We are halfway through our program; we sincerely hope that you are finding these texts inspiring and motivating. As usual, please share your thoughts in the comments section. This day’s work of mercy is the last one of the corporal works of mercy, to bury the dead. No, you are not requested to shovel dirt and dig holes, unless you want to. But, even more difficult than visiting the sick is honoring the dead. We already feel uncomfortable around illness, in hospital settings, can you imagine a morgue, a cemetery, funerals, death?
Today we will meditate on the last Work of Corporal Mercy: to bury the dead
From the Old Testament:
“The whole span of Abraham’s life was one hundred and seventy-five years. Then he breathed his last, dying at a ripe old age, grown old after a full life; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron, son of Zohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre, the field that Abraham bought from the Hittites; there, he was buried next to his wife Sarah. After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac, who lived near Beer-lahai-roi.” Genesis 25, 7-11
“I, Tobit, have walked all the days of my life on paths of fidelity and righteousness. I performed many charitable deeds for my kindred and my people who had been taken captive with me to Nineveh, in the land of the Assyrians. […]I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him. Sennacherib returned from Judea, having fled during the days of the judgment enacted against him by the King of Heaven because of the blasphemies he had uttered; whomever he killed I buried. For in his rage he killed many Israelites, but I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them.” Tobit 1, 3;16-18
From the New Testament:
“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” 1 Thessalonians 4, 13-14
From the Saints’ life:
Thérèse of Lisieux: the harsh winter of 1890-1891 and a severe influenza epidemic completely overturned Thérèse’s life. With much courage, she took care of her bedridden sisters, while organizing the convent’s life. Ultimately, she had to prepare the deceased nuns for burial.
Here is the account of the epidemic in the monastery chronicle: “The influenza epidemic raged in our region with force. On December 28, Holy Innocents, several of our Sisters had to take to their beds. When we saw our good Sister St. Joseph, eighty-three, seized by this terrible sickness, we had no doubt that the Lord would find her ripe for heaven. We then mourned the departure of Mother Subprioress, Sister Fébronie of the Holy Childhood, and Sister Madeleine: three coffins in less than eight days!... Our Reverend Mother was very sick, all our Sisters confined to bed; never in the annals of our Carmel had we seen the like. At the burial of our two Sisters, hardly six or seven were present, and then at the cost of a great effort on their part! Only the three youngest of the entire community were not stricken by this epidemic… What Community life! No more office in choir, no prayer, no reading in the refectory, no bells rung for religious exercises. Death was hanging over us! The three youngest were: Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart, infirmarian, Thérèse, sacristan, and Martha, cook.”
Here’s another account of the epidemic, a letter from Céline, Thérèse’s sister, to a relative:
“Dear little Jeanne,
The poor Carmel is right now a pry to the influenza epidemic; the plague is raging there in full force. This morning we were at the burial of the religious who died on Saturday, and on Friday we shall return for another burial, that of the Mother Subprioress, who died last night. There are still two of three sick ones whom they despair of saving, among them Sister Madeleine, aunt of Madame St. Benoît at the Abbey, and another religious whom I do not know. Up until now, it is the older ones who are leaving, but the young are also very sick. […] It is upsetting to see the desolation that reigns there; the religious are dying not in the infirmary but on their beds, not surrounded by their Sisters but assisted only by one or two religious who are there by chance. We must hope that God will finally put an end to their trial and bring the plague to an end.”
Rosalie Rendu: Sister Rosalie, Daughter of Charity, served during a troubled period, in an agitated town: 19th-century Paris, in the aftermath of the Revolution, during another revolution, the Industrial one, which caused rapid migration of people to the city.
Rosalie was affected to the Mouffetard District, where she was to remain 54 years. It was probably the most impoverished district of the quickly growing capital. Diseases, squalid slums, crushing indigence were the daily lot of its inhabitants. There, she progressively opened a free clinic, a pharmacy, and mother and child care center, a home for the elderly, an orphanage and a school. She served the poor with much tact and compassion, relentlessly.
Due to the lack of hygiene and grinding poverty in Mouffetard District, epidemics of cholera followed one another. Rosalie and her Sisters took care of the living, accompanied the dying, and buried the dead, without much consideration for their own safety. Rosalie herself was seen picking up dead bodies in the street. During the bloody battles of 1848, Rosalie didn’t hesitate to climb the barricades to assist the wounded fighters, without any consideration of their political affiliation. She helped bury those who were killed during the riots.
Rosalie died in 1856 after a brief acute illness. A large crowd followed her casket to the cemetery of Montparnasse. Newspapers from all sides relayed the emotions of the people, including the anticlerical left “Le Constitutionnel.” On her humble grave, adorned by a large white cross, one can read this words: “To Sister Rosalie, her friends in debt, rich and poor.”
The Confraternities of Charity: historically, in France, burying the dead was the task of the Confraternities of Charity: these associations of parishioners, established around the 11th century, accompanied the mourning families, attended the funerals, and buried the dead free of charge.
These Confraternities worked relentlessly during the plague or cholera epidemics of the Middle Ages, showing much forbearance and compassion.
Today, the Confraternities of Charity are no more, except in Normandy, where the tradition is maintained. Members of the Confraternities (which now include women) are called “charitons.” They are still ministering exactly as they were ten centuries ago: assisting the families, praying, burying the dead. The funeral convoys are preceded by a chariton who rings two heavy bells, the tintenelles, thus enjoining the living to step aside.
Take a moment to treasure up all these things and ponder them in your heart (cf Luke 2,19)
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone. Col 4:6