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Courtney Vallejo explores the concept of the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead as she processes the death of her father.

Having recently experienced the death of my father, I have been led to contemplate the meaning of the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead. The Corporal Works of Mercy always seemed self-explanatory to me: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned -- the work was described in the title, but I was always a little curious about “bury the dead.” Did it literally mean just to physically bury them?

How could I participate in that corporal work of mercy, if I didn’t have someone I knew that had died? 

In processing my dad’s death, I’m realizing that perhaps there is a lot more to burying the dead than just the actual burial. When my father died, the first thing we had to do was clean out his home. There were so many levels to this adventure. First I had to come up with a plan as to what needed to happen first: did he have a will, and could I get access to his accounts? Next I needed to come up with a plan to sort through his house, first cleaning out enough to even get to the part where I decided what I wanted to keep and what we could donate. I can’t tell you how many bags of trash were collected. I would have my children stand with a trash bag while I collected piles of things to shove in the bag. I realized at that moment, that perhaps we were all helping to “bury the dead.” 

Even now, months later, I’m still going through photos and deciding what should be kept. I felt inspired to create a book of pictures to make sure generations to come know that that my mom and dad existed and, for that matter, that my grandparents, who passed away years ago, existed. How many old antique pictures do I have of family members without names, who have forever disappeared as the generations who knew them have passed away as well?


Antique photo album


It’s more than just pictures too. Finding old documents that need to be shredded for safety has become part of my job. As I sat shredding, I thought about how much goes into closing out a person’s life on earth. While it makes me want to purge everything so that my children don’t have to do this, it also makes me sad. All the things that my dad held onto all these years, that cluttered the cupboards and made the walls seem to feel like they were caving in: if only he had thrown things out as he went through his life.

I realized how he clung to his items in an effort to hold onto times past and memories made. And maybe now I’m clinging to some of those same items in an effort to stay connected to him? Who knows. I do know that the next thing I’m doing after his shredding is cleaning out my own filing cabinet! I’ve made more of an effort to make sure my affairs are organized in case anything unexpectedly happens to me. 


shredder, papers, and bags of trash


I’m sure that in her infinite wisdom, the Church teaches us how to experience and participate in all of the corporal works of mercy, and I’m sure there are a variety of ways to experience each. 


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As the body of Christ, there are a variety of ways to walk alongside each other as we struggle through burying our dead. #catholicmom


Even if you don’t have an immediate family member that has recently passed away, perhaps you know someone who has experienced that loss. I would suggest sending a meal: how grateful I was to not cook during that time! Perhaps offering to help sit with them while they sort through piles, keeping up a simple conversation about what else is going on in the world, can help reenergize our minds. Offer to help them unload whatever treasures they have brought to their own homes and/or help them sort things and find new places for the treasures to live. A simple phone call or even text, just to let the grieving person know they’re being prayed for can be so uplifting. I had friends who would text to say they were praying our family, and I could respond with a specific prayer intention like please pray that we find x, y, or z.

As the body of Christ, there are a variety of ways to walk alongside each other as we struggle through burying our dead.

How have you helped or participated in the corporal work of burying the dead?

Copyright 2021 Courtney Vallejo
Images: (top) Canva Pro; shredder photo copyright 2021 Courtney Vallejo, all rights reserved.