On this day of the dead, the dead are at the heart of our prayers. The cemeteries take on a festive air, covering themselves with multicolored chrysanthemums. But why does the Catholic Church attach so much importance to the remains of the deceased?
“I attended a Catholic funeral, I wanted to be the deceased! “, claims Gad Elmaleh in his sketch on Catholic funerals. A joke that reveals a truth: the remains of the deceased, in Catholic ritual, are particularly respected.
Its origin is remote. Indeed, long before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people considered the burial of the body as the only funerary practice, when the Romans practiced incineration and the Egyptians embalming. Much more, the pious Israelite wished to be buried in the tomb of his fathers. Under these conditions, the abandonment of a body without burial horrified them. “The previous belief in immortality did not allow a banal treatment of the body”, explains Michel Johner, dean of the Free Faculty of Reformed Theology of Aix en Provence.
Based on Ezekiel’s grandiose vision of dry bones coming back to life (Ez, 37), Jewish tradition, by requiring that the remains be buried, demonstrated the belief in bodily resurrection. Quite naturally, this habit will be taken up by Christians. Indeed, “Christ was buried, his remains wrapped in a shroud and linens,” explains Laurence du Lac, funeral assistant at the Catholic Funeral Service. “Christ being the first to be resurrected, burial (from the Latin “in humus”, in the earth) is indeed the form best suited to hope in the resurrection of the flesh”, she adds.
A body made in the image of God
On the other hand, the body is thus particularly respected, this body formed “in the image and likeness of God” (Gn, 1, 26) and called to glorify God. Because for Christians, it has immense dignity and is not just an envelope or a material. As Saint Paul says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? (…) Don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? (1Co 6.15 and 19)
But for the Church, enforcing this tradition of burial has sometimes been heroic. Christians, subjected to violent persecutions during the first centuries of Christianity, had to defend themselves against the desecration of their tombs and the pagan customs consisting in burning the bodies of the victims. “The Church then digs catacombs and employs all possible means to recover and take care of the bodies of the martyrs,” explains Michel Johner. Over the centuries, the Christian Church will maintain this position through an attachment to burial as the only funerary practice – the expression most suited to Christian hope.
Symbolism of the different funeral rites
Today, the various funerary rites — the Farewell to the Face, the blessing of the remains, the rituals of water and light — powerfully manifest the Christian mystery. Laurence du Lac continues: “We always offer families the prayer of Farewell to the Face, before the closing of the coffin. This allows families to see their deceased one last time. Some make a cross on his forehead, others talk to him from heart to heart, and everyone calms down. As for the rituals of light and water, during the church ceremony, they powerfully evoke the baptism of the deceased: his burial with Christ, and the anticipation of his resurrection. The burial then appears as the culmination of the life of the deceased Christian.
However, by the decree of the Holy Office of May 8, 1963, the Church opened the door to cremation, a reality that has become common among Catholics. “It is not a practice that is inherently bad or, in itself, hostile to the Christian religion,” the decree states. “When this choice is requested, we respect it, explains the funeral assistant, but we do all the rites with respect to the remains before the cremation”. In this case, the Church expressly asks that the ashes not be dispersed in nature, to signify the personal aspect of the resurrection of the bodies and to avoid entering into a New-Age type belief: “Grandpa has become a great Forest Tree”. The urn containing the ashes of the deceased will therefore be placed in the vault. So that the living can visit their deceased in the cemetery, this place installed by our ancestors in the heart of the village, like a bridge between earth and sky…
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