Burying the Dead
A Full Homely Divinity Editors’ Essay

Entombment of Christ - Fra Angelico, c. 1450“I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

In the Apostles’ Creed, the most basic statement of what Christians believe, this phrase sums up succinctly what we believe about death: we look forward to an eternal life that involves the body, not just the soul. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) notes: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.” (BCP (1979), p. 507)

This emphasis on the resurrection of the body has important implications for the way we deal with death, and particularly for the way we deal with the dead. In recent years, in our experience, there has been a marked change in both the customs and the attitudes surrounding the burial of the dead. In spite of the clear witness of Scripture, the creeds, and our liturgical tradition (lex orandi, lex credendi), these changes are affecting the way the Church itself deals with death. This is a matter which we would like to address in this essay.

The logical place to begin is with Jesus himself, and with his death and burial. The circumstances surrounding his death were as perilous and traumatic as any death anyone has ever experienced. Nevertheless, the family and friends of Jesus boldly stepped forward to claim his body. They took great care in burying him: they lovingly wrapped his body in a fresh linen shroud and laid his body in a new tomb. And, since circumstances required a hurried burial, several of his friends returned on the third day to complete the preparation of his body for burial. They planned to anoint him with spices and, no doubt, to remain for a time at the tomb and mourn.

This care for the body of their beloved son and friend and their mourning over him were very much in line with their belief in the resurrection of the dead. Although they were not entirely prepared for his resurrection on the third day, they did indeed expect to see him again: this Jesus whose death they had witnessed and whom they had buried themselves. Furthermore, when they discovered that he had been raised, they and the disciples did not experience a ghost. They met the same Jesus they had always known—changed and glorified, to be sure, but still an entirely physical person who ate a piece of fish in their presence and allowed Thomas to touch the wounds of crucifixion which he still bore on his body.

Many cultures have shown respect for the bodies of the dead and have had funeral customs that reflected that respect. For Christians, this is a matter that touches us at the very heart of our faith. Our bodies are not inconsequential baggage. Matter is not evil, nor is the flesh inherently sinful and unredeemable. Creation is good and was made by God to be celebrated and enjoyed, and that truth applies to the human body. Sometimes it would appear that entirely secular people understand this better than many Christians do. Concern for the body, for both its appearance and its well-being, fuels huge modern industries devoted to things like fashion, cosmetics, fitness, and diet. It is not merely vanity that drives this concern for our bodies. Our bodies are essential to all that we do and are an integral part of our personalities. Indeed, we often base our opinions of people, particularly our first impressions, on aspects of their physical appearance.

And yet, ironically, after the funeral home staff have done everything they can, with clothing, cosmetics and, when necessary, prosthetics, to make the dead look their very best, someone at the funeral will inevitably remark that this is not the person at all, but just an empty shell. Never mind the fact that this is the body that embraced and was embraced by loved ones through the years. Never mind the fact that herculean efforts may well have been expended to keep this body alive until all hope was exhausted and death prevailed. Never mind the fact that no one in human history has ever lived without a body. Never mind the fact that it is our bodies that are baptized and that receive and eat and drink the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Never mind the fact that our faith is in a God who took a body in order to redeem us and has promised to raise us from the dead in our bodies as part of his plan to make a new creation. In spite of all of this, for some people the only way to deal with the reality of death is to deny it altogether by denying that the body has any value at all.  

Whether we are people of faith or not, it simply is not true that the body is an expendable shell. The body, whether beautiful or not, whether fully able or in some way disabled, whether whole and well-conditioned or disfigured by injury, illness, or age, is an indispensable aspect of being human. The condition of the body and every action of it are part of a person’s identity, part of personality, and an integral part of every relationship. For that reason, when God set about to redeem us, he did not “abhor the Virgin’s womb.” Rather, he took on our humanity in every respect, which meant taking on our flesh and even the death of the body—and its resurrection. Some early sects insisted that Jesus only seemed to be a physical being, but was in reality a spiritual being who only appeared to be incarnate. The Church rejected that point of view as heretical. Without a physical body, the incarnation is a theoretical concept, not the reality of the second Adam whose physical death and resurrection inaugurate the new creation. Ideas do not save us. The incarnate God does. Our full participation in the new creation is fulfilled in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” Thus, the way we deal with the dead is a telling statement about all that we believe.

“Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.” This is our faith, and while we realize that the body will decay in the grave, we also recall St Paul’s words, “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised… [and] we are of all people the most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:16,19) We bury the body with the same hope and confidence that the family and friends of Jesus had when they buried him: “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.”  This is the very heart of our faith in God and his loving-kindness. It is the Good News.

Resurrection of the Dead- stained glass, c. 1200, La Sainte Chapelle, Paris; image copyright cambridge 2000.comWe know very little about what happens between death and our resurrection at the consummation of the age. Our sources of information and belief are Scripture, the liturgy, and the teaching of the Church. St Paul tells us that the dead are asleep. He does not suggest that they have gone to heaven, in soul or body. Rather, Paul says that we will remain in our graves until we rise at the last day when Christ returns in glory. “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive….” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) The liturgy quotes Job who says that “though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom… mine eyes shall behold.” (BCP (1979) p. 469) Another Prayer Book text says, “He that raised up Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies…..” It continues with a quotation from the Psalms: “Wherefore my heart is glad, and my spirit rejoiceth, my flesh also shall rest in hope.” (BCP (1979) p. 485) Even when reference is made to the soul in the liturgy, our prayer is, “May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” In death, we rest. Our bodies rest, our souls rest, and we wait. We return to the dust from which we were created and we await the time when God will make all things new.

Questions remain, which we cannot fully answer. For example, how is it that people claim to have experienced the presence of saints of old, or even of loved ones who have died recently? There are those who would explain these phenomena away as the product of overly active imaginations or, even less kindly, of psychological instability on the part of the bereaved and superstitious. Rather than seeking answers where there may be none, we would do well to remember that we are dealing with a dimension of reality which remains veiled. No one but Jesus has been there and back again, and he told us little about that journey. It is also important to keep in mind the fact that for God there is neither past nor future, but only the present, the eternal now which is beyond our comprehension. We may assume that this is also the case with those who have become one with him and now rest in death. Death is one of those places on the edge of the intersection between earth and heaven, a “thin” place, as it were, and understanding the communication between the two is something that is best left as a mystery.

Since the body and the resurrection of the body are essential to our theology about death, how we bury the dead is an important matter for Christians. For most of human history, in non-Christian as well as Christian societies, the burial of the dead was a family affair. Just as it was at the death of Jesus, for countless generations before and after it fell to the family or close friends to wash the body and clothe it, or wrap it in a shroud. A coffin was built by someone in the community, and the body was laid out in the home as people gathered to mourn and say their last personal farewells. Then family and friends carried the body to the church for prayers and the Eucharist, then on to the grave.

Sometimes the grave was dug by family and friends who also lowered the body gently into the grave and then helped to fill it with earth. In some places, people were buried within the church, beneath the floor, in a crypt, or in tombs. In the case of those recognized as saints and martyrs of the faith, altars were even erected over their graves. Cemeteries were consecrated ground and permanent markers were placed on the graves so that people could return to visit the dead. Throughout, there was a sense that the person who had died was still present, in the flesh. And the words of the liturgy of burial affirmed this reality, together with the conviction that the death of the body is not the end of the body or of the person who had died, but a new beginning, looking forward to the time when all will be raised.

Sadly, in modern western society, funeral customs have tended to separate us more and more from the bodies of the dead, and this has affected popular beliefs about death in ways which are, in the end, unchristian. Whereas death, the preparation of the body, and even the first stages of mourning took place at home in the past, now the body is taken away to a “funeral home.” Professionals prepare the body for burial and the only role the family has is to provide clothes, play the role of chief mourners, and pay for services rendered. Since the body is kept at the funeral home, official mourning is limited to specific hours there. It is an antiseptic process which encourages people to think of the body as secondary, a shell to be disposed of, and not the person who once lived “in” it.

Although the Prayer Book service is called “The Burial of the Dead,” it is increasingly common for the body not to be present at the service, further separating the living from those who have died. Many people are choosing to omit the funeral entirely, opting instead for “memorial services,” often days or weeks after the actual death. The emphasis, increasingly, is on remembering the past. People talk about “closure” as if death is the end. But the formal liturgy of the Church affirms something else altogether: “life is changed, not ended.” Life and death are a continuum and death is a marker along a way that continues.

Home funeral - Image courtesy Rodger EricsonThe rites and ceremonies of the burial of the dead center around the body, because it is the physical link, the tangible evidence of the continuity between life in this world and the next. Memorial services look backwards, celebrating the life that was and looking for meaning there. All too often, the real purpose of the memorial service is therapeutic. It aims to console the survivors in their sense of loss. A Christian funeral does look back in the sense that it certainly gives thanks for the life that was, but it does not stop there. Rather, it celebrates the place of the departed in God’s continuing work and looks forward to the consummation of that work in the resurrection of the dead. For people of faith, this is a far greater consolation than any testament of good deeds and happy memories could ever be.

So what should/could a Christian funeral look like, particularly in our Anglican tradition and in the quest for a full homely divinity? One development in the secular culture which can have a positive impact on the way we die and deal with the dead is the growth of the hospice movement. More and more people are dying at home again, rather than in hospitals and other institutions. This is not always possible, but when it is, it restores, at least in part, the opportunity for death to be a shared experience in the context of the places and people where life and personal faith have been shared in daily life. In hospice, family can have a direct role in the care of the dying and thus may also have some role in the preparation of the dead for burial. In our personal experience, this direct involvement in the death of a loved one and the preparation of the body for burial is therapeutic in itself because it allows those involved actually to do something for the person who is dying, or has died.

Ideally, preparation of the body for burial should be done by loved ones of the deceased. In some places, there are legal barriers to this, thanks to the influence of the funeral industry. But there can be other difficulties, including a basic lack of knowledge about what needs to be done and how to do it. However, just as the hospice movement has begun to change the way we die, the home funeral movement has been around for a number of years and is helping those who are interested to recover a personal role in the burial of a loved one. Links to several websites about home funerals are included at the end of this page. We do want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with using the services of a funeral home. Many of the services they provide are offered because people have expressed a need for them. At the same time, it is possible to be selective and thus to be involved at a level that “works” for one’s own circumstances. Even where the law requires that the services of a professional funeral establishment be employed, there are ways for the non-professional to participate.

It is wise, and helpful, to have basic decisions made long before death occurs. Will the body be embalmed or not? What kind of coffin will be used? Will it be purchased commercially or built locally (and who will build it)? How will the dead person be dressed? Will he or she be buried or cremated? Where will the wake, the funeral, and the final resting place be? Who will be involved in completing the various arrangements—preparation of the body, hosting the wake, choosing and inviting pallbearers, etc.? And, most importantly, are there specific instructions about the funeral itself: lessons, hymns, participants? Many parishes encourage parishioners to write down their wishes about these things, relieving the survivors of uncertainty and decisions that some find difficult to make in the first stages of grief.

Before the funeral, a “wake” in the presence of the body is much to be desired. It may be held in the home where the death took place, in a commercial funeral home, or in the parish church. Its value as part of a Christian funeral is twofold. First of all it is a time for family and friends to say farewell to the deceased. At Orthodox funerals, there is a ceremony that involves kissing the body good-bye for the last time. Anglican tradition dictates that the coffin should be closed for the funeral itself, but an open casket is appropriate at the wake and there should be no hesitation on the part of those who may wish to touch or kiss the body in a last farewell, for the body is important.

Secondly, this is a time to watch (the original meaning of “wake” in this context) with the mourners, to be with them in the time of waiting until the funeral, and to support and comfort them in their loss. No matter how strong our faith in the resurrection of the dead, there is a real and legitimate sense of loss when someone dies. The presence of friends is a source of great comfort. Reminiscing with them is one way of dealing with that loss. The wake is the proper place for eulogies and personal expressions of memory and emotion. This can be done in individual conversation and there can also be a time for general sharing, and there do not need to be any limits on who participates and how long they speak. The funeral itself is a more formal gathering. It, too, calls on memory to console the bereaved, but in this case it is the memory of Jesus Christ and our participation with him in his death and resurrection. The wake is an expression of mortal experience and relationships. The funeral is a celebration of the life we share with God, both now and in the world to come.

The words and the symbolism of the funeral service strike a balance between acknowledging the hard reality of death and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection. The body may be met at the door of the church with holy water and the Paschal candle, reminding us of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ. It is customary to cover the coffin with a large cloth called a pall. A variety of explanations are given for the pall. It is generally said that the pall covers the coffin to remind us that all are equal in the eyes of God—rich and poor are all covered with the same pall, no matter how grand the coffin in which they lie.

Most often today, the pall is white and it is said to symbolize the traditional white clothing of the newly baptized. For centuries the pall was black, the color of mourning, to remind the worshipers that we are all sinners and must stand before the judgment of God. (In fact, when palls were first used in the Middle Ages, they were memorial offerings to the church which were first used to cover and honor the dead and were then cut up to make Mass vestments. The color was gold, or sometimes red, having no funereal significance at all but being the colors most useful in making vestments!) Again, for centuries, black, or violet, was the color of funeral vestments, emphasizing the aspect of the funeral that intercedes on behalf of a soul in need of God’s mercy, while white, the color of resurrection, is more typical today.

Just as color can alter subtly the mood and even, to some extent, the meaning of the funeral liturgy, elevating one aspect over another, so can music. Care has to be taken in selecting the music for the funeral, and especially the hymns. This is not a time for a selection of the favorite hymns of the deceased. As in any liturgy, the hymns at a burial should be in keeping with the overall themes of the service. The Hymnal has a selection of hymns for funerals and Easter hymns are obviously appropriate, as well as hymns expressing trust in God. A parish priest and/or musician should have a list of appropriate hymns to suggest to a family when planning a funeral and may need to offer some guidance if unsuitable hymns are requested. (A partial list of appropriate hymns is provided below.)

One of the most critical elements of the funeral liturgy depends upon the preacher. As we have already said, there is no place for eulogies in the liturgy for the burial of the dead, but there is a place for a sermon. A funeral is an act of divine worship. The purpose of a funeral sermon, like any other sermon, is to proclaim the Gospel. In a culture that is increasingly secular, funerals are a very special opportunity to preach the good news not only to the Church, but to people who may never have heard it. This is not to say that the funeral or the sermon should be impersonal. The Gospel is always personal, it is always particular. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name and the Gospel is God’s call and promise of new life to each of us as individuals. Thus, a funeral sermon may well make reference to the ways in which the person who has died responded to that call, but its purpose is to speak the word of resurrection life to the living, not to praise the dead.

The funeral of a faithful Christian should, whenever possible, include the celebration of the Eucharist. There may be many people present who are not observant Christians and who will not share in the Sacrament. Nevertheless, the Eucharist is the primary way in which the whole Church participates in the living memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is true of the dead, as well as the living, for every Eucharist, in every time and place, past, present, and future, is a sharing in the one death and resurrection of Jesus. His death and rising are not repeated. Yet, even though they happened at a particular moment in time, they are eternal, the point at which time and eternity, earth and heaven perfectly intersect. And every time we share the Eucharist, we are living in that moment, dying and rising with Christ. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we share it with every person who ever has been or ever will be united to Christ in his Body, the Church. As much as the sermon, our participation in the Eucharist is a witness to and a proclamation of the Gospel to those who are still outside the Body.

Burying the dead in the CongoThe final moment of the funeral takes place at the grave. The committal of the body to the grave is, in some ways, the most dramatic statement of our faith in the resurrection. Standing by the grave where even a well-embalmed body will eventually disintegrate, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and become indistinguishable from the earth in which it is buried, we declare our “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.” At this point in the service, the rubric directs that earth is to be cast on the coffin. This is such a powerful symbol that it should not be omitted when the committal is at a place other than a grave in the ground. Even in an indoor crypt or a columbarium niche, earth should be cast on the coffin or urn. Humus, earth, is the product of decay, yet from its decay dry and lifeless seeds draw nutrients and spring into new life. It is fitting that our bodies rest in the earth, and fitting that this symbol be applied to the remains of all who await the new life of the resurrection.

A new custom that funeral directors seem to be encouraging is the placing of individual flowers on the coffin at the conclusion of the committal service. Flowers are passed out and family and friends pass solemnly by the coffin before they leave the graveside and place their flowers on top of the coffin. This, it seems to us, is another way of avoiding the reality of death. Even if the coffin is still supported over the grave, rather than lowered into it, everyone present can participate in the burial symbolically by casting earth on the coffin. Ideally, the coffin should be lowered for the committal and the grave filled by, or at least in the presence of, the mourners, but cemetery officials will often cite safety concerns and refuse to do this. The next best alternative is for the officiant to encourage everyone to cast dirt, not flowers, on the coffin.

The changes in the way we deal with death have taken place over many years. For example, the art of embalming has been known, quite literally, for millennia, but in western culture it was used only in extraordinary circumstances. During the American Civil War, an enterprising businessman offered the service to the families of fallen soldiers so that the honored dead could be returned to their hometowns for burial. Seeing the success of the practice, he began advertising it for general use. There are very few circumstances in America where embalming is either necessary or required today, yet it has become standard practice. Other customs, such as the memorial service without the body, are much newer, but are part of the larger cultural shift in dealing with death. As the influence of the Church declines in an increasingly secular culture, it becomes more and more difficult to buck these trends. Nevertheless, as we have noted before, the way we deal with death touches us at the very heart of our faith. The way we deal with the dead speaks volumes about what we truly believe and recovering our distinctive funeral customs must be understood as an intrinsic part of our witness to the Gospel.

A few useful links about home funerals:

          "A family undertaking: Caring for our dead," by Holly Stevens
          Undertaken with Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities
          "End of Life: Do it Yourself Funerals" (transcript of a National Public Radio program)
          Funeral Consumers Alliance

Simple coffins (Note: We found these links online. We make no representations and are not responsible for the content of the sites or the reliability of the providers or their products.)
          Ark Wood Caskets
          Kent Casket Industries
          Nature's Casket
          More coffin links

Hymns -- in addition to hymns listed in the Burial section of the Hymnal, here is a selection of appropriate funeral hymns:

          At the Lamb's high feast we sing
          He is risen, he is risen!
          Love's redeeming work is done
          Alleluia, alleluia! Hearts and voices heavenward raise
          Jesus lives! thy terrors now can no longer death appall us
          The strife is o'er, the battle done
          I'll praise my Maker while I've breath
          The Christ who died but rose again
          O Love of God, how strong how true
          Remember your servants, Lord
          Jerusalem, my happy home
          O what their joy and their glory must be
          The King of love my shepherd is
          All my hope on God is founded
          O God, our help in ages past
          Abide with me
          Guide me, O thou great Jehovah
          I heard the voice of Jesus say


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