Burying the Dead
A Full Homely Divinity Editors’ Essay
“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 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....
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