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November 30, 2020

The dignity of the body is upheld even after death

The public display of a deceased man being transported at the back of a hearse converted to accommodate the body in a seated position generated much commentary Wednesday, November 25 on social media.

The seated body of Che Lewis was taken from the funeral home located in Belmont to the St John the Evangelist RC Church Diego Martin. Lewis, and his father Adlay Lewis were killed at their Bagatelle Diego Martin home on November 14.  The body of the elder Lewis was in a casket and inside the church while his son was positioned near the entrance. A lay minister presided at the service within the church and the usual rituals took place with the sprinkling of holy water and incensing also done for Lewis (C).

Canon Law and CCC

The Code of Canon Law, the body of ecclesiastical laws for the Latin Church, states the following:

“1176 §1. Deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law; §2. Ecclesiastical funerals, by which the Church seeks spiritual support for the deceased, honors their bodies, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living, must be celebrated according to the norm of the liturgical laws; §3. The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “1684. The Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration of the Church. The ministry of the Church in this instance aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community”.

Fr Bunty’s funeral in 2019

In the funeral, “The Christian community reaffirms in sign and symbol, word and gesture that through baptism we share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and look forward to the day when we will be raised up and united in the kingdom of light and peace”.

The Code and the Catechism make no reference to how a body is presented at the church. It is however, custom for bodies to be in coffins even those that are embalmed. Embalming, involving the removal of fluids from the body and replacing them with chemical solutions to delay decomposition, is not against Church rules.  It is not unusual since most funerals do no take place immediately after death and vigils were traditionally held before the funeral Mass.

This is what the US Diocese of San Jose website states: “Catholic families traditionally hold visitations. A vigil service, during which the mourners come together to pray with a priest, may be held separate from a larger wake. Because these funeral arrangements will inevitably delay the burial service and because state law may require it, it is generally necessary to embalm the body of the decedent”.

‘Extreme embalming’ in which a body is preserved with embalming fluid and positioned has been done overseas with persons dressed up and displayed as they had requested before death.

Dignity after death

In the Catholic faith the body is deemed to be the temple of the Holy Spirit and as such is to be treated with utmost respect, even after death.

Although the Canon Law and the CCC do not speak directly to how the body is exhibited at the funeral, Fr Roger Paponette, who is trained in Canon Law states the norms are always general so will not provide every detail e.g. the type of casket etc.

“It goes down to what is called principle values and what it protects is the dignity of the human person,” he said. The question for introspection is: How is this disrespectful?

“You are treating the body as if there is no seriousness in death,” he said. Other questions which can be asked: How does this show respect for the family? How does this show respect for the person?

Fr Paponette said another underlying principle is community. We are not individuals living in isolation. “Church is about a community of believers, there are certain things that are offensive”.

Fr Martin Sirju incensed the coffin at the funeral for ‘Fr Bunty’, 2019

He referred to St Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, on the food sacrificed to idols. “I use St Paul; his context was the food that was supposedly offered to idols. He says ‘my faith tells me that there are no idols’ reason says I am not eating anything that is tainted by any idol’. My faith is clear on that”. Fr Paponette added, however, that St Paul cautions that in eating the food, “I may erode the faith of brothers and sisters whose faith is not like mine, and for that consideration I will not do it myself’.

He explained that the principle of considering the other, “is not so much what you do is not forbidden, [and] there is nothing written anywhere about it…You have also to take into consideration the impact it has on those around you and if it is offensive.” Persons should not be guided solely by the thinking they were “in the right”.

Fr Paponette suggested that guidelines may have to be created as there are persons who are “unchurched” and with the influence of what may be popular, situations are being created which the Church did not encounter before.

“We have assumed for far too long that people know, and the thing is they don’t. They don’t get it from their homes; they don’t get it from the school, from the community. It is going to be hard. We have to find ways to help people understand.”

Fr Paponette said in today’s society the assumption cannot be made that people were brought up with a sense of respect. Now that extreme embalming is here, parishes will have to request details from persons requesting funerals.  “This now is going to be part of the questioning…you can no longer take things for granted that people are following simple societal rules and sensibilities,” Fr Paponette said.

Facing death and grieving

Vicar General Fr Martin Sirju, identified two aspects which struck him. “An apparent inability to face the horror of departure, whether from a social or psychological point of view. Death is a disruptive thing.” He added that death is unavoidably morbid and people do not like to confront the fact that they must die. In death, the body returns to the elements, “literally returns to the dust from which you came”.  The horror and finality of death cannot be avoided.

To portray a body as a spectacle through the town for all to see may give the impression the person is not dead and seems to avoid the finality and disruptiveness of death.

Fr Sirju also said grief has a place in the society. Grieving is human and the Bible also gave examples, Mary Magdalene grieved for Jesus and Jesus grieved for Lazarus.

“Sorrow and grief are given to us by God as something we have to go through and when we go through it in the proper way, we become more human not less so.”