The Works of Mercy: Bury the Dead

“The body” I was taught growing up, “is just the shoe box for the soul. What matters is the shoes, not the box. So when it’s time to go to heaven, just put the shoes on and throw the box away.”

This good solid dose of Gnostic thinking was instilled into me since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Along with it came a certain aesthetic that tended to conceive of the human person as the ghost in the machine. Of course, I didn’t live as though I was a ghost in a machine. Nobody except perhaps some victims of extreme forms of mental illness does. Practically speaking, I lived as you do: in the instinctive awareness that I am a unity of body and soul. That’s why when Susie stuck out her tongue at me when I was four, I knew that her soul was expressing the thought that I was yucky in union with her body. And when I cried as a result, it was not the tear ducts of my bio-envelope that were sad. It was me—the union of body and soul—that felt rejected.

None of that changed when I was growing up. When I wrote my name all over my brother’s TV screen when I was nine, my older brother would not have been persuaded of my innocence had I exclaimed, “Mike! My hand is not revelatory of the inmost essence of my being. It is that which has marred your TV. My soul is pure and inviolate. Do not out your wrath on my bottom by spanking me in a fury, for the actions of the body are disconnected from the purity of the soul!” Nor, indeed, was my brother’s firm bottom-swatting something my soul quickly forgot.

Still and all, despite the constant reminder of experience, the moment people stop living their lives and start philosophizing about their lives, they often begin to talk nonsense. And one of the most perennially popular forms of nonsense they talk is Gnosticism. Gnostics tend to talk like Yoda: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” They start with the assumption that the way to figure out what constitutes a human being is to saw him in two by dividing him into his components of body and soul. And this notion has infected Western religious thought like a virus since the birth of the Church. It still wreaks havoc in all sorts of ways.

For instance, about twenty years ago, an Evangelical scientist named Dr. John Medina wrote a fascinating book about molecular biology called The Outer Limits of Life in which he attempted, in his last chapter, to get at the problem of the origins of personhood. The chapter was titled “Did Jesus Die for DNA?” He concluded that the Christian tradition had basically nothing to tell us about when a human person comes into being, and therefore nothing whatever to tell molecular biologists about what is and is not morally acceptable in their work. Notably, the question upon which he based his entire inquiry was “What is the difference between human life and human tissue?”

In doing so, he misreads Scripture in three critical ways.

False Assumption 1: Human Beings Have Value But Matter Does Not

Medina tell us that “Worth is infused into [human beings], but not [human tissues].”

Why? It’s somewhat fuzzy. As an Evangelical with what appears to be a somewhat wooly Calvinist hue to his theology, Medina sometimes he connects the irrelevance of human bodies with something like total depravity, occasionally referring to the body as “decadent flesh” or as being in “rock-bottom carnality.” Mostly though, Medina refers to tissue as “purely atoms” or “mere molecules”. It’s another way of calling it a shoe box.

False Assumption 2: “Value” and the Spiritual “Image of God” are Synonymous

Assuming that the body has no value, Medina then explains what does constitute our value in God’s eyes:

[S]omething was transferred to us that was not transferred to other created things, such as rocks and butterflies… God breathed something into us; God breathed His Image into us; God did something that transmitted value to us.

The Imago Dei exists, says Medina, when God “transmits value” to worthless matter.

False Assumption 3: Human Life Therefore Starts When God Injects Value into Matter

The logical consequence of Medina’s dichotomy is his theory of “value transfer,” which holds that a human being is “recognized” into existence when God “transfers worth” by breathing his spiritual image into a “substrate” of essentially valueless tissue. For Medina, the basic fact about persons and their bodies is their divisibility, not their relationship. So he writes:

I have attempted in this book to come to the edge of ideas separating human life and human tissue.”

And so, Medina’s essential method of finding the beginning of personhood is to discover a sharply defined moment in Scripture when “valueless” matter is “recognized” by God and thereby granted the status of image-injected Person. In Medina’s words, “If a human being is established when . . . worth is transferred, when does God transfer it?”

The problem is, Medina’s method is looking at Scripture all wrong. There is no moment when God “values” a worthless substrate of chemicals into personhood. Rather, God calls all creation “good” (not valueless) and as St. Thomas Aquinas observed, God’s grace (the grace that brings every baby into existence) perfects rather than destroys, supplants, or ignores nature. Grace creates a hierarchy of goodness in which each create thing remains itself yet becomes part of something greater than itself. Thus, in the creation of every human being God raises atoms to participate in molecular existence, yet atoms remain atoms. Likewise, molecules are raised to participate in organic chemistry, yet remain molecules. And so on with organic chemicals, DNA, single-celled and multi-cellular organisms. Each is, by the power of God, raised to participate in something higher, yet each thing remains what it is. And at the pinnacle of the hierarchy one multicellular species is called by grace from the sacred creation to participate, not merely in a new level of natural life, but in the supernatural life of God himself. Thus, humans are endowed with a rational soul and declared to be “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:27, 2:7). Yet (for grace does not destroy nature but perfects it) we’re not thereby “spiritualized” out of our bodies and into the ether. Rather, we retain our hair, fangs, claws, and DNA. So we are, to be sure, dust. Yet this dust is—not merely “contains”—a person.

Yet this is not to say it’s impossible “to come to the edge of ideas separating human life and human tissue.” Indeed, such separation happens thousands of times every day. However, this is of little help to Medina’s quest for the beginning of human life since the biblical term for such separation is “death.” And death is, biblically speaking, not the result of divine favor but the bitter fruit of the fall from which Christ saves us. Thus Medina’s sought-for “difference between human life and human tissues” can never show us the beginning of human personhood because the separation of life and tissue leaves, as C. S. Lewis observes, only a corpse and a ghost. In a grim way, even sin and death show the essential unity of flesh and spirit by sawing in two what ought to be one.

“The essential unity of flesh and spirit?” A startling thought, but a very Christian one. For Christianity doesn’t tell us that human soul and body are related as milk to milk bottle. Rather, the gospel tells us soul and body are related as Mona Lisa to paint. Human beings are not Images poured into disposable “finely tuned bags of genetic chemicals.” We are, as Scripture says, an inseparable unity of body, soul and spirit (Gen. 2:7; 1 Thess. 5:23). And if you want to know when you can start treating biochemistry as a distinct human life, you might consider the model offered us by the New Testament. At what moment did the Son of God become the Son of Man, the paradigm of the human race, the Savior of “the least of these?” The answer, of course, is not far to seek; for Scripture, Tradition, and the unbroken testimony of 2,000 years of orthodox Christian witness agree. In the supreme instance of his identification with the human person—by the life-giving power that loved creation into being, blessed the hierarchy of goodness, and came to save the world from sin and death—God the Son of Man was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:35). And he, says the author of Hebrews, is “our brother” and “like us in every way” except sin (Heb. 2:17; 4:15).

This sacramental approach to human life, which asks first, “What is the relationship, not the difference, between body, soul, and spirit?” is why the Christian tradition has always hallowed the body, not only in life, but even in death. For the body does not derive its holiness, significance and worth simply from being associated with a soul. It derives it from God, who made the body as the temple, not only of the human soul, but of the living God himself. It is sacred in death, even as the ruins of the Temple were sacred. For in the Risen Christ it too shall be rebuilt.

This sanctity of the body is something that has been known since the very dawn of humanity. What marks off homo sapiens (and even that mysterious creature homo neanderthalensis) is his awareness that something special must be done to honor the dead body of his companion. With the dawn of man on earth we see the very first occurrence of something that does not occur in all the 3 billion years of life on earth before him: the grave. Man, alone out of all God’s creation, begins to bury his dead. We begin to find not merely carcasses of animals, but the bodies of persons laid with reverence in the ground, buried with flowers, entombed with tokens of things they loved in life, decked with art that speaks of some groping hope that this is not the end for them, surrounded with the love or respect or awe that their fellows had for them.

The ambiguity of our position as fallen creatures is on full display in how we treat the dead. In the Old Testament, burying the dead is as much pious work of mercy as it is in the Christian tradition. But, as in the Christian tradition, it is also something nobody is especially eager to do. Under the Old Covenant, it renders you ritually unclean, for instance, just as today it, well, can gross you out, traumatize you, make you sick, or give you the creeps. There’s a reason every civilization and culture in the world has ghost stories and feels the dead to be uncanny. We feel in our bones that the division of body and soul is wrong. We feel the absence of the one who should be there. And we are none too eager to look on the face—or, in death by violence, perhaps the missing face, or head, or limbs, or torso—of the dead.

And yet, it remains a work of mercy. For Christians, the archetype of this work is seen in the Deposition from the Cross and in the women who came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Indeed, so significant is the work of burying the dead and respect for the body of the dead that one woman in particular is remembered for this act down to the end of time:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:3-9)

This utilitarian approach to the dead and those doomed to die is still very much with us—and is growing as the euthanasia movement grows, urging the dying to die and get out of the way for those who cost less and can get back to work contributing to society. Sometimes, in chemical purity, it can reveal itself with a white hot hatred almost as revolting as Judas’ willingness to hand Jesus over to crucifixion for thirty pieces of silver.

Exhibit A: a nun founds a home in Calcutta specifically ordered toward honoring those who cannot be saved from death. In doing so, she blasphemes against one of the central tenets of post-Christian faith in onward and upward Progress: the faith that we shall sooner or later conquer death itself. She reminds us, by her Home for the Dying, that we are all going to end up there sooner or later and that sometimes what is necessary is to reverence the dying by giving them their true human dignity. This is, in fact, a million miles away from what our Culture of Death calls “death with dignity”, for Mother Teresa does not hurry the dying off with lectures on how they should clear out and make room for the Productive or potions which supposedly “ease suffering” but instead murder them in cold blood. Instead, she simply honors the dying, cares for their bodily needs, and prays for them as they leave this world.

The response of a man like Christopher Hitchens: “I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to.” The embrace of our holy sister, the death of the body, enrages the children of this world.

Death is the last impregnable fortress against our pride. The last reminder that sin cannot win, that our power is not eternal, that God is not mocked. It is also, by the grace of that same God, no longer a hole, but a door. Our salvation has been won precisely through the death of that body whom Mary of Bethany anointed. It was that dead body, and no other, that was raised from death in glory and which is now the means by which God mediates his eternal life to us in the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood.

The body of our beloved dead is, therefore, like Jesus’ body, both a memorial and a pledge of future salvation. It is the last relic we have of our beloved—and the seed of their resurrection on That Day. So we honor it even in death. As Paul says:

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:36-55)

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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