to Our Savior was a decent burial; this, too, can be an occasion when what we do for others, we do for him.