One symbolic aspect of baptism that has largely been lost to our modern mind is the symbolism of being buried with Christ. The time that the body of Jesus spent in the tomb from Good Friday through Easter Sunday is actually very significant in our faith. According to the Catechism, the original and full sign of baptism is having one’s whole body immersed under water, which is a symbol of being buried in the ground with Jesus. St. Paul talks about this in his letter to the Ephesians when he says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Ephesians 4:9-10). In the Church today, we typically baptize by pouring water on someone’s head, which has great symbolic value of washing away sin. Regardless, the same spiritual effects of baptism are always accomplished when a baptism is celebrated: adoption as God’s child and the forgiveness of all sin. I do admit that baptism by sprinkling is much simpler and less messy than full immersion!
One teaching of the Church that is not very widely know or talked about is that the body of Jesus did not experience any corruption during his three days in the tomb. God’s divine power miraculously preserved Jesus’ body from any sort of decomposition to stay prepared for and foreshadow the Resurrection. Now, Jesus was truly dead in the tomb. His soul separated from his body, went to the realm of the dead, and opened the gates of heaven. But there was still a sort of unity that Jesus kept with his body, even in death. This preservation is a fulfillment of Psalm 16 when it says, “My flesh will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let your Holy One see corruption.”
The body of Jesus was treated with great respect between his death and resurrection because of the respect that his Mother and disciples held for him during his life. The Pieta is one of the greatest works of art ever made, and anyone who sees it is drawn in to consider the grief of Mary as she beheld the body of her dead son. As Christians, we are called to imitate Christ in many ways. We can even imitate Christ in death by showing great respect to the bodies of our deceased brothers and sisters. Our bodies are not free from the corruption of the tomb like Jesus’ body was. As we hear every Ash Wednesday, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” When we die, our bodies decompose until they are resurrected and reunited with our souls on the last day.
With all of this in mind, it is easy to see why the Church prefers that we bury the bodies of our loved ones, rather than disposing of them in some other way. Even in death, our souls keep a sort of connection with our bodies which will be rekindled in the resurrection. The Church does allow for cremation, and there can sometimes be good reason for this such as hygiene during an epidemic, burial in times of war, and most commonly, financial prudence. However, there is great symbolic value to burying our bodies intact, as the body of Jesus was buried. This reminds us that we are not done with our bodies when we die, but we await the glorious day when Jesus will return. Those who have done good will be raised to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29). However, remember that no matter what happens to somebody’s body, God has no problem raising it back up! In this season of Easter, let us continue to give thanks to God for making us in his image and likeness, with the plan for us to live forever with him in heaven!