This week is Halloween, and many people will dress up in crazy costumes to celebrate the holiday. I personally will be going to a murder mystery party with a trailer park theme. (There will be so much camouflage and leopard print!) It can be a really fun time, and many people come up with extremely clever costumes. Others latch on to the horror aspect of it. There is such a connection with the dead during this holiday. If you go to any Halloween parties or get trick or treaters you will probably see many zombies, skeletons, or mummies.
Although zombies are everywhere these days from TV shows like The Walking Dead to movies like Zombieland, all three of these creatures are dead humans that have “come back alive.” The difference between the three is simply how well their bodies were preserved or how long they’ve been decaying.
Once a heart stops beating, human bodies go through 5 stages of decomposition.
The stopping of the heart means the blood is no longer pumping. This means oxygen is no longer provided to the tissues and carbon dioxide is no longer removed. This change in chemicals begins to break down the cells through a process called autolysis. During this stage the outside of the body has little to no change.
The 2nd stage is called bloat. Once oxygen is no longer available, the body starts anaerobic metabolism and all of the resulting gases just accumulate in the body with nowhere to go. The buildup of pressure causes liquids in the body to escape from anywhere it can.
The 3rd stage is called active decay. This is when you can see the greatest change in body mass. The liquids continue to leave the body and what used to be solid, the organs and intestines, are now liquifying too.
After active decay is advanced decay. There isn’t much mass left to decompose at this point! But it is the last stage before it is classified as remains. The final stage is when it is just dry skin, cartilage, and bones.
This is the normal natural process, but for millennia humans have tried to change that process. Embalming has been around for 7000-8000 years, but it wasn’t until about 5000 years ago that the Egyptians started doing the full mummification process. The Egyptians removed all organs and fluids. As I mentioned earlier, those liquids cause most of the decaying process. Then the bodies were covered in various minerals and oils. The body was then kept in a dry place to prevent further decay. This process was to preserve the bodies forever so that one day their souls could return to the bodies.
Nowadays most embalming is not that intense. Morticians are looking to preserve the body for a few days to look nice at the funeral, not to maintain cellular integrity for generations. In order to do this, the blood is replaced with embalming fluid. It is injected into the right common carotid artery while the blood is allowed to flow out of the right jugular vein. Then any other remaining liquid outside of the veins is removed with an aspirator. Without as much liquid, the body will decay slower, but with organs that will liquify, it will definitely still decay shortly.
When using these modern techniques, it’s understandable that depictions of corpses rising from the dead look very gruesome and icky like this.
So it’s a little difficult for me to think about the Catholic Church’s teaching on the second coming. The Catholic Church teaches that when the 2nd coming happens, "Those who have done right shall rise to life; the evildoers shall rise to be damned" (Jn 5:29). My first thought, thanks to TV and movies, is the picture above. Gross. But this verse from scripture is taken to mean that our bodies will rise from the dead as Jesus’ did and be glorified. St. Paul says it more clearly when he writes in the letter to the Philippians, "He will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pattern of His glorified body..." (Phil 3:21).
So if Christ is the example of what our bodies will be like, what was his resurrected body like? In the gospels, Christ is not immediately recognized by his apostles, then they did later on (Lk 24:13-32; Jn 20:11-16; 21:1-13). It is still the same body, still Jesus, but it is different. It could walk through walls (Jn 20:19) and ascend to Heaven (Acts 1:9-11). Yet it was truly a body, not simply spirit. It could eat and be touched (Lk 24:36-43; Jn 20:19-29; Mt 28:9).
So too will our bodies be on the day of judgement. They will be glorified and transformed into something beautiful. They will not look anything like the gruesome zombies that we see “coming back from the dead.” This teaching is why the Church has such strong rules on the treatment of bodies after death.
In 2016 the Vatican came out with burial instructions for the faithful who had died. First of all, due to our belief in the resurrection, burial of the full body is preferred. Cremation has recently (1963) been deemed acceptable, but again due to the belief in the resurrection, scattering of the ashes or keeping them at home, not in a proper burial place, is forbidden.
These types of rules follow directly from the Catholic Church’s teachings on the human person. We as Catholics see each person as a body and a soul together. One cannot be separated from the other. This belief informs many of the teachings of the Catholic Church. This belief in the human person has been around since the very beginning of Catholicism. It was expressed in the words of the Bible as stated earlier, but it is seen in many early writings. Justin Martyr put it nicely when he said,
“Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the man, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh. What is man but a rational living being composed of soul and body? Is the soul by itself a man? No, it is but the soul of a man. Can the body be called a man? No, it can but be called the body of a man. If, then, neither of these is by itself a man, but that which is composed of the two together is called a man, and if God has called man to life and resurrection, he has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body” (The Resurrection 8 [A.D. 153]).
Let us pray that at the time of the 2nd coming, we are found to be good people so that our bodies may be glorified and that we may be completely united with Christ. We know not when it will happen. Christ tells us "But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." (Mt 24:26) So for now let us continue to live holy lives praising Him with joy. Let us embrace the simple joys this Halloween, like dressing up as our favorite TV character or current meme. Then the day after, may we all remember to attend Mass on the holy day of obligation of All Saints Day when we celebrate the souls of those who have gone before us and given us an example of how to obtain that eternal gift of heaven.