Tag Archives: Tobit

Burying the dead

Tobit 1:1 -2:9

Tobit buried the dead.

That doesn’t seem radical.

But Tobit had to flee from his home once for burying the bodies of his fellow Jews, killed by the king’s men. In today’s reading, we see his family gathered on the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law that created the People of God. He sends his son to invite the poor to the feast but his son returns, telling him of the dead Jew, a member of the People of God, whose body lies in the streets. Tobit goes out, hides the body, and buries it in the dark of night. His neighbors make fun of him for running the risk of further punishment.

In El Salvador during the civil war, the government did not look kindly on those who buried the dead, especially if they were members of the guerrilla. But in several places, members of the church buried the dead, no matter who they were. Studying the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador, I learned how the parish priest and the US sisters (one Sister of Charity of St. Elizabeth and four Dubuque Franciscans) who were serving there would bury the dead, at times identifying them and informing their families.

But there was another woman who performed these works of mercy, Niña Flor Diaz. She was a very traditional Catholic and probably centrist or rightist in her politics. But for her, all the dead deserved a burial, no matter who they were. And so she went out to pick up bodies and parts of bodies and buried them.

I have not encountered this here, but last week, attending a Mass for a man killed in a nearby village, I heard something that reminds me that burial and respect for the dead can be subversive.

After the Mass, Padre German went with the family as they planted a cross at the site where he was killed. He told them not to get upset if someone destroys the cross. He recalled two cases where someone destroyed the crosses to remember the dead. In one case they chopped up the cross in pieces and put them on the tomb.

This, in turn, reminds me of the site of the martyrdom of Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande with two campesinos, Manuel Solorzano and Nelson Rutilio Lemus. A cross was erected there and destroyed.

Care for the dead and remembering them is a subversive activity, especially when the dead are victims of violence.

But even more subversive is our belief that the cross and the resurrection of Jesus are intimately linked. When we recall this mystery we offer a message of hope in the midst of violence and injustice.

For this reason, I find myself drawn to Tobit. Though I will probably not be called to risk my life as he did, but I am called to accompany the families of those who have died.

This has been a great grace of being a deacon, accompanying the dead in the name of the People of God. May I have the love and compassion to continue to do this.


Burying the dead as resistance and prophecy

This past week the first lectionary readings were from the book of Tobit, a book found in the Catholic Bible from ancient times.

Tobit had gotten into trouble for burying the Israelite dead in Nineveh, where he was exiled. The king was killing lots of his people but as Tobit relates:

I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them, he could not find them. But a certain Ninevite went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them, and I went into hiding.

He was able to return when the king was assassinated.

Interestingly, this passage was left out of the readings this week.

But in Saturday’s reading, the archangel Rafael reveals himself and notes how he took Tobit’s prayers before the glory of God and “I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead.”

As I heard the Saturday reading, I recalled a few stories from my research on the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador.

During the civil war, a woman in town who was fairly conservative, Niña Flor, remained during the war. As one of the sisters who served there in the late 1980s and 1990s told me, she buried the dead, not matter what side they were on, even though this was dangerous.

Her sense of Christian duty led her to do this work of mercy even though the government frowned upon people burying the guerrilla dead.

The sisters – four Dubuque Franciscans and a New Jersey Sister of Charity – also buried the dead.

Burying the dead is not just a work of mercy. At times it can become an act of resistance to the powers that seek to control everything, even the bodies of the dead. It can be an act of resistance to those who seek to inculcate fear into people.

It can be an act of saying that people – even when they are dead – are worthy of respect, no matter what political, social, and economic powers may say.

Burying the dead is an act of resistance that is an act of prophecy – revealing to the world the hope in the resurrection of the dead – but also of the resurrection of the living, people who refuse to let death intimidate them.

That’s real resistance and real prophecy. That’s real following of a God of life.