When Abuelita died we had a wake that lasted late into the night. Her children and grandchildren sat by her open casket, praying and sometimes dozing, as mourners came and went at the funeral parlor, eating pastelitos and drinking coffee. In the morning we accompanied her, in a long cortege, to her funeral mass, and from there to the peaceful cemetery. We honored her, mourned her, and said our farewells, as lovingly and respectfully as we possibly could.
The Church has done us all a favor by clarifying these things and reminding all of us why the rituals around dying and burial are so significant. In them we show what we believe about the meaning and transcendence of life and how much we value every part of the person of our beloved departed.
The Catholic Church knows that grief and loss come to all of us, and that we need to take the time to mourn properly, and say our good-byes with the solemnity our grief calls for. And they also know that what we do with the remains of the ones we love is significant and instructive. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued specific guidelines on how it is best and proper to treat the dead and their remains. And it’s not only about tradition and long-standing practice, but about what our actions mean.
The foundation of the Church’s preference for a solemn funeral and Christian burial is based on the counterintuitive belief that death has a positive meaning. That is because it is really a moment of transition to a new life, not an ending.
“The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live.” Therefore, it is not something to run away from in terror, but something to acknowledge as a difficult moment that must be lived through with dignity and hope. Hope is on the other side of the mourning, like dawn is on the other side of night.
An honorable, solemn burial in sacred ground then is the “most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.” The burial confirms and illustrates this faith, and as importantly, dignifies the human body as integral part of the identity and personhood of the one we mourn. Burial in a sacred place indicates piety and respect.
It stands opposed to the modern objectification of the body and the way cremation and scattering seems to erase that essential part of the departed. It is such a mark of respect and love, for Christians, that “burying the dead” is one of the corporal works of mercy. And the moment must be communal and accompanied, as privacy tends to minimize the event and the meaning of death.
The Church specifies that cremation may be used if there are practical reasons to eschew burial and if it is not done casually and out of indifference. In fact, if the deceased wishes to be cremated as a negation of the faith, then a Christian funeral is probably not appropriate. If the person can be properly cremated, then the document specifies that the funeral rite should be complete and the ashes must be laid to rest in sacred ground, just as a body is.
No shelves at home, mementos or scatterings — which would give an appearance of nihilism or pantheism. Proper burial of ashes “prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect.” Proper burial, whether of ashes or the body, also gives us a place to visit pray for the souls of our beloved, on significant days like All Soul’s Day, or El Dia de los Muertos.
The Church has done us all a favor by clarifying these things and reminding all of us why the rituals around dying and burial are so significant. In them we show what we believe about the meaning and transcendence of life and how much we value every part of the person of our beloved departed. In them we find a way to mourn when it’s time to mourn, and then, if we are so fortunate to have faith, to hope with all our hearts for resurrection and reunion.