As we begin our journey home in the midst of the Octave of Easter, we consider the seventh and final of the corporal works of mercy: burying the dead. We bring with us the body of King Théoden, honored in Gondor and draped in gold. At Edoras, we check our haste to take up the trail again to participate in the funerary rites, to weep before the grave, to hear song and story told, to raise a toast in memory of the good king, the father figure, the noble warrior. As we gaze upon the green mound already bringing forth white simbelmynë flowers, the words of Théoden’s death lingers in our minds and hearts:
“Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising
he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended;
over death, over dread, over doom lifted
out of loss, out of life, unto long glory.”
Burying the dead is perhaps the most peculiar of the corporal works of mercy. Of the seven, it is the only one to not appear in the Judgement of Nations (Mt. 25:31-46), instead being derived from the Book of Tobit. By its nature, the service also only engages another in relationship after the person has died, thereby neither ameliorating pain or promoting justice directly as do the other six. It is therefore the forgotten work of mercy: a worthy gesture, perhaps, and a comfort to bereaved family and friends, but not on par with the efficient and socially-minded acts such as feeding the hungry and caring for the sick.
Perhaps this is why burying the dead has not been co-opted by secular society in the same way other mercies have. We moderns, of course, bury (or cremate, or do something to) our dead: a large industry of funeral homes, crematories, cemeteries, and memorials have developed because of it. Yet more frequently than not we reject the basic principles of burying the dead. We shield ourselves from viewing or interacting with the deceased, outsourcing the rituals around preparation of a body and hiding them out of view. We reject notions of funerals and replace them with celebrations of life; we dress ourselves not with formal black and weeping but instead with casual color and vague indifference. We do not burying the dead to honor their dignity with the hope for the resurrection; we instead craft unusual and attention-grabbing displays that speak to their worldly accomplishments and remind ourselves to remained focus on the living. Overall, it is incredible how much we filter out death from our lives.
Burying the dead, however, is a work of mercy, a service as valuable and grace-filled as any other act of social justice. In burying the dead, we perform something beyond mere sanitation. In burying the dead we affirm our belief in something beyond death, of a lasting relationship that mortality cannot severe. In burying the dead, we reject both extremes of nihilistic materialism and gnostic spiritualism, for in preparing with care a body and burying it with dignity, we claim that there is something beyond the body that matters, and yet the body matters too. In a certain sense, burying the dead is the most noble and purest form of service, for above any other mercy it is one we are incapable of doing ourselves, and one in which doing we cannot expect any mortal reward.
As such, it is a perfect act to consider as we conclude the corporal works of mercy. For burying the dead blurs the lines between the world that was, the world that is, and the world that is to come. It reminds us that mercy is not limited to this life, and that our choice ripple beyond the realms of material and time. Overall, to bury the dead is a service most loving, most humble, most grace-filled, especially for those who have no one to bury them. In this age of death-defiance and funerary commercialization, we must break the ice that encrusts our relationship with the dead. For one day each of us will long for another to perform this mercy upon us, and such a longing lingers near the core of what it means to be human.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Long Defeat”