When a Dead Body Attends Mass

One morning, probably due to a combination of liturgical illiteracy and bad timing, a coffin with a body was casually wheeled into a suburban parish in the middle of the Eucharistic liturgy, in preparation for a funeral which was to come immediately after.
So there it was, a dead body, cutting through the almost boring familiarity of the space between “Let us pray” and “One God forever and ever”.
At first glance, a dead body casually gliding into a non-funerary liturgy might seem to some slightly odd. Other folk might seem irritated at the funeral director’s awkward sense of timing. After the initial awkwardness and rage, however, the presence of the coffin and the corpse therein can be seen to be not an interruption but a correlation, a visible reminder to those attending the Eucharist at just what the Eucharist is about.
What is striking in this action is the sight of two bodies facing each other. On the one hand there is the dead body of the deceased, while on the other is the paradoxical body of Christ, the body that is sacrificed yet is brimming with life that is passed onto those who receive it.
In a way, the Eucharistic body is not completely juxtaposed with the dead body. Indeed, as Graham Ward reminds us in an essay on the Eucharist in his City of God, the Eucharistic body is the archetype of the human body. It is no accident that St. Augustine, in his sermon on the Eucharist, once described the Eucharistic Body as “who you [the congregant] are”.
Set against this backdrop, the body of the deceased is not longer a mere dead piece of flesh. As mentioned in a previous post, bodies also prophecy to a future moment. The ancient Church looked to the body as a signal to the last day when these bodies, long waiting for their restoration, are brought back to life as it was on the day of Christ’s death. The dead body, in other words, is a signal to that end of history where the glorified body of Christ is made fully manifest.
As the body – both the Eucharistic Body of Christ and of that of the deceased – catapults our imagination to that future moment, they also pull as back to another moment in the past, indeed the very first moment in history in the Garden of Eden. For in was in that garden when creation enjoyed uninterrupted communion with its Creator, and the Eucharistic Body of Christ, in drawing us to Communion with Him, draws us also to a restored Eden. The flowers arranged on top of the coffin offer this little hopeful glimmer of that thing both ever ancient and ever new.
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