In the last week and a half, I’ve driven almost 2,000 miles. That is a lot of time on highways. That also means I’ve seen a lot of roadkill. It’s not the animals’ faults, we built paved death traps where they live. Saying that, my road trips spanned five states, pretty much the entirety of the gulf coast (excluding Florida). So if there is an animal who lives in the South, I probably saw it dead on the side of the road.
Most of us just ignore these carcasses and try to get wherever we’re getting to, but when you are in the middle of a 15-hour car ride, you let your mind wander wherever it wants to as long as it stays entertained. On these particular car rides, my brain started to wander to the families of these fallen critters. I thought about how you see crosses on the side of the roads for people killed in car accidents, do these animals’ families come and mourn them? Do they even know they died? Maybe the daddy raccoon went out to get some food one day and just never came back home.
Goodness that was tragic. Luckily for my little empathetic heart, most animals don’t seem to mourn their lost family members. They just keep going on about their business. During the times when I was a passenger and not driving, I did find out that SOME animals do mourn AND bury their dead. A number of different animals do this like chimpanzees, magpies, and dogs, but the most documented of all are elephants.
Elephants are smart, sensitive creatures who live in tightknit social groups. Because of how close these groups are, they become extremely distraught when one of their own dies. Family members are known to stand in mourning with the body for days after the death, only leaving the body to get food or water.
But lots of animals are documented as mourning dead animals, the thing that sets elephants apart is the burial. When elephants come across the corpse of another elephant, they will stop and investigate, gently touching the body with their trunks. Then the elephants become very quiet and begin covering the body with leaves and grass. They will sometimes throw dirt on top of the body or break off tree limbs to use to cover it. This mourning and burial ritual is true for elephants within the dead animal’s social group, but if an elephant from another herd comes across the body, they will often stop and spend some time with the body in silence as well.
I was amazed to learn that we have this in common with elephants. Many times, being at the top of the animal kingdom we forget how similar we really are. This got me to thinking, if animals bury their dead, why would Jesus make “bury the dead” a corporal work of mercy? Why is it something he would single out that all Christians must do? The answer is that we are body and soul creatures. We are not a soul in a flesh bag. This is why we have CORPORAL works of mercy. It is important to take care of the physical form too.
This body served the person well and deserves a final resting place. This is our final way of treating this person with dignity. Burying the dead and having a funeral are a wonderful way to celebrate the life that was lived, to celebrate one of God’s children, to acknowledge the body as a temple and be thankful for how it provided for the person.
Hopefully none of us have cause to enact this work of mercy any time soon, but I do encourage you to attend the funeral of all people you know, even if it is inconvenient, even if you didn’t know them that well. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and it is good to celebrate each other. Another way to partake in this corporal work of mercy is to find out what organizations help with funerals at your church. Oftentimes a group or guild will oversee putting together the luncheon afterwards. Others will supervise getting the candles or coordinate with the family. Find out who is in charge of these activities at your church, and see if this is an opportunity you could help with.
Hopefully none of us will have someone in our lives who dies soon, so until that time arises, we can still pray for the dead. We as Catholics believe that, when we die, we go to Purgatory for our souls to be purged. Heaven is perfect union with God, so we too must be perfect when we enter. Pray for the souls in Purgatory, that they may be purified and enter Heaven to join in that perfect union. We especially need to pray for those who have no one to pray for them.
While it is good to help with the funerals of strangers and to pray for the souls of people we don’t know, it is easiest to contemplate those we love who have died. This week, spend time with family reminiscing on the life of someone who has passed. If you can, make a visit to the cemetery to visit their burial place. I pray that all of us have people in our lives who will do the same for us when it is our time to go.