Eternal Rest Grant unto Them, O Lord – Upholding Reverence for the Body
A monument nestled in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Harrisburg bears the words, “As you pass by, pray for me.”
The simple inscription speaks volumes about the Catholic faith in regard to death and ultimate rebirth: it reminds us to pray for the souls of the deceased, it calls us to visit the graves of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it illustrates the sacredness of cemeteries where – in reverence for the body – we lay our loved ones to rest.
The Church‟s recent celebration of All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2 understandably turns our thoughts to mortality. But it also offers us an opportunity to ponder God‟s promise of eternal life.
The correlation between All Saints Day and All Souls Day is significant in that the former celebrates all those who are in heaven and the latter focuses on the holy souls in purgatory who are preparing to enter heaven, explained Father Neil Sullivan, pastor of St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Harrisburg. This time of year reminds the faithful to pray for the dead and to visit cemeteries, which is “part of our faith tradition,” Father Sullivan said.
Reverence for the Body Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites, a booklet published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops‟ Committee on the Liturgy, states, “at the center of Christian faith is the belief that God has destined the human family for eternal life with Christ, the risen Lord…. For this reason, the human person, created in the image of God, has always been held in highest esteem in Catholic tradition. All creation is holy, because it was brought into being at God‟s command. But humankind is especially cherished, since the human person, individually and in community, reflects the divine reality and is destined for eternal life.”
The rites of the Order of Christian Funerals – which include the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Liturgy and the Rite of Committal – are centered on reverence for the body, noted Father Sullivan. “Reverence for the body stems from our being created in the image and likeness of God,” he said. “God became man and took flesh. Christ suffered in his own body, and the Resurrection was discovered by those going to his tomb to pray.”
The funeral rites of the Catholic Church embrace death and the body of the deceased. They do not attempt to sanitize death or keep the body from view. Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites notes that “the body that lies in death recalls the personal story of faith, the past relationships, and the continued spiritual presence of the deceased person.” “Think of our Blessed Mother in the beautiful image of the Pieta,” Father Sullivan remarked. “She is holding the body of her son. In the liturgies of the Church, the Church holds the body of her child.”
Guidance through Grief – Father William Waltersheid, Diocesan Secretary for Clergy and Consecrated Life, spoke of the role that funeral rites play in the grieving process. “Society can be in denial about death, so it‟s often difficult for families to deal with the death of a loved one. It‟s only through faith that we can understand that our loved ones continue to exist and that we are called to pray for them so they will enter God‟s presence in heaven,” he said.
“The liturgy is a great help to people psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. You have to mourn,” he said. Father Sullivan echoed those sentiments, noting the comfort that mourners can find in Scripture. “There are times when there are no words that are consolable, so we turn to the Word of God and allow it to console us,” he said. “The liturgy of the Church guides us through our grief.”
The rites of the Order of Christian Funerals symbolize the journey from life to death to new life in Christ. They also point to the sacredness of human life, reverence for the body and the importance of offering prayers for the deceased. The Church‟s reverence for the body and the belief in the resurrection of the dead are expressed in the tradition of burial. The Catholic Church‟s preference is for burial of the body. Cremation is permitted, and the Church strongly prefers that cremation take place after the funeral liturgy and before interment. Whether the body is cremated or buried in a casket, burial or entombment is required.
“The Church stresses that even in cremation, there is a great reverence and respect for the deceased,” Father Waltersheid said. He noted that cremation cannot be chosen out of hatred or anger toward the body, or as a sign of denial of the Church‟s belief in the resurrection of the dead. “When a person dies, it does not mean that reverence for them dies too,” said Mike Rugalla, manager of All Saints Cemetery in Elysburg. “That‟s why the Church instructs us to bury the remains.”
Cemeteries are permanent places where families can go to remember their loved ones. “When you visit diocesan cemeteries, you can tell there is a sense of honor for those buried there,” Father Sullivan said. As Catholics visit the graves of their loved ones, they can draw hope in God‟s promise of eternal life.
The Order for the Blessing of a Cemetery offers these words of inspiration: “For Catholic Christians, cemeteries – especially Catholic cemeteries – are prepared in the sure hope of the resurrection, [and] never cease to remind us of the life we are to share in Christ, who will transform our bodies to be like His in glory.”
By Jen Reed
The Catholic Witness This article was originally published in November 2010.