For All Souls, I thought some extracts from St. Augustine’s  “Caring for the dead”  would be useful, since it touches on burial practice, the prayers of the saints, and prayer for the dead. It’s also significant, given the Vatican’s recent instructions on burial. The full treatise can be found here. Forgive the cumbersomely traditional language; this is lightly adapted from the NPNF translation.

In the books of the Maccabees we read of sacrifice offered for the dead. Even if it were nowhere at all read in the Old Scriptures, not small is the authority, which in this usage is clear, of the whole Church, namely, that in the prayers of the priest which are offered to the Lord God at his altar, the commendation of the dead hath also its place. But then, whether there be some profit accruing unto the soul of the dead from the place of its body, requires a more careful inquiry. And first, whether it make any difference in causing or increasing of misery after this life to the spirits of men if their bodies be not buried, this must be looked into, not in the light of opinion however commonly received, but rather of the holy writ of our religion. (Extract from book 3)

Next, he notes that God may raise the bodies of the dead from any condition, destruction or dispersal. But he says:

It follows not [from the power of God in the resurrection] that the bodies of the departed are to be despised and flung aside, and above all of just and faithful men, which bodies as organs and vessels to all good works their spirit has used in a holy manner. For if a father’s garment and ring, and whatever else like it, is very dear to those whom they leave behind, the greater their affection is towards their parents, in no wise are the bodies themselves to be spurned, which truly we wear in more familiar and close conjunction than any of our putting on. For these pertain not to ornament or aid which is applied from without, but to the very nature of man.


Whence also the funerals of the just men of old were with dutiful piety cared for, and their obsequies celebrated, and sepulchre provided (Gen. 23; 25:9-10; 47:30), and themselves while living did touching burial or even translation of their bodies give charge to their sons. Tobias also obtained favor with God by burying the dead, as the witness of an angel commends (Tobit 2:7; 12:2). The Lord himself also, about to rise on the third day, both preaches, and commends to be preached, the good work of a religious woman, that she poured out a precious ointment over his limbs, and did it for his burial (Matt. 27:7-13). And they are with praise commemorated in the Gospel, who having received his body from the cross did carefully and with reverend honor see it wound and laid in the sepulchre (John 19:38-39) These authorities however do not put us upon thinking that there is in dead bodies any feeling; but rather, that the providence of God (who is moreover pleased with such offices of piety) charges itself with the bodies also of the dead, this they betoken, to the intent our faith of resurrection might be stayed up thereby. (Extract from Chapter 5)

He goes on to note that, in extraordinary circumstances, proper burial may not be possible, due to lack of money or the occurrence of evil events like war. He then notes a reason for burial near the bodies of saints or with a memorial, tying it to the efficacy of prayer and the intercession of the saints. He also argues that we should pray for the dead, even if they are not buried near the saints or with a memorial.

If this be true, doubtless also the providing for the interment of bodies a place at the memorials of saints, is a mark of a good human affection towards the remains of one’s friends: since if there be religion in the burying, there cannot but be religion in taking thought where the burying shall be. But while it is desirable there should be such like solaces of survivors, for the showing forth of their pious mind towards their beloved, I do not see what helps they be to the dead, save in this way: that upon recollection of the place in which are deposited the bodies of those whom they love, they should by prayer commend them to those same Saints, who have as patrons taken them into their charge to aid them before the Lord. Which indeed they would be still able to do, even though they were not able to inter them in such places.

The only reason the name memorials or monuments is given to those sepulchres of the dead which become specially distinguished, is that they recall to memory … them who by death are withdrawn from the eyes of the living, that they may not by forgetfulness be also withdrawn from men’s hearts. … When therefore the mind recollects where the body of a very dear friend lies buried, and thereupon there occurs to the thoughts a place rendered venerable by the name of a martyr, to that same martyr does it commend the soul in affection of heartfelt recollection and prayer. And when this affection is exhibited to the departed by faithful men who were most dear to them, there is no doubt that it profits them who while living in the body merited that such things should profit them after this life.

But even if some necessity should through absence of all facility not allow bodies to be interred, or in such places interred, yet should there be no pretermitting of supplications for the spirits of the dead: which supplications, that they should be made for all in Christian and catholic fellowship departed, even without mentioning of their names, under a general commemoration, the Church hath charged herself withal; to the intent that they which lack, for these offices, parents or sons or whatever kindred or friends, may have the same afforded unto them by the one pious mother which is common to all. But if there were lack of these supplications, which are made with right faith and piety for the dead, I account that it should not a whit profit their spirits, howsoever in holy places the lifeless bodies should be deposited. (Extract from Chapter 6)

Augustine admits that he is not sure how the saints are able to aid the living or the dead by their prayers.

Howbeit it is a question which surpasses the strength of my understanding, after what manner the martyrs aid them who by them, it is certain, are helped; whether themselves by themselves be present at the same time in so different places, and by so great distance lying apart one from another, either where their memorials are, or beside their memorials, wheresoever they are felt to be present.

Or whether, while they themselves, in a place congruous with their merits, are removed from all converse with mortals, and yet do in a general sort pray for the needs of their suppliants (like as we pray for the dead, to whom we are not present, nor know where they be or what they be doing).

Yet, God Almighty, who is everywhere present, neither bounded in with us nor remote from us, hearing and granting the martyrs’ prayers, by angelic ministries everywhere diffused does afford to men those solaces, to whom in the misery of this life he seeth meet to afford the same, and, touching his martyrs, acts where he will, when he wills, how he wills, and chiefest through their memorials, because this he knows to be expedient for us, building up the faith of Christ for whose confession they suffered, and by marvellous and ineffable power and goodness causing their merits to be had in honor.

This matter is too high that I should have power to attain unto it, too abstruse that I should be able to search it out; and therefore which of these two be the case, or whether perchance both one and the other be the case, … I dare not define. (Extract from Chapter 20)

He finally commends burial near the saints, where possible, as well as prayer for all the dead.

Let us not think that to the dead for whom we have a care, anything reaches save what we solemnly ask for by sacrifices either of the altar, or of prayers, or of alms: although not to all for whom they are done be they profitable, but to them only by whom while they live it is obtained that they should be profitable. But forasmuch as we discern not who these be, it is meet to do them for all regenerate persons, that none of them may be passed by to whom these benefits may and ought to reach.

For better it is that these things shall be superfluously done to them whom they neither hinder nor help, than lacking to them whom they help. More diligently however doth each man these things for his own near and dear friends, in order that they may be likewise done unto him by his. But as for the burying of the body, whatever is bestowed on that, is no aid of salvation, but an office of humanity, according to that affection by which “no man ever hateth his own flesh.”

Whence it is fitting that he take what care he is able for the flesh of his neighbor, when he is gone that bare it. And if they do these things who believe not the resurrection of the flesh, how much more are they beholden to do the same who do believe; that so, an office of this kind bestowed upon a body, dead but yet to rise again and to remain to eternity, may also be in some sort a testimony of the same faith? But, that a person is buried at the memorials of the martyrs, this, I think, so far profits the departed, that while commending him also to the martyrs’ patronage, the affection of supplication on his behalf is increased. (Chapter 22)

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. 

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