My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Last Monday I offered the Holy sacrifice of the Mass at Calvary Cemetery in Springfield for Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. Since, in a sense, there is no recognition here on earth that is sufficient to honor our dead soldiers for their brave sacrifices, we might ask, what kind of reward awaits them in heaven? This question leads us to reflect on what awaits each one of us when we die.
My impression is that many people, including Christians who believe in God and believe in an afterlife, think that when we die, our bodies are buried or cremated, and we will live forever in heaven or hell as spirits, like angels. But that’s not what our Christian faith teaches.
That is a Greek concept, the immortality of the soul, not the Judeo-Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of the body “means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our “mortal body” will come to life again” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 990).
Our Christian belief is that our bodies will also be resurrected; we too will be raised from the dead, like Jesus! The Nicene Creed, adopted in 325, which we recite every Sunday as our profession of faith, concludes: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
The Apostles’ Creed professes a belief in “the resurrection of the body.”
I first sensed that many Catholics did not believe this or at least did not understand it when I would preach about the resurrection of the body at funeral Masses. The facial expressions I got in response were often quizzical looks seeming to ask, “What is he talking about?” My suspicions were confirmed by a poll in which only 36 percent of the adults interviewed by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University said “yes” to the question: “Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” Fifty-four percent said they do not believe, and 10 percent were undecided. The number was only slightly higher for Catholics: 38 per cent of Roman Catholics said that they believe in a personal, physical resurrection.
This is significant since the resurrection of the body is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives forever, so after death the righteous will live forever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day. Our resurrection, like his own, will be the work of the Most Holy Trinity” (#989).
After death there is a period of time when the soul is separated from the body, but that state is temporary. Our Catholic faith tells us that “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).
When will this happen? On the “last day,” “at the end of the world” (CCC, # 1001). That day is known as the Second Coming of Jesus, the Last Judgment, when Christ will judge the living and the dead. “All the dead will rise” (CCC, # 998), “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29; cf. Daniel 12:2).
Exactly when this will happen, we do not know.
Perhaps the disbelief or at least unfamiliarity with the resurrection of the dead is one of the reasons why more people are choosing to have their bodies cremated after death. They seem to believe that our bodies are no longer important after death, so they can simply be discarded. While cremation is not forbidden for Catholics as long as it is not chosen to express denial in the belief of the resurrection of the body, burial of the body of the deceased in a cemetery is still the preferred practice. Why? If God has the power to resurrect our dead bodies, can’t he raise them up even if they have been cremated? Certainly he can, but burial of the dead expresses our respect for the dignity of the human body and our hope in the resurrection of the body on the last day.
Similarly, scattering the ashes of a cremated person is forbidden by the Catholic Church because it appears as way to demonstrate disbelief in the resurrection of the body. The cremated remains of the deceased are to be buried properly just like the bodies of the dead.
Visiting the graves of our departed loved ones is also a way to express our abiding love for them, to keep their memories alive in our hearts, and to pray for their eternal rest in God’s kingdom.
Once at a confirmation Mass I was preaching about the resurrection of the body and there was a young man confined to a wheelchair with a severe disability that restricted his physical movement. When I described our belief that our bodies will be raised up in a glorified form freed from our current weaknesses, diseases and physical limitations, the young man let out a cheer. Obviously, he understood and believes. Indeed, the resurrection of the body is something to cheer about!
We look forward with joyful hope to the resurrection of our own bodies to live in the peace and unity of the heavenly kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the promise made by our Savior himself: “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.