Why It Matters How We Are Buried

The Jesuit retirement home where I have lived almost four years now usually has some seventy or eighty residents, all over seventy, all having already been blessed with many days on this green earth. We have one man over a hundred, a couple of others nearing it. During the time of my residence here, some forty men, most of whom I have known, have died. The good superior of the house has officiated in over eighty funerals of men who have died here, to most of whom he has administered the last rites of the Church. So we have, as it were, a shifting population between here in Los Gatos and the cemeteries in Santa Clara and Spokane were west coast Jesuits are buried. About half the men request cremation. Even though the same rites and words are observed, the mood of a funeral is different when the dead are cremated, with the photo of the deceased beside the small box of ashes and when the body is present in a casket.

One of my uncles on my step-mother’s side was cremated. At his request, his ashes were spread on a golf course in Florida. This probably is not legal. I think one of my cousins had his ashes scattered at sea from an airplane. Another cousin of mine, a retired naval chief, went to work as a “greeter” in a funeral home in Florida. On a visit one time, he asked me if I would like a tour of the very busy funeral home (it’s Florida, after all) for which he worked. I had never really had an inside view of a funeral home, even though our neighbor in Knoxville, Iowa, when I was a boy, was an undertaker. I said fine to my cousin. He showed me the caskets and the small boxes for cremated ashes.

We went in to watch a cremation furnace at work. He told me that they could not make enough cremation mechanisms as the demand from China was so great. The whole cremation was done reverently, quickly, and carefully. He asked me if I wanted to see a body prepared for a casket. I decided against it. He laughed. Old salts often know more than old clergymen.

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Why bring all this up? In L’Osservatore Romano, English (October 28, 2016), we find a document entitled “To Rise with Christ,” from Gerhard Cardinal Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation on the Doctrine for the Faith. It is a review of the Christian idea of funerals. The essential thesis is that the traditional Catholic practice of burying the dead is still the preferred way for Christians to deal with their dead. This tradition does not mean that the increasingly common cremation is not to be permitted. The explanation for this permission lies mostly in the history of the opposition to burials based on some dogmatic issue.

At the Ash Wednesday service, we receive the ashes on our foreheads while the priest repeats the famous phrase: “Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” The fact is that we return to “dust” in various convoluted ways. If we are buried at sea, we probably end up as fish food. The Parsees in India place the bodies of the dead in large cages in which vultures devour them. India also had funeral pyres on which bodies were burned. The Egyptians mummified bodies. In that condition, it took them much longer to return to dust. The Romans buried their dead.

Once I saw a photo of the old Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco. After the earthquake, the city expanded in that direction. The photo showed coffins being opened and bones exposed. Most cemeteries are legal entities that last for a certain number of years. If the ground ceases to be a cemetery, the remains are usually put in a common grave. All ashes and bones are mingled together. Thus, the difference between cremation and burial in terms of returning to dust is just a question of sooner or later.

Too, I recall the lovely English Cemetery in Rome, so different in mood from the Roman Campo Verano where more recent Italians buried their dead. Indeed, I have always recommended travelers to visit the cemeteries of the places they frequent to see what the local people think of death. Many old churches were surrounded by graveyards. When we compare cremation to burial, as I have suggested, we return to dust in both cases, only it takes longer if we are buried. Some skeletons can last a long time. Very few of the billions and billions of human beings who have ever died on this planet are even identifiable dust today. Our remains return to elements and soil. The world carries on.

The concern of the Congregation with funerals is, at bottom, doctrinal. Opposition to cremation was usually a reaction to some theological point. Cremation was early on said by Masons and others to be an effort to eradicate the notion of the resurrection of the body. If you returned the body to ashes, how was there anything left to resurrect? When cremation has this connotation, we still should not choose that means of dealing with the dead. Since most people no longer associate cremation with an effort to deny the resurrection’s truth, the Church has granted that no real problem with cremation exists if cremation is chosen. But still, much is to be said for burial.

The history of theology, in one sense, can be seen in theories about the dead, especially the dead body. At the center of the Christian faith is the Incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, and bodily ascension of Christ, the man-God. Even the Creed affirms that Christ “died and was buried.” Obviously, if we deny that the body exists (some do) or that it really dies, or that we return as birds or other characters after death, we cannot cope with the exact meaning of Christ’s resurrection. And in Christ, we find the full understanding of ourselves, of the very being we are when we look at ourselves, beings whose reality most clearly includes a body, such as it is in its particularity.

It is also clear that if we do not have a body, we are not full or complete human beings. This insight is why those who maintain that death is the end of us have a point. It is also why we have the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, why we are not complete without our bodies. The immortality of the soul is what makes the doctrine of the resurrection of the body credible and necessary. If when we died, we simply disappeared into nothingness, it would mean that there could be no real “resurrection” of this particular person who has become a “nothing.”

If the person died and became nothing, then God “recreated” the same person later on, it would mean that there was no continuity between the one who was born and lived and the one who was resurrected. The immortality of the soul, which requires its own proof, provides a reason why the person who dies and the person who is resurrected is the same person whose life is one continuous whole from death to resurrection. Otherwise, heaven and probably hell would be populated by strangers, not us.

“In burying the bodies of the dead,” the Congregation affirms, “the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.” Two things are to be noticed in this passage. First, the body is an essential part of what it means to be human. Some theory of everlasting immortality with no resurrection (the Platonic view) thus is not the teaching on this topic. Second, what finally matters is the whole being in its integrity of body and soul. The truth of Christian revelation we take on the authority of the witnesses. Whatever we think of this testimony, the fact remains that the “logic” of the argument is valid. The soul is not the whole human being. It is incomplete by itself, even though it is immortal. This view implies that the soul in its very reality looks to, needs the restoration of the body. This truth is what Christian revelation is about.

The Church has seen many theories in its day on these issues. If a rite or explanation of what is going on at a burial imply or teach something that denies these truths, then the Church cannot condone them. We can have “erroneous” ideas about the dead. One error leads to another, so thought is required of our faith. If we hold that “death is the definitive annihilation of the person,” we obviously implicitly deny the truth of the teaching about the resurrection of the body. If we think that at death we witness the body as “a fusion with Mother Earth or the universe,” we get rid of any separate being of what we are. Reincarnation theories would have it that death is a moment wherein some other being not ourselves comes to take our place. Others hold that matter and the body are the cause of evil, so that death “liberates” us from the body as the source of this evil. This view would make the human being a soul only instead of a single being made of soul and matter that is considered good.

Christ, as we recall, died and “was buried.” He rose again. What is at stake is the notion of a continuity between the dead and risen bodies. If there were no soul, for example, it would be pretty difficult to explain how someone who died a thousand years ago, on resurrection, could be the same person. If there were no continuity, it would mean that if Segundo died in 241 A.D. and rose again on the last day, there would have to be a new creation if there was nothing continuous between his death and resurrection. In other words, he would not really be the same person. That position would negate the whole point of the resurrection as we understand it. It would mean our actual lives had no meaning.

The death of Christ only required a few brief days of death, during which Christ is said to be visiting the souls waiting resurrection. His rising again meant that the same body was restored, however we want to deal with the decaying issue of any dead body. So the practice of burying the dead is conceived to make clear that it is the same person who dies and who rises again, whenever that is.

Men have been perplexed by death from the beginning. The Congregation mentions the various understandings of death that are incompatible with a Christian understanding of death. What it affirms, however, is that the central truth of Christianity involves the resurrection of the body. Our funeral rites are meant to teach us what this means. That is why we are solemn at death and we continue to pray for them. God did not intend death in the beginning. When it came, he sent his Son among us. Death, ultimately, as St. Paul said, has “no dominion.” In our funerals, this truth is what we are to see.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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