Burial of the Dead: Opportunities and Challenges

 The month of November and the recent conclusion of the Year of Mercy provide a fitting time to reflect on the least-glamorized corporal work of mercy: burial of the dead. Our American culture goes out of its way to sanitize and ignore the reality of death, so we tend to come face-to-face with mortality only if a close relative or friend is dying, or when attending a funeral. Yet death is truly ubiquitous, whether or not we chance upon a funeral motorcade crossing city streets. And we Christians must properly appreciate death as a necessary transition from this life to the next.

The Church’s funeral rites offer many beautiful ways for mourners to engage in the process between death and burial. While most of us are acquainted with the wake, the funeral liturgy itself, and the committal at the place of entombment, there are other, more unfamiliar practices that the faithful should be aware of.

Participating in Burial Preparation

The Order of Christian Funerals exhorts that “the family and friends of the deceased should not be excluded from taking part in the services provided by undertakers, for example the preparation and laying out of the body” (General Introduction, no. 20). While the practicality of this may depend on the circumstances, being somehow involved in the preparations for burial enables families to continue providing loving care to the deceased in that poignant time after death. It is not uncommon for funeral homes to permit family members to fix the hair, apply makeup, or dress the body of the deceased – all activities associated with their everyday lives.

The various tasks surrounding death are not something to hide, and they can help to provide peaceful closure. Beyond the therapeutic value, such participation allows mourners to take greater part in the corporal work of mercy while concretizing the belief that our bodies will be resurrected at the end of time.

Funerals at Any Stage of a Child’s Development

Our funeral rites serve as a witness to the dignity of life at all stages. A miscarriage or stillbirth is always traumatic, and official prayers and blessings exist to aid families suffering from such an experience. However, I’ve found many people remain unaware that the actual funeral rites are entirely appropriate in such a context. Liturgically speaking, miscarriages (at any stage of development) and stillbirths should be treated the same as situations involving other children who die before baptism. And if necessary, many of the rites – even the funeral itself – may be done without the child’s body present.

Many cemeteries across the country offer burial spaces and memorial stones free of charge for children who die at any stage of pregnancy or infancy. For Catholic cemeteries to provide and publicize such a service is a beautiful acknowledgement that these persons were once alive and remain deeply loved.

A Troubling Trend

Both the aforementioned practices can be powerful means of coping with death and grief. Now let’s examine another funerary matter that may not be well known, but which is quite disturbing.

We can begin by looking at the new instruction that the Vatican recently published on cremation, Ad resurgendum cum Christo. The document does not change much in terms of current practice, and it reaffirms that cremation is a legitimate option. Indeed, the National Funeral Directors Association maintains statistics that show the popularity of cremations is skyrocketing: the cremation rate increased from 32.3% in 2005 to 40.4% in 2010. In 2015 the cremation rate surpassed that of traditional burial, and it is projected to be at over 70% nationally by 2030.

With this increase in popularity have come a number of unacceptable practices surrounding cremated remains, which the new document seeks to address more comprehensively. But the part of the instruction that struck me most is in article 4: “In circumstances when cremation is chosen because of sanitary, economic or social considerations, this choice must never violate the explicitly-stated or the reasonably inferable wishes of the deceased faithful.”

This is a new wrinkle – something not mentioned in the Order of Christian Funerals or in 1963’s Piam et constantem, which opened up the possibility of cremation “for reasons of health, economics, or other reasons involving private or public order.” There’s some unpacking to do here, particularly with respect to “reasonably inferable wishes,” authentic budgetary concerns, and things like sanitation in the case of highly infectious diseases. But it seems like an important point: the express desire for a regular burial holds great weight, especially since the funeral rites affirm that cremation “does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body” (OCF, no. 413).

However, on a broader scale, I can’t help but wonder if this stipulation is perhaps related to a very disturbing trend: it is increasingly common that lifelong faithful Catholics die, but their non-practicing adult children see no value in having an actual funeral liturgy of any kind (not to mention burial vs. cremation concerns) – even if doing so would be honoring the clear desire of the deceased.

I distinctly remember first encountering this seven years ago, when a funeral home director in our diocese showed me the uniformed body of a World War II veteran and told me that his surviving family had not bothered to make any formal funeral arrangements.

Since then, I have found that this heartbreaking reality is prevalent nationwide – and its seriousness cannot be overstated. Yes, pre-arrangements can help, and legal declarations can ensure that someone is designated to carry out your funeral wishes. But this is fundamentally a reflection and symptom of the fact that entire generations who were raised Catholic now find no compelling reason to pursue filial piety or prayers for the dead.

We must ask whether this is purely born of apathy, or if it’s something deeper. Do they view a funeral as being primarily for their own comfort? Might this discourage them because of our cultural aversion to confronting death? There are many difficult questions of catechesis, existential malaise, and eschatological barrenness that we cannot solve by merely expressing indignation at apparent neglect.

Rather, exercising authentic Christian hope and joy is vital. Especially for those involved in funeral ministries, approaching this work tirelessly (perhaps in taking additional steps to ascertain whether arrangements are made, upon learning of a parishioner’s death) and resourcefully (such as establishing a rotation of deacons to lead funeral liturgies at local funeral homes when no other options exist) demonstrates a love of souls and conviction in the resurrection. Thus, in ways both extraordinary and mundane, the Church’s funeral and burial traditions can be indispensable opportunities for grace and evangelization.


Brian W. MacMichael

Brian W. MacMichael is the director of the Office of Worship in Fort Wayne-South Bend. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's M.T.S. in liturgical studies.

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