Back when I was a seminarian in Washington, DC, in the 1980s, the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated. People come constantly to that wall of names to find and honor the name of someone they knew and loved. They’re just names, of course, but there is something very special about them, because someone has written them – and someone remembers them. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, I saw something similar in New York – in makeshift shrines in front of firehouses and other places – names and pictures of people being remembered.
Surely, our ability to remember is one of the things that makes us most human. When we remember those who have died, we recognize the humanity we share. We remember that, like us, they also lived once, and that, like them, we too will surely die.
The famous story in today’s 1st reading [2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14] of the seven brothers and their mother, who were willing to die rather than to disobey God’s law, was written to remember those heroes from the great war which Israel fought for its freedom in the 2nd century before Christ. In remembering those martyred heroes, the story also celebrates their faith that God would raise them up to live again forever.
In our Catholic tradition, this time of year is focused in a particular way on the end, and the month of November is dedicated in a special way to remembering and praying for those who have died.
Our faith challenges us to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect our duty to pray for those who have gone before us. Hence, the importance of a proper funeral - an especially privileged moment when the entire Church visibly intercedes on behalf on the recently deceased. (Sadly, one study I read recently suggested that only about 66% of US Catholics who have died in recent years have had a full Catholic funeral.) But especially in this Holy Year of Mercy, we have been reminded that praying for both the living and the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, while burying the dead counts as one of the seven corporal works of mercy.
Recently the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a new Instruction “Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of the Ashes in the Case of Cremation.” The Instruction does not teach anything really new. Rather it represents a timely restatement of what, not long ago, would have been the common Christian understanding, but now needs to be restated due to the increasing acceptance of secular and neo-pagan, post-Christian beliefs and practices about death. Thus, we are reminded that:
Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.
Burial is our tradition, but the church recommends it not just as traditional but also because:
Burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit, and it encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints.
While traditional burial remains the norm, nowadays the alternative of cremation can also be permitted, but the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Nor may the ashes be divided among various family members. Nor is it ever permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.
Two centuries after the Maccabean martyrs [Luke 20:27-38], there were those (notably the cultured priestly elite known in the Gospels as the Sadducees), who lived without any hope of future resurrection – just as there are many today, who live their entire lives believing that this is all there is and all that there will ever be (for, indeed, as St. Paul pointedly acknowledges in today’s reading from his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians [2Thessalonians 2:16 – 3:5], not all have faith.)
If, in fact, this life is all there is, then, of course, your only immortality will be your children. In such a world, the worst thing would be to die leaving no one behind to continue your name. Hence, the special provision in the Old Testament Law, that required the brother of a man who had died childless to raise up descendants for his brother. The Sadducees invoked what they saw as the implications of this law to ridicule the very idea of a future resurrection.
The Sadducees’ problem, however, was precisely their inability to imagine any life from this present life - a life limited, indeed defined, by death. But, as Jesus pointed out, the resurrected life will be different. We will still be ourselves. We’re not going to change into somebody – or something – else, as reincarnation alleges. We will, however, be living a new and completely different kind of life, no longer limited and defined by death.
The Sadducees illustrate what happens when we try to imagine in too much detail what that will be like, because, of course, the only life we can actually imagine is the one we already know and live, here and now. Jesus, however, has himself already risen from the dead and is now living that new life. And in him we get a glimpse into that new life God has in store for us, not as some continuation of the way things are now, but as something totally new, a new life we hope, because of him, to live with him forever.
Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 6, 2016.