In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reiterates the short creed which he “handed on” to them:
We tend to overlook the middle term – his burial. By downplaying that reality, we lessen our appreciation for the central Christian mystery – Jesus’ Resurrection.
This Sunday John paints a vivid picture of Jewish burial rites: the careful wrapping of the body, the days of public mourning, the hewn grave with its stone covering. By comparison our funeral practices seem minimal. As a result, our faith – and our humanity – has been impoverished.
We see this impoverishment in the widespread practice of cremation. In Seattle cremations have jumped, in a single decade, from one third to two thirds of all funerals. The rest of the country is not far behind us. While I will always do my best to reverence cremains – as I would the body of a deceased person – still something is askew.
I could not put my finger on precisely what was wrong until the Georgia scandal came to light a couple weeks ago. Instead of cremating the bodies entrusted to them, the Tri-State Crematory simply stashed them away and gave mourners ordinary ashes. As of March 10, 339 bodies have been recovered. One lady carried false ashes in a locket, thinking they were the cremains of her husband. The news networks also reported that a funeral home in California sold bodies to a local university rather than cremating them. Those funeral homes are hardly typical, but the stories indicate an underlying difficulty with cremation. It is too quick and too anonymous. In the process the family loses the certainty that the remains they reverence are those of their loved one.
Perhaps because of that uncertainty, cremains are not treated as seriously as a body. A woman arrived at Holy Family Church with her husband's cremains in a knapsack. When I asked her to place them on a table, she shuffled through magazines and pictures to bring them out. I've heard of urns being put on a shelf adjacent the television or being used in a party joke.
Worst of all is the sprinkling the ashes and bone chips. That might be appropriate to a pantheistic, nature worship religion, but what place can it have in ours? A family once told me they were going to scatter their dad's ashes on Mt. Rainier because "that was his favorite place." That's nice. I like Mt. Rainier too, but when I die, I want to go to God, not Mt. Rainier. Do you hear what I am saying?
As Catholics we reverence the human body by celebrating the Mass of Christian Burial. The rite assumes the body is present, even if cremated afterwards. It is an additional cost, but what constitutes a better outlay of money? Of course, best of all is to have a funeral Mass followed by burial of the body in a cemetery. That way one can place a marker and return to the spot where a loved one is buried with the assurance that the mortal remains are there.
The importance of reverencing mortal remains struck me when I visited Lakeview Cemetery here in Seattle. A number of famous people are buried there, including the actor Bruce Lee. Fans from across the country and even other nations had placed bouquets on his grave. They traveled great distances to come the actual site of the star's mortal remains. If fans can do that for a celebrity who they never met personally, should we not do likewise for those we loved and who care for us?
We have the greatest possible motive for remembering the deceased: the Communion of Saints. When in the state of grace, we are joined not only to our brothers and sisters here on earth, but also to those in heaven and purgatory. We often say to fellow Christians, “please pray for me,” or “I will pray for you.” It is only natural to do the same for deceased loved ones. Of course, those in heaven do not need our prayers. They are in glory and no suffering can touch them. However, except for the canonized saints, we do not know for sure if a loved one is in heaven. Perhaps that person is in purgatory and requires our prayers to complete his final cleansing.
And we can suppose that they pray for us. I don’t think the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven follow our lives as if they were watching a soap opera. Let’s face it; our lives are pretty boring in comparison to the vision of God. It would be like the difference between Niagara Falls and some muddy little creek. Our departed loved ones are not likely to be that interested in the details of our lives, such as health and finances, but they would be concerned whether we are making the decisions required for salvation. It makes sense to believe that God allows them to pray for us still on earth. That is why we speak of a Communion of Saints.
Pope John Paul, when asked about animistic religions, made a significant observation concerning the Communion of Saints:
"It seems that those who practice them (animistic religions) are particularly close to Christianity, and among them, the Church's missionaries also find it easier to speak a common language. Is there, perhaps, in this veneration of ancestors a kind of preparation for the Christian faith in the Communion of Saints, in which all believers-whether living or dead-form a single community, a single body? And faith in the Communion of Saints is, ultimately, faith in Christ, who alone is the source of life and of holiness for all." (Crossing the Threshold of Hope: Why So Many Religions?)
This Sunday we receive a glimpse of that glorious reality, but like Jesus (and like Lazarus) first comes death – and burial.
From Archives (Year A homilies for Fifth Sunday of Lent):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Letter from Former Catholic: Syllabus of Accusations against Popes & Some Responses
my bulletin column
SMV Bulletin (be patient - sometimes we have problems uploading)
Parish Picture Album
40 Days for Life (Everett, WA)
Q&A about Planned Parenthood
An Audio Lenten Retreat by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain (thirteen talks, 10 to 15 minutes long, on topics such as temptation, grudges, surrender, mercy, etc. - well worth listening to)
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From Word of Encouragement (March 14, 2002):
1 Corinthians 15:37-38 And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
Humans are the only creatures to have funerals. They demonstrate more clearly than any other activity the deeply human intuition that our bodies matter and are not just disposable Tupperware containers for some gassy spirit. We do not fling our beloved dead into trash compactors or dump them in a land fill. When these outrages are performed on the dead they are recognized as outrages. Why? Because the body--even the dead body--is sacred and must be handled with the same reverence as we handle the Eucharist. To be sure, what is planted in the earth is a natural seed and will pass away. But it will not pass into oblivion. It will, we have the highest assurance, be raised as Christ was raised: to participate--bodily--in the life of the Blessed Trinity. That is why Catholics "celebrate" funerals.
Just a Word of Encouragement
from Mark Shea & Jeff Cavins
Genesis holds a fascination for many readers that few books in the Old Testament share. Like all things that deal with beginnings there is something that grips the imagination in the story that lies at the roots of all the rest of Scripture. It is on this foundation that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all rest and the faith of Abraham puts out branches that draw from this great trunk. A proper understanding of Genesis is simply indispensable, not only for understanding the Catholic faith, but for understanding the world.
Check it out at http://www.catholicexchange.com/css/biblestudy.asp?study=BS16
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