The Scriptural basis for this good work is the book of Tobit (especially 1:20 and 2:7-9) which, providentially we start reading at Matins today in the Benedictine Office.
Tobit, you will recall, lived in exile under the Persian king Sennacherib, and was exiled for burying the dead slain by the king:
"Tobias daily went among all his kindred and comforted them, and distributed to every one as he was able, out of his goods: 20 He fed the hungry, and gave clothes to the naked, and was careful to bury the dead, and they that were slain. 21 And when King Sennacherib had come back, fleeing from Judea by reason of the slaughter that God had made about him for his blasphemy, and being angry slew many of the children of Israel, Tobias buried their bodies. 22 But when it was told the king, he commanded him to be slain, and took away all his substance. 23 But Tobias fleeing naked away with his son and with his wife, lay concealed, for many loved him. 24 But after forty-five days, the king was killed by his own sons. 25 And Tobias returned to his house, and all his substance was restored to him."
His return from exile however proved equally problematic:
"But after this, when there was a festival of the Lord, and a good dinner was prepared in Tobias' house, 2 he said to his son: Go, and bring some of our tribe that fear God, to feast with us. 3 And when he had gone, returning he told him, that one of the children of Israel lay slain in the street. And he forthwith leaped up from his place at the table, and left his dinner, and came fasting to the body. 4 And taking it up carried it privately to his house, that after the sun was down, he might bury him cautiously. 5 And when he had hid the body, he ate bread with mourning and fear, 6 remembering the word which the Lord spoke by Amos the prophet: Your festival days shall be turned into lamentation and mourning. 7 So when the sun was down, he went and buried him. 8 Now all his neighbours blamed him, saying: once already commandment was given for you to be slain because of this matter, and you scarce escaped the sentence of death, and do you again bury the dead? 9 But Tobias fearing God more than the king, carried off the bodies of them that were slain, and hid them in his house, and at midnight buried them."
And thus begins the saga that sees his son embark on a journey with the Archangel Raphael...
All the same, these days, in Australia at least, you are unlikely to stumble across a body in the streets (and if you do, the proper course is surely to call the police rather than secretly bury them!). So what does this tool of good work mean for us today?
Respect for the bodies of the dead
Respect for the physical remains of the dead reflect our belief in the reality of the coming Resurrection, so this corporal work of mercy is important.
The first and most obvious duty here is to ensure that our own burials and those of our families and friends are properly provided for. A number of diocese's offer funeral plans which are, I suppose, a kind of substitute for the medieval confraternities that paid for members funerals and, just as importantly, ongoing prayers for their soul.
We should also keep in mind that cremation is not a tradition options for Catholics, although it is now permitted in certain circumstances. But where it is chosen, the ashes must be properly interred at a cemetery, not scattered or plonked under a favourite tree or whatever!
Secondly, there are a few Australian charities - though as far as I can find none of them Catholic - who provide funerals for those who would otherwise end up in unmarked pauper graves provided by the State.
Thirdly, where cemeteries have been allowed to fall to ruin, we should support the work of their restoration.
Praying for the dead
It is not just the physical remains of the dead that we should care for, however, but also the souls.
In the Benedictine 'chapter' said after Prime, Psalm 129 (130) (De Profundis) is traditionally said daily for the souls of the dead of the monastery (as well as oblates and benefactors) in purgatory, and it is an indulgenced prayer so worth considering adding to your daily regime!
Another excellent option is to say the Office of the Dead on some regular basis.
And of course you can have masses said for the souls of particular friends, or all those in purgatory. A number of the traditional monasteries will, for example, commit to saying a 'Gregorian' of masses (30 days in a row). Some, like Flavigny allow you to arrange it all online.
Or you could join a penitential society such as this one which has a number of Australian priests who will offer masses as part of a perpetual novena.
St Benedict and a good death
Our care and concern for the dead are good works in themselves. But they also serve us reminders that we too will all face death! St Benedict's own death in fact epitomises the catholic - as opposed to the secularist - concept of a good death, for St Gregory the Great relates that he died awake and aware, praying in the monastery church:
"In the year that was to be his last, the man of God foretold the day of his holy death to a number of his disciples. In mentioning it to some who were with him in the monastery, he bound them to strict secrecy. Some others, however, who were stationed elsewhere he only informed of the special sign they would receive at the time of his death.
Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last."
Prayer for a good death
There is a prayer one can offer daily for St Benedict's aid at the time of our own death:
"O holy Father, St. Benedict, blessed by God both in grace and in name, who, while standing in prayer, with hands raised to heaven, didst most happily yield thy angelic spirit into the hands of thy Creator, and hast promised zealously to defend against all the snares of the enemy in the last struggle of death, those who shall daily remind thee of thy glorious departure and heavenly joys; protect me, I beseech thee, O glorious Father, this day and every day, by thy holy blessings, that I may never be separated from our dear Lord, from the society of thyself, and of all the blessed. Through the same Christ our Lord.