Burying the Dead vs Cremation: the Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization
Today’s reading before the Gospel is about Tobit. This is fitting since yesterday was the Feast of the Pentecost and on this feast Tobit was having a dinner when he heard that one of the Israelites was murdered. Tobias left his dinner untouched and went to the marketplace. He got the corpse and put in inside his house. After sunset, Tobit buried him. (Tobit 2:1-4)
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy:
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. the corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. (Catechism Art. 2447)
In Middle Earth, burying the dead is a sign of respect to the dead:
- When Boromir died, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli thought of burying him. But because of the long and hard labor involved, they decided to send Boromir’s body on a boat and let it glide towards the Falls of Rauros. “The River of Gondor will take care at least that no evil crature dishonor his bones.” (Two Towers p. 5)
- After the battle between the Orcs and the Riders of Rohan, fifteen Riders died. A mound was raised for them planted with 15 spears. (Two Towers p. 36)
- The body of Theoden was “laid in a house of stone with his arms and many other ffair things that he had possessed, and over him was raised a great mound, covered with green turves of grass and of white evermine. And now there were eight mounds on the east-side orthe Barrowfield.” (Return of the King p. 275)
- The Stewards of Gondor are buried in the tombs called House of the Stewards. But because Gondor was under siege, and there is no time, Denethor, in his madness, decided to burn himself and his sick son, Faramir: “At last they came to the Silent Street, Rath Dinen, between pale domes and empty halls the images of men long dead; and they entered into the houses of Stewards and set down their burden.” (Return of the King p. 96)
The last example is called cremation. This is becoming accepted nowadays in the Philippines (see Inquirer arcticle here). But in the fifth century, when Christianity already became entrenched in the Roman empire, the practice of cremation was forbidden, because of the belief on the Resurrection of the Dead:
The Christians never burned their dead, but followed from earliest days the practice of the Semitic race and the personal example of their Divine Founder. It is recorded that in times of persecution many risked their lives to recover the bodies of martyrs for the holy rites of Christian burial. The pagans, to destroy faith in the resurrection of the body, often cast the corpses of martyred Christians into the flames, fondly believing thus to render impossible the resurrection of the body. What Christian faith has ever held in this regard is clearly put by the third-century writer Minucius Felix, in his dialogue “Octavius”, refuting the assertion that cremation made this resurrection an impossibility: “Nor do we fear, as you suppose, any harm from the [mode of] sepulture, but we adhere to the old, and better, custom” (“Nec, ut creditis, ullum damnum sepulturae timemus sed veterem et meliorem consuetudinem humandi frequentamus” — P.L., III, 362). (Catholic Encyclopedia 1908)
Even though the Church now permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (Catechism 2301), there are still other restrictions:
Catholic burial practice calls for the cremains to be buried in an urn within a consecrated grave or placed inside a mausoleum. Keeping ashes at home or scattering them on land or sea, even where legal, is inappropriate to the Church’s deep reverence for the body as a place where the soul has resided (Catholic Culture)
Denethor himself would have chosen to be buried and not to be cremated:
Why? Why do fools fly? Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must. Go back to your bonfire! And I? I will go now to my pyre. To my pyre! No tomb for Denethor and Faramir. No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West. The West has failed. Go back and burn!
Just as the abolishing of cremation is a sign of the renewed vigor of the Western Civilization under the tutelage of the Catholic Church, in the same was is the present acceptance of cremation a symptom of the Western civilization’s despair and demise: the two towers burned in 911, militant Islam is rising, abortion and euthanasia are state laws, and the US embraces communism under Obama. The West has failed.
Pope Leo the Great, pray for us.
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