The Care for the Dead

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:40 AM
Room 207 (Hynes Convention Center)
Sabine G. MacCormack , University of Notre Dame
In the Aeneid the living bury and care for the dead as a last service to them and to assist whatever is left of the self after death in the transition to the next world. Behind the Aeneid are several Homeric episodes of care for the dead. Cremation was the mode of burial in ancient epic, while Christians in anticipation of the resurrection of the body, favored burial. Augustine accepted this custom, which also obtained among pagans of his day, but reversed the Vergilian and Homeric concern of the living for the dead by suggesting that the living care for the dead out of a self interest, to console themselves by rendering to the deceased some form of last service.  The resurrection of the body and altogether, the destiny of human beings after death is in the hands of God. Hence, no human action on behalf of the deceased can ultimately influence divine "justice and mercy"- even though prayer for the faithful departed was, according to Augustine, a charitable and laudable act. Augustine thus approved Lucan's line that "he who receives no burial is sheltered by the sky," caelo tegitur qui non habet urnam (civ. 1,12, de cura mort. 2). I will then show, briefly, that Augustine’s view and advice, while theologically intelligible, and indeed correct, were by and large not followed in Christian Europe. A debate about the care for the dead analogous to that of late antiquity occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries in the Andes, with rather different results. I juxtapose these different thought worlds in order to highlight communalities and differences in the experience of what is a universal human reality. Here, an underlying question is the viability of comparative history, what we might learn from it and what we are (perhaps) unlikely to learn.
See more of: Religion and the Dead Body
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