The Church’s funeral rituals have been the focus of our ti morceaux over the past several months. We’ve looked at the ways in which our liturgical observances mirror and strengthen our faith. From the first gathering of believers in the presence of the body of the deceased, through the funeral Mass and on to the rites of burial, our belief in eternal destiny is deepened.
It is the final disposition of the body that is our consideration here. As I mentioned last time, the Church does not forbid cremation, but it is preferable that the whole body of the departed be honored with Christian burial. This is the time-honored tradition of the Church. Inasmuch as our faith holds to the understanding that, at the ultimate resurrection of the dead, our souls will be reunited with physicality – our “glorified bodies” – it is fitting that we honor the body which prefigures our eternal one.
Thus the body of the deceased is washed (with holy water), clothed (with a white garment, if not also in one’s “Sunday best”), and blessed (with incense). In some countries and cultures it is anointed with oils and perfumes, and adorned with jewelry – sometimes even crowned in death. While I admit that often the setting of the body cushioned in the coffin often evokes comforting images of sleep, softness and rest, it also reflects the honor we show to that which was briefly in this life the temple of the Holy Spirit.
In the church, at the funeral Mass, the coffin is oriented as it was in life: facing the altar of Christ’s sacrifice. (At a priest’s funeral, it is the opposite: the priest’s coffin is placed so that his body faces the people whom he led as an alter Christus – an “other Christ.”) At the cemetery, the body is interred or entombed with close family members and surrounded by the great company of witnesses which already images the saintly court around the throne of God (see Rev 7:9ff.). We bother with all of these details because of the importance of our faith in Christ, who has enabled us to transcend this life and ultimately not just to rest in eternal peace but rise to a new and ultimately more satisfying life!