Teaching youth about the Corporal Works of Mercy: Bury the Dead

May 10, 2016

At every Mass God invites us to journey with Him through His suffering, death and resurrection in the Paschal Mystery, where we die and are born again in His body and blood. At that time, we come to the table with the Communion of Saints to be united as one body, joined with those on earth as well as those in Heaven. 

Since our death is an important part of our journey to our new life, the Church has developed over the centuries, beautiful rites, rituals and traditions that provide us support, comfort and, most importantly, hope for those who have died and are now resting in Christ. 

In the Corporal Works of Mercy and the Beatitudes, we are called to bury the dead and comfort those who mourn. This may be a hard concept for teens to understand, especially if they have not experienced the death of a friend or relative. As we continue to reflect on the Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us take some time to explore this Corporal Work of Mercy to help young people understand the rich traditions surrounding the Catholic funeral rites.

Each week in Mass we say the Nicene Creed, which is the Profession of our Faith. At the end of the Creed, we recite the words, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I experienced my first funeral in fifth grade with the death of my grandfather. At that time, the Nicene Creed specified that “we look for the resurrection of the dead,” which is what I thought families did at the wake, or more proper term the Vigil Service, which is the first celebration in the Rite of Christian Burial. 

I believed that everyone was there not to comfort or console our family, but to see if the body of my grandfather would actually rise from the dead. I remember being terrified that my Pawpaw would sit up at any minute in the casket, which is why I kept my eyes open throughout the reciting of the Rosary.

Today’s youth need to understand the importance and significance of this gathering. Vigils are a chance for family and friends to gather together before the Mass of Christian burial to celebrate, honor and console one another. They provide a chance to view the body, and begin the comfort and healing process. The Vigil usually consists of reading from Scripture, intercessory prayer and reflection on God’s Word and His promise of everlasting life in the form of The Liturgy of the Word. They also provide a window to look back upon the life of the deceased to share personal memories through stories, laughter and tears. Many funeral homes offer multimedia technology for families to display pictures, videos and favorite music of the deceased during the Vigil. It also is a time for cultures to celebrate their own traditions along with the rich traditions of our Catholic faith like reciting of the Rosary for the departed or other special prayers or devotions. Although we mourn the loss of our loved ones, the Vigil helps to begin the “goodbye” process.

Mass is our celebration of the great Paschal Mystery; therefore, it is an essential part of the funeral rites. In the Mass of Christian Burial, the Church family gathers together not for grief, but for worship, celebrating God’s mercy and compassion for all. 

“At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith began in the waters of Baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end nor does it break the bonds forged in life. 
The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.” (#4 General Introduction of the Order of Christian Funerals) As a Catholic, I find the Funeral Mass one of the most meaningful Liturgies with actual symbols of hope and resurrection found throughout the rite from the Pall symbolizing our own baptismal gown to the light of the Paschal candle, which is placed next to the coffin symbolizing Christ’s light and the resurrection. Family members place Rosaries, crucifixes and Bibles on or even in the casket. Family members choose from a selection of readings and music which focus on God’s mercy and Christ’s triumph over death with the promise of eternal life.

After the Mass of Christian Burial, the final step in the funeral rite is the Rite of Committal, sometimes called interment. Just as Jesus’ followers took His Body to the tomb and laid it there, family and friends gather usually at the graveside or mausoleum to commit the body to its resting place. “The Rite of Committal is an expression of the communion that exists between the Church on Earth and the Church in heaven: the deceased passes with the farewell prayers of the community of believers into the welcoming company of those who need faith no longer, but see God face-to-face.” (USCCB Overview of Catholic Funeral Rites). 

The rites consist of final prayers and Scripture readings that provide a sense of closure for family members and friends who have completed their journey with the body, and now await the coming of the resurrection. Honors, salutes and cultural traditions may be brought into this final rite. Families may also gather together following the committal for a meal together to thank relatives and friends for their support in this time of need. Parishes often will host these meals at the church sponsored by their Bereavement Committees. 

Like the other Corporal Works of Mercy, Bury the Dead focuses on the communal approach that by our faith in Christ and our commitment to build the Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, we are called forth to provide these acts of charity for all of our neighbors. Helping our youth understand these rites will help them better serve their community. 

Randy Adams is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.