Bury the Dead and Pray for the Living and the Dead
Burying the dead is the only of the Corporal Works of mercy not named in the parable of the sheep and the goats. It comes from the book of Tobit: “If I saw any of my nation dead, or cast around the walls of Nineveh, I buried him” (Tobit 1:17).
On a glance, this work looks to be the strangest and perhaps least merciful of the the seven corporal works of mercy. What benefit is it to a dead man how his remains are interred? We recognize that during the general resurrection, the body will be restored and reunited to the soul whole and entire. The Church taught this unequivocally in one of her ecumenical councils, stating, “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess,” and the teaching has been a part of our Faith since the Church’s beginning . In other words, our resurrected bodies may be renewed and glorified, but they are not otherwise “new” bodies, but are in fact our “old” bodies, the ones we have in this life.
Therefore, a proper burial has no particular effect on the resurrected body, nor does cremation (etc.). “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) is a statement of fact, yet not one which nullifies the possibility of being re-formed and resurrected from the dust on the Last Day. What does burying the dead accomplish as an act of mercy, then?
For one thing, this work is in fact arguably the most practical of the works of mercy:
The last of the corporal works of mercy is, on some level, the most logical of them. There is little direct tangible benefit towards visiting a prisoner or welcoming a stranger. But dead bodies smell bad after a couple days, rotting and spreading disease. It only makes sense to get corpses into the ground and out of the way as soon as possible.
But this corporal work of mercy is not only logical; it is merciful as well. For we could just dump bodies in the ground, and solve our problem of disease control with far less pomp and ceremony.
But burying the dead is an act of honor, symbolizing the return of a Christian’s temple of the Holy Spirit to God. Through Christian burial, we celebrate the life of an individual and his (presumed) return to God.
So there are three ways (at least) that burying the dead is a work of mercy, in that there are three sets of people to whom it is merciful:
- The community as a whole benefits, in that there are not rotting, stinking, and disease-festering corpses piled up.
- The beloved of the deceased, in that the memory of the man and his life are laid to rest and the bereaved are given a sense of closure and a chance to say final farewells.
- The deceased himself, and to some extent God, in that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit in this life, and in that it is the matter of which the soul is the form. Moreover, the man’s memory is honored among the living.
If burying a man’s body honors his life, praying for his souls actually aides him, both in this life and (assuming that he passes through purgatory) in the next. In the second book of Maccabees, we read that after a particular battle during the Maccabeen revolution, after several of the Jews, it was discovered that they had fallen into idol worship. Judas Maccabeas orders that the living should pray for (and make sacrifices on behalf of) the dead:
“On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (Maccabees 12:39-45).
So the Bible rather clearly teaches that prayers for the dead are good and holy works , and by implication that they are efficacious. But the dead are not the only ones we should pray for. We must also pray for the living (which includes ourselves, incidentally). “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
Recall that the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If we believe the words for Jesus, both concerning this commandment and concerning the efficacy of prayer, then it follows that we should pray for ourselves and for one another. We should ask for the big things, but also the seemingly little things. If I cannot do any of the other works of mercy, I can at the least do this one, I can pray that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, and the naked clothed; or that the afflicted be given comfort and the ignorant instruction (which leads from knowledge to love) and that the sinner will repent.
Concerning at least the spiritual works of mercy, though the action be undertaken by my fellow men, the results must ultimately be brought about by God, at least in that His grace is a necessary cause of the effects. The admonished sinner must choose between repentance and umbrage, but God’s grace enable him to make that choice; the ignorant man must choose between docility and impertinent boorishness, but again God’s grace underlies that choice. Prayer is thus to this extent the most important of all the works of mercy, even if it must also at times be accompanied by action.
 Saint Thomas Aquinas even addresses several seemingly difficult objections to the resurrection of the body in his Summa Contra Gentiles. Saint Augustine does the same 8 centuries earlier in his City of God. The relevant passages from Saint Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles are quoted here.
 Indeed, it is passages like this one which caused Martin Luther to several the 7 Deuterocannonicals from his canon. It’s difficult to make a break from the Church on the pretext of wanting to do away with the concept of purgatory and prayers for the dead when the Bible rather clearly backs these doctrines and practices.