The City of God: Book 1: Chapter Thirteen

Chapter 13

Nevertheless, that is no reason for treating with contempt and carting away the bodies of the dead, particularly those of just and believing men, which the Holy Spirit has used as instruments and vessels for the performance of all good works. For, if a father’s ring, robe, and the like, are the dearer to children the greater their affection for their parents, human bodies, which are more intimate and close to us than anything we can wear, are by no means to be spurned. These are not merely for man’s adornment or convenience; they are part of his very nature.

Hence, in former times, the funerals of the just were arranged, their obsequies celebrated, and their tombs prepared with reverent piety. While they themselves were still living, they gave their children directions regarding the burial or the transfer of their bodies, and we have it by the angel’s testimony that Tobias earned God’s favor for burying the dead. Our Lord Himself, who was to rise on the third day, commended and urged others to commend the good work of that pious woman who poured precious ointment over His feet in preparation for His burial. The Gospel recalls with praise those devoted persons who received His Body with loving care when It was taken down from the cross and reverently saw to Its shrouding and burial.

These sacred authors do not mean to suggest that there is any sensibility left in corpses, but they do point out, in order to confirm belief in the Resurrection, that the bodies of the dead come within the care of God’s providence, and that He looks with favor upon such works of piety. From those same writers we learn to our profit how rich can be the reward for the charity we practice toward those who are alive and conscious, since God takes into full account whatever respect and care we bestow upon the lifeless members of the human body.

Many other things, also, which the Patriarchs said concerning the transfer and internment of their bodies they meant to be taken in a prophetic sense. This, however, is not the place to discuss them at length, since what I have already said suffices for our present purpose.

On the other hand, if the privations of things necessary for the sustenance of life, such as food and clothing, entails severe hardship without breaking down, in good men, the virtues of patience and perseverance or destroying piety in the soul, but rather puts virtue to the test and enhances its fruitfulness, how much less will the absence of the customary trappings at funerals and burials cause any harm to those who already enjoy repose in the secret abodes of the just.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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