By Victor Lee Austin
Eastertide is a good time to think clearly about death, for the simple reason that in Christ’s resurrection everything about death was changed. Death remains a reality — it does not become an illusion — but the resurrection alters its meaning decisively.
Herewith are views on a number of death-and-Easter matters, offered by a theologian who has plied his trade in parishes for several decades.
1. The Book of Common Prayer has a service called “The Burial of the Dead.” The title of this service is not a misprint, as if the Resurrection Memo failed to make it to these pages of the BCP. And it is the title that should be used. When I was rector (14 years, Church of the Resurrection in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.), it was the title we put on the cover of the leaflet. We were a church named for and in a sense particularly identified with the resurrection, yet nonetheless we used that term “the dead” front and center.
The term can seem harsh, which is why people prefer to call such a service a “celebration of the life” of so-and-so (who for unfortunate reasons never made quite explicit can’t be with us today). But the thing is, at death we need to be honest, and the honest gospel is that no matter how much someone’s life may deserve celebration, those happy and grateful recollections are not enough to secure God’s favor. The honest truth is that Jesus died for sinners.
In the traditional prayer books, truth-telling was safeguarded by reticence: the one thing said about the deceased was his or her name.
2. My father died on Palm Sunday a few years ago, and it fell to me to say the prayers at the graveside (following a service conducted by his pastor). At the appropriate time, I took some of the dirt and dropped it onto his coffin, down in the hole. Everyone present was invited to do the same, if they wished; as I recall, many did. This is important. The casket needs to get down into the ground; we need to toss the dirt and hear the sound of it falling.
In Easter, even more so than before Easter, the real world is a material world.
3. Appropriate reminiscences of the deceased are properly offered at a reception following, or a wake preceding, the burial service (i.e., not within the liturgy). Alternately, they may be offered at the beginning of the service, before or immediately after the opening sentences.
4. Tears and alleluias go together. They go together not only at the burial service and graveside, but also in the Easter Vigil and Easter Day celebrations. When the lights go on and the organ swells and the bells start ringing, when we belt out “Jesus Christ is ris’n today!” — then it is natural to find that one is crying.
I think this is more natural the more experience one has of death. You think of children, of parents full of years, of spouses and friends who have died; you think of victims of violence, of war, of natural disaster; you think of martyrs recent and ancient — it all piles atop one another, and all comes to bear in Easter.
5. There is, strictly speaking, no icon of the resurrection because there can be no picture of the resurrection. What we have instead is the icon of the harrowing of hell: Jesus, standing atop the broken gates of that place of the dead, bringing up by hand Adam and Eve, patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, and uncounted others. It is deep: the hand of the one who conquered death holding the hand of the one who brought death into the world.
The world of death and the world of resurrection go hand-in-hand. Or say that the physical world now reaches into heaven, with Jesus being the forerunner of all who will be saved in him.
6. The resurrection cannot be pictured because it is an event in this world that comes from beyond this world. Robert Jenson spoke of it as the future entering the present. The film The Passion of the Christ shows it with simplicity as a man, Jesus, no longer bloodied or bound, rising and walking out of the frame. There can be no photograph of this, only signs left behind: an empty tomb where the corpse had been, a cloth or two — perhaps a scorched cloth with his image seared upon it, perhaps other tokens.
It is this mortal body of ours that is raised from the dead, and yet this mortal body is transformed in that resurrection unimaginably. I mean literally unimaginably: there can be no image of it.
7. If possible, the body should come to church for the burial service, and then go to the grave or the crematorium. If the church has a graveyard (mine was blessed to have one), everyone can follow the body and the family and join in the prayers and actions at the grave. Sometimes, however, it is not practicable for the body to be present. If there has been cremation, then the urn, properly veiled, can be present for the burial service, and immediately thereafter people can go to the church’s columbarium, if the church has one, for the placement of the ashes.
8. There is no theological problem inherent to cremation. But cremation presents particular temptations. It is good for the dead to be buried, in the sense that it is good for their mortal remains to be placed in a particular location set aside for this purpose. My wife’s body was cremated; her ashes are in a church columbarium; when I visit the city where they are, I go to that church and stand in the memorial garden and pray. It is valuable to have such a place. It is valuable for us to honor our brothers and sisters in Christ in this way.
I encourage parishioners to trust this aspect of ancient Christian practice.
9. Cremation also tempts us not to let go of the departed. If the ashes remain in our home, we deny ourselves an important moment of closure.
10. Conversely, cremation can tempt us to think that the essential person is a spirit only, that our fleshly bodies are merely tools or containers. When ashes are scattered to the wind or spread over water, the imagery suggests that the departed person has dissipated into mere spirit. I’m not saying this is a necessary conclusion, but it is something we ought to caution against. For this reason also, I think it better for the ashes to be kept together and to be placed as noted in number eight.
11. All these practices are enveloped by a joy that is grounded in unshakeable truth. Jesus was dead and is alive. We can place our own death in Jesus. We can entrust others’ deaths to Jesus. The promise is that, as happened to him, so for us: there will be an unimaginable transformation whereby our mortal body enters into the future of God. For we are not spirits who use bodies and then dispose of them, but creatures of our God who intends to take our bodies and make them ours forever in life with him.
Very well-said. Worthy of commendation to all.