Burial and Resurrection

In City of God I.12-13, Augustine offers a mini-treatise on the relation between burial and the resurrection. He begins from the fact that some Christians killed during the sack of 410 were left without burial. No matter, he insists – even if devoured by beasts, Christians will still be raised up. Burial ceremonies are more a “solace for the living” than a need of the dead.

That’s not right, though – burial is a way of respecting the dead; someone who goes unburied is profoundly disrespected, in just the way that someone who is maliciously slandered after his death is disrespected. We need a concept akin to Wolterstorff’s “history-goods,” but that’s no problem.

Augustine also seems to think that every piece of matter that composed my body will be restored to me – i.e., it will be gathered from the earth, and from the other animals it comes to compose. But the big problem for that view is that the class of matter that at some point composed John is 1) vastly larger than the class of matter that composed John at any given point in his life (think of all the skin cells you lose), and 2) probably overlaps with the class of matter that composed many, many other people (the worm eats the king, the fish eats the worm, the pauper eats the fish). So surely we need another model for how resurrected bodies are reconstituted (I.12).

But then Augustine goes on: this doesn’t mean that we should treat the dead – and esp. dead saints – with disrespect. As instruments of the LORD, the bodies of saints are precious in just the way that a father’s ring is precious to his children. This comes close to the concern I expressed above – a corpse acquires worth transitively from the worth of the person whose trace it is, and burial is a way to mark that worth (I.13).

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