1. Christian burial is a solemn service accompanied by special ceremonies, in which the remains of a departed Catholic are carried in procession to the place of interment.
As is usual in every procession, the cross is carried first, to denote that our prayers are offered in the name of the crucified Redeemer. The bells are tolled, psalms and funeral hymns are sung.
2. The special ceremonies customary at Christian obsequies are all significant of our prayer that God may have mercy on the soul of the deceased.
The lighted tapers express the desire that the departed may be admitted into the realms of perpetual light; the holy water sprinkled on the coffin expresses the desire that his soul may be cleansed from sin; the incense that is burned expresses the desire that our prayers on his behalf may ascend to the throne of the Most High, even is the clouds of smoke roll upward. A requiem Mass is generally celebrated at funerals, and sometimes an oration is delivered, to invite the mourners to pray for the departed. If the body is not present, a catafalque occupies the place of the coffin. The ceremonies observed at the obsequies of a child under seven years of age are such as express joy and gladness; white vestments are worn by the priest. The wreaths placed on the coffin are supposed to represent the victor’s crown gained by the departed. The present custom of loading the coffin and covering the grave with costly floral decorations of every size and shape is greatly to be deprecated; it is a waste of money that had far better be given to the poor, or expended on Masses for the repose of the departed. St. Augustine expressly says that unnecessary display should be avoided at funerals. The soul of the departed can surely reap no benefit from what is reprehensible.
3. Christian obsequies are conducted with so much solemnity, because it is well pleasing to God that we should show reverence to the mortal remains of those who have departed this life in the grace of God.
It is becoming to treat the human body with respect after death, for during our lifetime our bodies are sacred, as being the abode and instrument of the soul which is made to God’s image. They are also the temple of the Holy Ghost, and to be held in honor for God’s sake. Moreover the burial of the dead is a work of mercy which is not with out its reward. Remember how Tobias acted. In the early days of Christianity persons of the highest position, even Popes, did not con sider it demeaning themselves to carry the remains of the martyrs in their arms to the graves, and bury them with their own hands. In the days of persecution the place of burial was in the Catacombs, where the holy sacrifice was offered. Hence it came to pass that in later times the dead were buried in the crypts of churches, or in the ground surrounding the church, which is called the churchyard. This custom is now abolished, on sanitary grounds, cemeteries being situated on the outskirts of towns for the most part. An exaggerated idea as to the unhealthiness of intramural sepulture has contributed to the introduction of the unnatural and pagan custom of cremation. No danger to the living may be apprehended from the proximity of a burial-ground, provided the graves are of a proper depth, for earth is known to be the best possible disinfectant.
4. Cremation is condemned by the Church as being an abominable abuse.
Originally the custom of interring the dead in the ground was common to all nations, for the most ancient human remains that have been discovered bear no signs of having been subjected to fire. Vaults containing skeletons have also been met with, closed by a slab of stone. We know that the Jews buried their dead; Holy Scripture constantly speaks of the burial of kings and prophets. That his corpse should be left unburied was a chastisement threatened to the transgressor (Deut. xxviii. 26). Only during a time of pestilence were the Jews allowed to burn individual corpses (Amos vi. 10). The Romans in earlier times buried their dead. Cicero tells us that their graves were considered as sacred, and the profanation of a tomb was severely punished, even by the loss of a hand. Bodies were often deposited in sarcophagi, where they were reduced to dust. Pliny records that the Romans only burned their dead when they feared they might be out raged by the enemy. In later times when manners became corrupt, cremation was practised among them. The custom of embalming the dead prevailed among the Egyptians. It is a noteworthy fact that all barbarous nations, who in an uncivilized state burned their dead, substituted the grave for the funeral pyre as soon as civilization shed its light in their land. Christianity did, in fact, abolish cremation. But in these days, when Christian faith is on the decrease, cremation is once more becoming the fashion. St. Augustine denounces the practice as horrible and barbarous. It offends our Christian instincts. For we are taught to regard death as a sleep; the dead sleep in Christ (1 Cor. xv. 18), for they will rise again; they are laid to rest in peace, and the idea of the repose they enjoy is connected with the churchyard, not with the crematorium. When we commit our dead to the kindly earth, we tacitly express our belief that our body is like a seed, which is cast into the ground, to germinate and spring up. “It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption” (1 Cor. xv. 42). As Christians we have a higher esteem for the soul, which partakes of the divine nature, and consequently for the body, which is the servant and tool of the soul. No true Christian can fail to shrink from the horrors of cremation; only those who are lost to all sense of the dignity of human nature, to all belief in the truths of religion, can desire it for themselves. Let us remember that Christ, our great Exemplar, was laid in the tomb and rose again. For pagans such considerations naturally have no weight; they disliked the sight of the sepulchral monument, the mound raised over the dead, because it reminded them of death, which would put an end to their earthly enjoyments. For the same reason unbelievers in our own day advocate cremation. Burial suggests to them too strongly the immortality of the soul, whereas cremation appears to promise the annihilation that they desire as their portion after death. Yet let no one imagine that the Christian dreads the destruction of the body by fire as an impediment to its future resurrection, for God can effect the reintegration of the body after it has been dissolved into gaseous elements. In the interests of justice destruction of the body by fire is highly reprehensible, since, if a body is buried, it can be afterwards exhumed if this is necessary for the detection of a crime, such as murder. By this means many a murderer has been brought to justice; after cremation this is impossible. Those therefore who speak in favor of cremation befriend criminals, inasmuch as they aid in the removal of all traces of their crime.
5. Christian burial is denied to the unbaptized, to non-Catholics, and to Catholics who are known to have died in mortal sin.
Catholics to whom Christian burial is denied are: Suicides (unless they are insane at the time of death and therefore irresponsible); duellists, and any persons who obstinately refuse to receive the last sacraments, or who have not for years past fulfilled the Easter precept. In the two last cases the matter is generally laid before the bishop. The denial of Christian burial to bad Catholics is not intended as a sentence of damnation, but merely as the public expression of abhorrence of their sin, and for the purpose of deterring others from falling into the same sin. An association would be little thought of if one of its members followed to the grave a fellow-member who had been a disgrace to that society; so it would be derogatory to the Church and her ministers if she were to celebrate the obsequies of an unfaithful Catholic. The Church also refuses ecclesiastical burial to non-Catholics, because she holds to the principle expressed by Pope Innocent III. in the words: “It is impossible for us to hold communion after their death with those who have not been in communion with us during their life. To do so would give rise to the idea that all religions were alike. It would destroy the prestige of the Church, and injure the souls of men. The maxim of the Church is that the ground she has consecrated is the last resting-place of her children, and none but members of her family have a right to be interred therein.” Yet she permits non-Catholic relatives to be laid in a family vault. For suicides a portion of the cemetery which has not been consecrated is set apart.
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