An urn containing cremated remains. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Resurrection doesn’t shuffle us into new bodies

  • January 12, 2024

In the recent flurry of jarring communiqués from the Vatican, a rather important instruction may have been missed by most. Within it, one key sentence may also have been overlooked. It’s the December instruction from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith on the proper handling of the ashes of the deceased following cremation of a baptized Catholic Christian.

The sentence regards the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which like many other essential teachings of God’s Church are unfortunately unknown or rejected by Catholics. What is the resurrection of the body? The stunning fact that the definition of a human being is: body and soul together forever. The slight interruption of death (the separation of body and soul) will not be the final word. At death we become, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “incomplete persons.” When we die, our immortal soul goes immediately to Heaven, purgatory (temporarily) or Hell. Our mortal body is buried and decays, or is cremated. At the end of the world, at the final judgment, there will be the resurrection of the body when our immortal souls will be reunited with our now immortal bodies to spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell.

Here is the sentence from the Vatican document: “The body of the resurrected person will not necessarily consist of the same elements that it had before it died. Since it is not a simple revivification of the corpse, the resurrection can occur even if the body has been totally destroyed or dispersed.”

I find this statement troubling because it implies our present bodies can or will be replaced by something entirely new, something off the rack, prêt-à-porter. True, the resurrection of the body is not “a simple revivification of the corpse,” nor a simple resuscitation, as in the case of Lazarus. No one ever said it was. We’re talking about the transformation of our bodies, raised by God, glorified (if we’ve chosen Heaven), and possessing the four main qualities of the resurrected body: impassibility, subtlety, agility and clarity.

To say God must create a totally new body because our body has been “totally destroyed or dispersed” is to limit the almighty power of God. It’s nothing for God to reconstitute even a body that, for example, has fallen into a vat of acid, been cremated and sprinkled over the Pacific Ocean or incinerated in a blast (like the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in England where several people were basically vaporized). Even quantum physics holds that no matter, no energy ever goes away completely, it’s transformed — and for everything that has existed, there is a blueprint, a footprint whereby, theoretically, something could exist/materialize again.

Although the full understanding of the resurrection of the body was only revealed with Jesus’ Resurrection, the Bible is rife with references to the resurrection of these very bodies that we do not “have,” but “are.”

“Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place (Egypt)’ ” (Genesis 50:25).

“And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see Him with my own eyes — I, and not another” (Job 19:26-27).

“What is sown in corruptibility rises in incorruptibility” (1 Corinthians 15:42).

Perhaps I’m being a tad alarmist, but as a Theology of the Body presenter, I am keen on getting all body-related matters correctamundo. When I ask Grade 8 students who have just learned they are getting their bodies back whether they now think it matters what we do with our bodies in this life, they answer: “Absolutely!” The resurrection of my specific body is a game-changer. And if this body isn’t the exact one that’s coming back by popular demand, then why does the Criminal Code of Canada punish someone who “improperly or indecently interferes with or offers any indignity to a dead human body”? Who cares? It’s just an empty shell. But it’s not.

“He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you” Romans 8:11.

(Sr. Helena Raphael Burns, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA.  Twitter: @srhelenaburns  #medianuns)

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