The Respect and Care We Owe to Our Beloved Departed

A plenary indulgence applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful (under the usual conditions) who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray for the departed. The indulgence is plenary each day from the 1st to the 8th of November.

We have lost a loved one. What is the proper way to care for their body after their soul has returned to God?

St. Augustine "On the Care of the Dead," (Circa 422 AD):

The care with which we bury the dead expresses our faith in the victory over everlasting death which Our Lord Jesus Christ has won in our human nature by His own Death and Resurrection. We bury the dead in the sure hope of the resurrection of the body, when their mortal bodies will share fully in the glory of the Risen Christ."

In the mid-11th century, St. Odilo, abbot of Cluny (France), said that all Cluniac monasteries were to offer special prayers and sing the Office for the Dead on November 2, the day after the feast of All Saints. The custom spread from Cluny and was was adopted throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church. Now the entire Church celebrates November 2nd as "All Soul's Day."

Yet, just because one is deceased, this does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be despised and cast aside, whose bodies have been used by their spirits as instruments and tools for doing all their good works. For just as the greater the affection one has for his parents, the more treasured are the father’s clothing and ring and all such things to those who survive him. In the same way, the bodies themselves should not be neglected. We are joined to our bodies more closely than anything which we ourselves put on. Indeed, our bodies are not some ornament or aid which is added from outside, but they belong to our very nature, the nature of man.

Funerals with Dutiful Piety

In ancient times, the funerals of just men were arranged with dutiful piety, their funerals were celebrated, their burials provided for, and while they were still alive, they gave instructions to their children about their burial or even about moving their bodies to a different location.

Tobias also was commended by the testimony of an angel for burying the dead, thus obtaining favor with God (Tob. 2:9). The Lord Himself also, when He was about to rise on the third day, both proclaimed, and commended for preaching the good work of the pious woman who poured a precious perfume over His limbs for His burial. The Gospel also commemorated with praise those who took Christ’s body from the Cross and carefully and with reverent honor saw that it was wrapped and laid in the tomb.

However, these authorities in no way suggest that dead bodies can experience any feeling, but rather, they signify that the providence of God (Who is pleased with such acts of piety) is concerned also with the bodies of the dead, in order that our faith in the resurrection might be strengthened. Therefore, we can also profitably learn that the reward for giving alms to those who are alive and have their senses must be great since God does not overlook those things which with duty and diligence we do for the dead.

Mark of a Good Disposition

Providing a burial place for bodies at the memorials of saints is a mark of a good and natural disposition towards the remains of one’s friends. For if there is a sanctity in providing burial, there must also be sanctity in paying attention to where the burial occurs. But while it is desirable that there be such solace for the living where they can show their pious attitudes towards their beloved departed, I do not see what assistance this can be to the dead except in this way: that when remembering the place in which the bodies of those whom they love have been laid, the living might commend the departed to those same saints as patrons aiding them before the Lord. Indeed, these saints would still be able to intercede, even if the dead were not able to be interred in such places...

Supplications For the Departed

But even if, due to the lack of opportunity, some necessity does not permit bodies to be interred, or to be interred in such holy places, one should still not neglect prayers for the souls of the dead. For in her general prayer, the Church undertakes to make such supplications for all the departed in our Christian and Catholic fellowship, even without mentioning their names. Thus, those who do not have parents or sons or any relatives or friends, still have the one pious mother (the Church) common to all Christians to perform these acts for them. However, no matter how holy the places where lifeless bodies are laid, I think their souls will not profit in the least without such prayers for the dead and if they are not made with the right faith and piety.

Spirit of the Departed Aided

When therefore a Christian mother desired to have the body of her son deposited in the basilica of a martyr in the belief that he would be aided by the merits of the martyr, the very believing of this was a type of supplication, and this would be of profit. The mother's thoughts return to this same tomb, she prays for her son and the spirit of the departed is aided. The soul is aided not by where its dead body has been placed, but by the living affection of the mother who remembers that place. 

Use the Body in a way Fitting to Prayer

For also when men pray to God they use their bodies in a way that is fitting to prayer. So when they kneel, stretch out their hands, or even prostrate themselves on the ground, or whatever other visible actions they perform, they do this as if God will then know the invisible desire and intention of their heart, even though He does not need such actions to know what is in the human heart. Yet in so doing, a person rouses himself to pray and groan even more humbly and more fervently. Of course, these bodily motions cannot be made unless a mental activity comes first, yet when these are done in an outward and visible way, that inward invisible activity which caused them also increases.

The Heart's Affection Grows

And so the heart’s affection which first caused these pious acts to be done grows. Yet truly if any man is held back, or even bound, so that he cannot do these actions with his limbs, one cannot conclude that the inner man is not praying, or that it doesn't have, in its most secret chamber, thrown itself upon the ground in prayer before the eyes of God.

In the same way, it does make a great difference where a person places the body of a departed one. Both beforehand, the affection of the living chose a spot which was holy, and later, after the body is laid there, the mind’s recollection of that holy spot renews and increases the affection which came first; yet, even if the living is unable to bury his beloved in the place which his pious mind desires, he should still in no way stop the required prayers and commending of that soul to God.

Wherever the body of the departed may or may not lie, the spirit requires rest. For when the spirit leaves the body, along with it goes consciousness, by which one is able to ascertain the state one is in, whether good or bad. Nor does it look for assistance for its life from that flesh to which it did itself give life and then withdrew life when it departed, and will again give that life back when the soul returns at the ressurection of the body at the end of time. For the spirit adds merit to the flesh (not vice versa) even in its resurrection, whether it comes alive for eternal punishment or eternal glory.