I can remember as a young boy in Georgia attending my first funeral when I was probably ten years old. It was a strange thing to be at church in the afternoon on a school day, and there was an unfamiliar air of sorrow and solemnity that marked the entire service. Two moments are flashbulb memories for me. One was when the pallbearers slid the casket of my friend’s mother into the back of the hearse, and the other—even more deeply engrained—was walking up with my own father to the graveside, lifting a shovel full of dirt to drop onto the casket. I stood by and watched as the other men present continued, along with the husband of the deceased and her older children, to fill in the rest of the six feet of depth that had been dug the day before. Tears were running down everyone’s cheeks. Yet, the faces of those around me also bespoke a conviction—this wasn’t the end.
Decades later, and after having repeated these rituals numerous times, I found myself in Nicaragua performing the same act of shoveling dirt onto the coffin of one of our neighbors who had died. At that point, however, as a friar and an adult, I was among the group of men who continued shoveling until the deceased was fully buried. Of all the corporal works of mercy, it seems that for most in the United States, this opportunity to literally bury the dead has not been a part of our experience. More often this concrete task has been assumed by those who work at the cemetery. Yet, there is a natural and spiritual movement that one sees between the Mass—particularly the funeral Mass—and the act of burying the dead.
At every Mass, there is a specific moment in the Liturgy of the Eucharist in which we offer prayers for those “who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection” (Eucharistic Prayer II). The remembrance of the dead in our prayers as Catholics serves as an ongoing reminder that this isn’t the end. In fact, the look I saw on people’s faces as a young boy at my friend’s mom’s funeral is perhaps best expressed in the word “hope.” Our hope, not only for this life but also for the next, motivates our concern for both praying for the dead (a spiritual work of mercy) and burying the dead (a corporal work of mercy). You see, for those who recognize the mystery of the Incarnation, that God who is Spirit and has a divine nature took on our human nature, including our flesh (see Jn 1:14, 4:24), there is a dignity and a value not only to the spiritual but also to the corporal reality of our humanity. The body itself is holy, and we know that care for it, even beyond death, is an act of reverence for the person—body and soul—who will “rise on the last day, when all the dead are raised” (Jn 11:24).
In the Eucharist, this “bodiliness” of our faith is on full display. We receive the resurrected Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, as a promise of our future resurrection. This resurrection that is understood as a bodily reality (albeit a total mystery as to what that will be like) is professed by the Church every Sunday in the Creed and forms part of the very heart of our Catholic faith. In the context of the funeral Mass, we perform a spiritual act of charity by interceding for the deceased and begging the Lord for the soul to be purified and brought into the fullness of heaven’s glory. But a funeral does not end there. The final blessing is not given until we are at the grave where the body of the deceased is interred. The casket is placed in a hearse to be carried to the gravesite and we follow in a procession that expresses our reverence for the person who has died—soul and body.
In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, where I served as a missionary for several years, this procession happens on foot through the town and out to the cemetery on the outskirts of the city. Walking slowly behind the casket beneath the tropical sun, singing as we proceeded to the gravesite, reminded me so often of processing amidst songs while entering Mass. We come to the altar to receive the promise of eternal life in the Eucharist (John 6), and at life’s end we bring the bodies of those who have died in Christ to bury in a place of rest—holding onto hope not only for their souls to be in heaven but also awaiting Jesus’ second coming and the resurrection of our physical bodies.
I understand now the moment of shoveling dirt atop the coffin of my friend’s mom, and much later our neighbor in Nicaragua, as an expression and imitation of the love that Jesus shows us in the Eucharist. This is truly the love of One who “loved his own in the world and loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). Requiescat in pace!