After the Hour of our Death: An All Saints/All Souls Reflection

by Kiki Hayden

North Texas Catholic

A view of the columbarium at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Colleyville on Oct. 29, 2020. A columbarium is a group of niches, typically within a wall of stone, that contains the cremated remains of the faithful departed. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)A view of the columbarium at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Colleyville on Oct. 29, 2020. A columbarium is a group of niches, typically within a wall of stone, that contains the cremated remains of the faithful departed. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
A view of the columbarium at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Colleyville on Oct. 29, 2020. A columbarium is a group of niches, typically within a wall of stone, that contains the cremated remains of the faithful departed. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


What does the Catholic Church teach about honoring and praying for (and with) our deceased loved ones? The North Texas Catholic dug deep into Church history to find out.

Christians believe that humans are made of body and soul, created in the image and likeness of God. Thus, Catholics show deep respect to both body and soul during and after a funeral. Since the days of the early Church, Christians have prayed for, and with, their deceased loved ones, because Christ has conquered death.

 

Body and Soul

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…” (1 Corinthians 6:19)

Catholic teaching remains consistent with the early Church. Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1994 Letter to Families, “Man is a person in the unity of his body and his spirit… The richest source for knowledge of the body is the Word made flesh. Christ reveals man to himself.”

Since both body and soul are integral to the human person, the Catholic funeral service requires reverence to both the body and soul of the deceased. Father Thu Nguyen, diocesan director of liturgy and worship, said, “Funerary rites, according to the Church’s teachings help us acknowledge the reality of the death…and awaiting the final judgment and resurrection of the gloried body, body and soul, for eternal [life].” 

 

Honoring the Body

“Human remains have dignity and respecting them is a way of affirming our faith in the resurrection,” Father Tim Thompson, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Denton told the NTC via email. “The Church’s concern is that the resurrection not be denied.”

Although burying the body of the deceased remains preferable because it shows a greater respect toward the deceased, in 1963 the Vatican issued the instruction Piam et Constantem, which explained that either burial or cremation is allowed as long as the belief in the resurrection is upheld and the remains of the faithful departed are respected: “Cremation does not affect the soul nor prevent God’s omnipotence from restoring the body; neither, then, does it in itself include an objective denial of the dogmas mentioned.”

Fr. Nguyen referred to the appendix in the Order of Christian Funerals, which states: “The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.”

The Instruction Ad Resurgendum cum Christo, regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation, published by the Vatican in 2016, gave further reasons for these specifications: “The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventually is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away.”

Fr. Thompson added, “The Church wants a sacred place to lay remains, that it be permanent and that one’s remains are not kept as some sort of memento of the departed.”

He continued, “Human beings are not objects and should not be treated as objects for either work or pleasure. Human remains have a dignity which comes from that, though it is not the same. Bodies are often donated to science and are used for scientific purposes and that is acceptable because it advances human knowledge and good. But bodies are never treated as a commodity to be used for any purpose. Mementos seem to be trivializing the dead.”

Fr. Nguyen further distinguished between venerating the bodies of saints and treating bodies as keepsakes: “Relics are venerated and respectfully used in witnessing the holiness that God bestowed in this person.”

A grave marker is seen at Oakwood Cemetery in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)A grave marker is seen at Oakwood Cemetery in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
An angel headstone is seen at a grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


Echoing St. Paul’s admonishment that we are “not our own,” Fr. Nguyen continued, “For a person to have their loved one’s parts for sentimental or other reasons is not appropriate. Along the same lines, people [mistakenly] think that their bodies belong to them and they can do anything they want with them while still living.”

To be clear, the Church’s decrees are all about respect and honor and God’s power to resurrect is not affected by our actions. Marcus Minucius Felix, writing in either the second or third century, recalled a Christian argument that even burnt or mutilated bodies can be resurrected: “But who is so foolish…as to dare to deny that man, as he could first of all be formed by God, so can again be re-formed? Every body, whether it is dried up into dust, or is dissolved into moisture, or is compressed into ashes, or is attenuated into smoke, is withdrawn from us, but it is reserved for God...”

This is good news for the martyrs, some of whom have been burnt at the stake or who have been mutilated in other ways.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in His almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection” (CCC 997).

 

Praying with (and for) the deceased

On November 1, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Saints. According to Fr. Nguyen, the feast recognizes “all saints, both unrecognized and recognized through the canonization process,” many of whom do not have a specific feast day on which we honor their lives and works.

Additionally, Fr. Thompson said, “The Feast of All Saints implies that the category of saint is more ample than we imagine.”

On the feast of All Souls, we commemorate and pray for the faithful departed who have not yet attained the beatific vision of heaven because they have not been cleansed from the stains of sin. Catholic doctrine teaches that these souls reside in purgatory where they are perfected before they enter heaven. By praying and offering Masses and good deeds for these souls, the faithful on Earth help them in this process.

Since the early Church, Christians have honored both the bodies and the souls of the faithful departed. A second century account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp states, “…the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master. We afterwards took up [Bishop Polycarp’s] bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place....” In Scripture, the author of Hebrews referred to the martyrs and saints as a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

As Catholics, we believe that the faithful departed pray with us, pray for us, and receive the benefits of our prayers for them. Fr. Thompson said, “We pray for God’s mercy for those who have died. What God actually does with such prayers is a mystery. We pray for one another while on earth; such prayers do not need to stop simply because we have passed on.” Scriptural basis for praying for the dead is found in 2 Maccabees 12:38-44, as well as other places in the Old and New Testaments.

As we commemorate our deceased loved ones on All Souls and All Saints day, may we find solace in their communion with the Lord. Someday we too will be in union with God and reunited with our loved ones. In the meantime, we can pray with them and for them. “For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What does the Catholic Church teach about honoring and praying for (and with) our deceased loved ones? The North Texas Catholic dug deep into Church history to find out.

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