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“Ask a Priest: Why Should We Care About Bodies of the Dead?”
Q: As a Christian I have had a question concerning the connection between the body and soul after death. I am very intrigued by material I have either read about or have seen on TV. It seems that there is a notion of not disturbing the dead. For example, I read an article about a 100-year-old forgotten cemetery in Nova Scotia. An apartment complex was built on top, and the dead were disturbed as the foundation was created and bones started to rise to the top. After it was built, the complex has been plagued with paranormal activity. If one is dead and their soul is at peace with God, why would the soul be concerned about its human body that is laying 6 feet underground and just decaying away? -T
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: You touch on an important theme that is often misunderstood or downplayed today. That theme deals with the value of our bodies.
We are body and soul together. Death, which separates the two, was not part of God’s original plan for us. The sin of our first parents brought death into the world.
Two brief observations might help us appreciate the value of our bodies.
First is the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection and appearance in a glorified body is what all of us can hope for, for ourselves. Jesus could have left his body in the tomb, but he didn’t. He rose in his body. And if he thought it important to raise up his body, there is a lesson in that for us. (Likewise, the Incarnation itself speaks volumes of the value of a human body – since the Son of God was willing to take on one.)
The second observation comes from Scripture. Among the passages that speak of the importance of the body is 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you …?”
Our bodies are created by God; thus they are good. They are the means by which we express outwardly what is in our hearts and minds. We shake hands. We smile. We give a loved one a hug. We sing when we are joyful. We cry when we are sad. All these are bodily expressions of inner thoughts and feelings and intentions. (The value of the body is one reason we are called to dress modestly.)
The expectation of a final reunion between body and soul is why the Church traditionally has been against cremation or any disrespect of the bodies of the deceased. At the end of time we will be reunited with our bodies.
Now, whether a soul in heaven is thinking about its reunion with the body it knew on earth, is hard to say. Suffice it to say that this reunion will happen; it is a point of faith (for more reading, see the Catechism, Nos. 988 and following).
I’ll refrain from speculating about paranormal activities at Nova Scotia apartment complexes. But I would say that cemeteries in any age should be respected, and their graves treated with great care. To show disregard for them doesn’t reflect well on one’s appreciation for the sacredness of the human body.
By treating the remains of the dead with respect, we show our own respect for bodies still among the living. (For more reading, you could look at the materials dealing with the theology of the body.)
By the way, bodies that disintegrate totally will be restored by God at the end of time — though we don’t know how exactly it will happen. But that shouldn’t dissuade us in the meantime from showing due respect to the remains of the deceased.