The life of a believer is a great and marvellous adventure which reaches its culminating point at the moment of death, a death that is not a destination but a launch pad for a life that has no end. Indeed, during a funeral service in a church the priest solemnly proclaims our faith: ‘Lord, for your faithful life is not taken way but transformed, and while the dwelling of this earthly exile is destroyed, an eternal home is prepared in heaven’. Thus the most beautiful flowers that we should offer in such circumstances are not those that wilt but those that do not decompose: works of charity performed as a suffrage to the deceased. This follows the melancholy rite of burial. But this latter work of mercy, in the prevalent opinion of both the Christian community and civil society, seems by now to be entrusted to the social services or to so-called ‘funeral parlours’. Indeed, both the poverty and the prosperity of this world not only do not facilitate a fitting burial of the dead but also increase the urgent need for it.
As regards poor countries, I can narrate an example, a personal experience of mine in Madagascar, when I was taking part in the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the presence of my sister, a religious sister, in that splendid island. We were having lunch one day when some boys arrived, after running, to tell my sister that some miles away they had seen the body of an old man who had died, a body abandoned in a meadow and surrounded by dogs. My sister had for some time equipped herself with the tools to engage in the pious work of burial. Indeed, we immediately got down from the table and she ran to a cupboard where she had a hoe to dig a grave, a sheet to wrap a body, two pieces of wood to make a cross, holy water, and then there were flowers that she could always take from the chapel. With this equipment, and led by the boys, by car we went to the place where, to our sadness, we found the body of an old man, in part already bearing the marks of the bites of the dogs. We immediately set to work. I dug the grave and then we wrapped the body in a sheet and put it inside, covering it with earth, sprinkling holy water in it, and saying prayers, while Sister Maria arranged the cross and the flowers on the grave. At that moment I touched with my own hand how relevant to contemporary life this work of mercy is: not only in Madagascar but also in many underdeveloped countries in Africa and Asia, where we Camillians are present with various hospitals and where my religious brothers every so often are called to perform the same pitiful duty of burying lonely and abandoned people.
Paradoxically, the same need is emerging in industrialised countries as well, in large cities and around the major railway stations or airports. How many times, for example, around the central railway station of Naples have tramps or elderly people been found in large cardboard boxes who had died because of the cold, where the local councils are forced to find places to bury them in an anonymous way, without a flower and without prayers, treated like dogs. If this takes place in Naples, as in very many other large cities, imagine what happens in America. Indeed, some years ago I found a newspaper at the large house of the Jesuits. The front page contained news from the United States of America: at the St. Ignatius College of Cleveland an Association of Buriers had been created made up of about a hundred university students who, according to the author of the article, ‘when told about a need, leave the lecture hall, put on a jacket and tie and become buriers. They visit the home where the mourning is underway, pray for the dead person, comfort the afflicted, carry the coffin, and form a guard of honour at the cemetery’. Naturally, they do all of this as an act of charity and to share in suffering. How beautiful it would be if something similar arose where we are!
These two episodes are enough to convince us that burying the dead will increasingly become an emergency because by now there are a large number of elderly people on their own and above all very many foreigners or people in dire circumstance, without relatives and in need of everything.
For this reason, the work of burying the dead calls on our Christian communities and the Word of God suggests to us the spirit in which we should engage in this act of charity which is so ancient. Sirach exhorts us in a very warm way: ‘My son, let your tears fall for the dead, and as one who is suffering grievously begin the lament. Lay out his body with the honour due him, and do not neglect his burial’ (Sir 38:16). Indeed, this was the spirit in which Tobit performed this pitiful duty. In order not to leave the bodies of his persecuted Jewish brothers unburied and abandoned in the road, he placed at risk not only his inheritance but also his family and his life. Sent out by his father to look for relatives and friends, he came back saying: ‘one of our people has been strangled and thrown into the market place. So before I tasted anything I sprang up and removed the body to a place of shelter until sunset…And I wept’ (TB 2:3). However, his neighbours derided him: ‘he once ran away and here he is burying the dead again!’ (TB 2:7). But prior to this it was the generous example of his father Tobiel that had given him so much courage. Indeed, the testimony that he offers us is splendid: ‘I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life…I performed many acts of charity…and if I saw any one of the people dead and thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury him. And if Sennacherib the king put to death any who came fleeing from Judea, I buried them secretly’ (Tb 1:15-19). In the New Testament St. Luke describes in a very loving way the burial of the body of Jesus: ‘there was a man named Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea…a good and righteous man…This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid’ (Lk 23:53). The pious women also went to the tomb with scented oils to demonstrate all of their love for the body of Jesus. From the Word of God we also learn that burying the dead is a work pleasing to God as charity because it frees from death and purifies us of every sin.
The Fathers of the Church recommended to Christians this act of great charity and great humanity. St. Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage (third century AD) addressed Christians in the following way: ‘If the very poor or foreigners die, do not allow them to go without burial. These are the works, the duties, of mercy: if someone takes responsibility for this, he will offer to God an authentic and appreciated sacrifice’. A true cult of death, therefore, is not expressed in the ostentation of showy monuments that would like to prolong human pride and the separation of the social classes beyond death as well. Burial, instead, must remain an austere sign of that death that makes everyone equal. For a Christian hope has one name only: the Risen Jesus Christ! There are whole countries of the third world where this work of charity should be performed in the literal sense of the term: dead people remain abandoned on pavements and only the piety of Christians manages to offer, like Tobiel and Tobias, with their hearts and their own money, a worthy burial. Lastly, this work of charity offers us an opportunity to refer to a possible request for the cremation of the body. This is something that the Church does not condemn as long as it is purified of historic motivations involving contempt for the body or denial of a future life, and one may observe in addition that in the Church sacred objects have been destroyed by fire as a sign of great veneration and respect.