One of the Corporal Acts of Mercy is burying the dead, an act of respect for the person who has died and an act of mercy to that person’s kith and kin.
This year in my sermons at Unity Church I am talking about why we come together as a religious community. What purpose does our church play in our larger community? Why are we here?
Because one core reason is to serve others with compassion, as a basis for this discussion I am looking at each of the 14 Corporal and Spiritual Acts of Mercy from the Catholic (and other) traditions. From there I will branch out to consider other acts of compassion churches perform, or encourage their members to perform.
One of the Corporal Acts of Mercy is burying the dead, an act of respect for the person who has died and an act of mercy to that person’s kith and kin. Of course people expect churches to provide that sort of service to our members, past and present. What most people within and outside our churches probably do not realize is that we also provide Rites of Passage for non-members.
In my first year at Unity Church I performed a few child dedications, a few marriages, and a few memorial services and funerals. Some of the memorial services were for church members, but the rest of the Rites were for nonmembers. Congregations like the one I serve support the wider community by supporting professional clergy, who can then perform Rites of Passage for others outside the congregation.
It’s easy for people to see the joy a minister or rabbi might find in blessing babies and marriages, but many non-clergy think it must be depressing to do memorials and funerals. Of course, if the person was a congregant you cope with your own grief, but mostly I feel privileged to be invited into people’s lives in such a vulnerable time. If I can help friends and family through those first phases of grief (which to me is the purpose of a memorial service or funeral) then that is sacred work and an honor to perform.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, the most important thing to me in performing a memorial service is respecting, honoring and celebrating the life of the person who has died, as well as the family members and friends. This is because the first of our seven principles calls us to affirm the “inherent worth and dignity” of each human being.
Another of our principles affirms freedom of conscience and belief. This means that in any Rites of Passage our ministers provide, we respect the beliefs of both the deceased and the family members. If they are not comfortable with “god-talk” we do not use it. If they want scripture readings and prayer, we provide that comfort. We do what is needed to help the living begin to live without the person who has died. This sacred work is about serving the needs of the family. That makes it an act of mercy.
This attitude played out in our past in the role Unitarians played in founding the first “garden cemetery” in this country, Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts. Have you been there? In an article in UU World magazine, Kimberly French explains that early graveyards in our country were scary places, reflecting the prevailing gloomy attitudes toward death and damnation among most religious people at the time.
Unitarians Jacob Bigelow and Joseph Story, a U. S. Supreme Court justice, founded the Mt. Auburn to introduce America to the notion of a “cemetery,” from the Greek word meaning, “sleeping place.” Their cemetery reflects the Unitarian attitude towards death as a natural part of life. Its layout and design (by Henry Dearborn) offer the comfort of natural and artistic beauty as people walk, remember and mourn their loved ones.
Kimberly French writes, “The idea of garden cemeteries, where both the living and the dead could mingle with nature, quickly caught on.” Not only that, Mt. Auburn Cemetery inspired the creation of public parks and art museums across the country because it was the first large, designed landscape open to the public in North America.
See what good burying the dead with respect and honor can do? It can ripple out in unexpected and wonderful ways. By the way, the little cemetery behind Unity Church is of the same vein as Mt. Auburn Cemetery – a lovely place to wander and to ponder the mysteries of life and death. And of course, that is another good reason for us to be here.
The Rev. Tess Baumberger, PhD, is minister at the Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. You can reach her at 508-238-6373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Unity Church, please visit our website www.unity-church.com