I have been going through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy on this blog on Wednesdays, in light of the ongoing Year of Mercy in the Church. It is so crucial to remember that mercy is not, primarily, an emotion or a theory or something to do with Church policies or whatever. Mercy is a work, and if we do not engage in works of mercy we cannot really claim to be merciful.
So we come to the last of the corporal works of mercy, that of burying the dead. And this is indeed the 'last' of the corporal works, the last act of love we can show to a person, the last service we can render to the body of another human being. To bury them with honor and respect.
This is so very important. To go to the funeral, simply. To express one's respect for the person who has died, and sympathy and support for the grieving family members (although that is actually the spiritual work of mercy of comforting the afflicted). I recently had the great privilege of being one of the pall bearers for my brother priest Fr. Patrick McNulty, and there is some basic human reality of carrying the person's body on their last journey, their final corporeal movement (this side of the resurrection), that is very tender and loving and true.
Of course in our Christian tradition we understand that the body is to be treated with great respect. We are not dualists who have contempt or disregard for material reality. Some people believe that is the Catholic view of things, but it is not so. The human body is holy, sacred. All of the graces that come to our souls pass through the body first--the waters of baptism and oils of confirmation, the physical food of the Eucharist, the words of absolution coming to us through our ears. The whole sacramental life which delivers to us the Divine Life is physical, material.
The Church is so convinced that the life of the Spirit passes through and transforms the fleshly life of the body that it venerates relics, the physical remains of the saints. Even the bones of those who have given themselves over to God are infused with spiritual meaning and power.
And of course all of our bodies will be raised up in glory in the end, in a fashion we simply don't understand. So we show great reverence and care to the bodies of the faithful departed, and express our love for them by disposing of them rightly, respectfully.
In our world where there is such a loss of faith, it is more and more common that people either don't have funerals or that the services don't involve the body of the deceased and are merely 'celebrations of life'. I can understand why, if you don't really believe in very much, it would be weird and kind of creepy to have to deal with a dead body of a person. But we who are Christians really should not have this kind of squeamishness or discomfort around these things.
So... go to the funeral! Show some respect! It is a basic work of mercy, and no small one, either. And it is one that is well within the grasp of any one of us - both burying the dead and comforting the afflicted with our presence there. Let us not neglect this work in this year of mercy.