Mircea Eliade, the renowned anthropologist, tells us that, within the wisdom of tribal cultures, there was often the belief that unless the dead were properly buried, with appropriate ritual and attentiveness from the community, disasters of all kinds might strike the people. Anything from infertility to drought might be caused by not properly attending to a death.
This is not so far fetched. A death, he writes, can be botched, just as a war can be lost or psychic equilibrium and joy can be destroyed. Life is tied to both of its ends, just as community life is integrally bound up with its births and deaths. To not be properly attentive to a birth or a death puts one at some peril. For this reason, among others, the last corporal work of mercy instructs to properly bury the dead.
However what does it mean, today, to bury the dead?
We must resist the temptation to put too much of a psychological spin to this, namely, to focus it on the question of putting proper psychological or emotional closure to the various kinds of death we experience in life. People and things are always dying around us, just as one day we too will die. Some of our relationships die, our youth and health eventually die, as do many of our cherished dreams and hopes. To get on with life we must, daily, bury our dead.
But the corporal works of mercy are not about emotional grieving and psychological closure. They are about burying real physical bodies.
Obviously what is commanded here had a much great importance, in the literal sense, in past cultures were sometimes people, especially the really poor, were left unburied, to be eaten by vultures and the worms. That is still true today in a number of war-torn countries. One has to only to watch the news any night to see how many people, still, do not receive the dignity of burial. The counsel, bury the dead, is first and foremost about this, no human being should be deprived of the dignity of having his or her body properly returned to the earth, be that through burial, cremation, or some other culturally sanctioned (sanctioned, as in sacred) practice.
In our Western world, however, for the main part, this happens, our dead are buried with reverence. In fact, this is one of our strengths, culturally and morally. We are horrified at the thought that in past ages, and in some present cultures, bodies are violated after death, stuck on posts to decay publicly, thrown into open graves, or simply left to vultures. We take moral offense at this. Rightly so.
So where should we be challenged?
Simply put, for us the challenge is to be more attentive to deaths within our communities, both by attending more funerals and by using those funerals (and wakes) to let the spirit of whoever we are burying bless us. For us, burying the dead means, in the words of Eliade, not botching our deaths.
The first thing we do to not botch our deaths is attend more funerals. We have, as I have already stated, a great strength as a culture in that we treat our dead with reverence. However, I can be reverent towards something even as I largely ignore it. We want our dead buried, with proper respect and dignity, but, mostly, we do not want to be there when that happens. More and more, we are going to less and less funerals.
I am old enough to remember another time. Growing up in a tightly-knit immigrant community, I went to a lot of funerals. Everyone did. It was not a question of whether the person who died was a relative, friend, or close neighbour. They were a member of the community and that was enough. Everyone was expected to be at the funeral and, generally, everyone was.
And what happened at those funerals was not just that a body was committed back to the earth with proper dignity and that each of us got to say a personal good-bye. What happened is that, in everyone being there, the whole community was able to better know and feel the words of scripture which tell us: “The life and death of each of us has its influence on others.” When we recognized that influence then we were affording the body we were committing back to the earth its proper dignity.
To bury our dead is to make sure every body is afforded its proper dignity. It also means not botching our deaths.