Ask the average person (sadder still: the average Catholic) to name one of the corporal works of mercy, and you'll very likely get a blank stare. Ask him what the pope said recently about the reproductive habits of rabbits and Catholics, and you'll get some fulsome burbling about how Francis is just the coolest pope ever.
But burying the dead is one of those practices of charity and mercy enjoined upon all Christians. And burial practices today, as I recently noted, are very much in a state of flux and change. This creates problems for Christians insofar as many of these new practices (and a goodly number of the older ones also) subtly, and sometimes overtly, undermine the Church's faith in the resurrection in particular and her teaching on eschatology more generally.
Such, at any rate, is my thesis for a lecture I am giving next month at Baylor University's Wilken Colloquium (part of the Paradosis Centre). The colloquium is named after the historian and patrologist Robert Louis Wilken, author of numerous important works, including The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, John Chrysostom and the Jews : Rhetoric and Reality in the Late 4th Century, and The Christian Roots of Religious Freedom; and translator of others, including Maximus the Confessor, On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ.
As I am thinking about this problem, and how to bolster a proper eschatology, my mind returns to two books previously discussed on here: Juliet du Boulay, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village; and then Mark and Elizabeth Barna, A Christian Ending. I interviewed the Barnas here.
Du Boulay's book, which I discussed briefly here, has made me realize that restoring Christian funerary practices in a robust and undiluted way will not come about merely by getting the liturgy correct--much as I love the Byzantine liturgical tradition and think it alone today has some of the crucial elements in her funeral rites missing in Western traditions. Absent an entire local community (such as the villages in the Greek islands du Boulay surveyed), it will not be possible to pull off what I am proposing. Too many recent commentators (e.g., Thomas Rausch) have noted that you can have wonderful liturgy with all the correct theology and yet get nowhere with preaching the resurrection of the flesh to people surrounded by contrary cultural customs and beliefs. Liturgy, thus, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to recovering healthy Christian practices and a solid eschatology.
What is further needed, I am coming to see, is the establishment of something with an old history: Christian burial societies to handle the work--washing and dressing the body, building coffins, digging graves, planning funerals and memorials and meals. These societies existed at one point in England, and still exist in Jewish form in Israel and elsewhere today. But for all intents and purposes Christians today in the West have handed over their dead to funeral "professionals." I'm not denying that many such professionals do a fine job with the best of intentions (though there are, of course, shady operators).
But as Thomas G. Long's recent and excellent book, Accompany Them with Singing--The Christian Funeral notes, the professionalization of funerals has also resulted, however inadvertently, in their paganization also in significant ways. If Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection (as St. Paul put it), then this is not something we can afford to get wrong, or to hand over to others who do not share the same fundamental theology. Hence I should be delighted to see the work the Barnas are doing, training volunteers in how to handle death, spread very widely until it becomes the norm, at least for Christians. This would be a good in itself, but it would also be a tool of evangelical outreach to a world one can characterize as increasingly rébarbatif.