A lifetime ago, I was a newly ordained Presbyterian minister, and I was facing the inevitable. My grandmother had died, and my family asked if I would preach at her funeral. Preaching about death is hard in any circumstances, but harder when the congregation is made up of people who have known you since you were in diapers.
I remember I preached on Jesus’ words in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life.” And I said that the body that was dead would live again. The flesh that was already decaying would one day be transfigured and enter into a life more real and more glorious than it had ever known on earth.
Afterward my own mother took me aside and said to me: “You don’t really believe that, do you?” “Believe what?” I asked. “That these bodies will be resurrected,” she replied.
In the moment, her skepticism surprised me. But, over the years, the more I’ve realized she’s not alone. Most of us don’t really believe in the resurrection of the body. Or we struggle to believe it.
And so we no longer realize what our ancestors knew in their bones — that death is important. And it should be observed in appropriate ways.
Over the centuries, Christians of every ethnic background have developed beautiful customs and traditions about dying and burial. They differ from place to place, but they are the same in the essentials.
In the last half-century or so, we have called all of this into question — everything Christians have always believed about death and burial. But we have not bothered to pursue real answers. Let’s spend just a few minutes doing that.
Burial has always been integral to biblical religion. In the Old Testament and the New, it’s one of the things that set God’s people apart from all the other peoples of the earth. In Genesis we see that Abraham took great care to bury his wife, Sarah, in the cave in a field east of Hebron. His descendants carefully noted the place.
A couple generations later, Jacob buried his beloved wife, Rachel, and set a pillar upon her grave, and the pillar stood for centuries. King David’s body was laid to rest with honor, and his tomb still stood in Jerusalem a thousand years later, in the time of Jesus.
And Jesus himself was laid to rest in a tomb donated by his friends and disciples.
From the beginning, burial was an important part of Christian identity. It set Christians (and Jews) apart from all other religions in the world. We believe the body is an important part of who we are. In the words of the old catechism, we are creatures “composed of body and soul and made in the image and likeness of God.”
That’s a foundational Christian belief — that these bones will rise again, just as Jesus’ body did.
This made Christians stand out in their world. The Romans called them “diggers” and categorized the Church as a burial society. Why? Because Christians buried their dead with solemnity and dignity.
Through all the ages that followed, the Church made sure that dignified burial was possible for anyone who needed it. The catacombs in Rome bear witness to this. Their underground corridors stretch for more than sixty miles, and it’s estimated that millions of people were buried there in the early centuries of Christianity. There are similar ancient Christian cemeteries in other countries, from Egypt to France.
This made us different. This set us apart as Christians. And no one, in any land, considered it optional.
Why did they do this? Because the body mattered to Christians.
The body and its death are so important that God himself took them for himself. He was made flesh and he dwelt among us — and he died and was buried. We say just a few lines about Jesus in the Creed, but those words are among them. He died and was buried.
Our life is supposed to be an imitation of Christ. We’re supposed to take up our cross and follow him every day. We follow him in the particulars of his human life, which was bodily and spiritual. We do it all for God’s glory, just as he did. And we don’t stop at our death.
This has always been the Christian story — until very recently.
It is no accident or mere coincidence that the weakening of Christian practice in our country has been attended by a decline in Christian burial. What we believe or disbelieve about Jesus Christ will have a profound effect on what we believe about everything else, including death.
I’m here to plead with you for a reconsideration and recovery of the Christian tradition regarding burial.
I want to make clear that I’m not here to condemn people for their decision to be cremated. Nor am I questioning their salvation. People aren’t lost to God when they’re lost at sea, and they’re not lost to God when they’re cremated. The Church now permits cremation, and I’m not here to tell the Church she’s wrong.
Nevertheless, as cremation becomes more common it seems to be part of a larger trend — a new way of seeing our bodies, in life and in death, and a way that is not entirely Christian or healthy.
If you want to know what a society’s priorities are, look at how it spends its time and money.
Some people choose cremation, not because traditional Christian burial is out of their reach financially, but because they’d rather not “waste” money on it that could be left for their children or grandchildren to spend. But in the long run that money will not make as much of a difference as the example we set. Are we modeling a Christian attitude toward the body and toward tradition? And are we consistent in this extreme frugality? Would we skip having a wedding, for instance, because we want to make that money available for our children? Again, if we did this, we’d be setting a bad example.
It’s true that some people truly can’t afford a Christian burial, just as some people can’t afford a big wedding celebration. None of these things come cheap. But they’re important events, and they merit the dignity of our Christian customs.
In my heart I believe that God wants us to build a just society — and a just society will ensure that no one, no matter how little money they have when they die, has to be cremated because they cannot afford Christian burial. No one. Period.
As Catholics we list “burying the dead” among the corporal works of mercy. Yet it is today the most ignored of them all.
We have large and well-funded charitable institutions devoted to feeding the hungry. And so we should. We would never pass a starving person in the street and not try to help them. But it doesn’t even occur to us that we have any duties of charity to ensure that Christian burial is within the means of the poor.
If we’re going to practice the corporal works of mercy in any meaningful way for our own neighbors, we need to look at visiting the sick and the imprisoned — and we need to refocus on burying the dead.
I have written a book on this subject. I hope you’ll read it. * But now I want to ask you to do something simple — something simple, but maybe difficult. I want you to think about death. I want you to think about your own death and the death of your loved ones. I know it’s not a pleasant thing to do, but it’s another of those ancient Christian customs that we probably should not allow to vanish. Death is the inevitable end of our life in this world. It’s what we’re working toward. As Christians we know that it’s a capstone. It’s a seal upon all the work we’ve done, and all the roles we’ve played, and all the relations we’ve had with others. With our death we say, “It is finished,” just as Jesus said upon the cross.
But we know it’s not over — not for our bodies, not for our souls. Death marks the separation of soul from body, but we believe that one day they’ll be united and we’ll be whole once again. In fact, we’ll be whole in a way we’ve never been before. We’ll be healed.
Our burial is a public pledge that we believe in all that. We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.
A burial is like a wedding in that it’s a statement before witnesses. And it will be our FINAL statement before the witnesses we love most in this life.
First, I want to beg you: Please choose burial over other options. It is the fullest final expression of the dignity of the human body.
Second, I want to beg you to make plans for your own burial. Put your funeral preferences on file with your parish. Make your cemetery arrangements. Pick a funeral home or provide instructions for a home funeral. Please do it now, even if you’re feeling healthy, even if you’re relatively young.
Then Third: Please make your plans known. Don’t keep them to yourself or stick them in a drawer. Make sure your family knows your wishes — and where they can find the specifics when the time comes.
Fourth: Make your plans easy to execute — pay for them now.
Fifth: Make your plans legal — put them in your will. And, please, please, please, choose an executor/personal representative who knows and is sympathetic to your wishes.
I know this will sound strange, but I’ll say it anyway. The days of our funeral and burial can and should be good days for everyone. They can and should be a chance for our survivors to see their own remaining days in a new perspective. They can and should be an opportunity for them to reconcile with one another and with God.
Yes, death is hard. There’s no getting around that. But we don’t make the difficulty go away by treating it merely as a line item on a budget.
The generations that have gone before us knew a thing or two about family — and about legacy. They knew how to build a society that would be sturdy enough to house their children for generations to come. They knew how to provide for grieving in a healthy way — and they left that wisdom as our heritage. There is a distinctively Christian way of death, and our tradition and history tell us clearly what it is. We are wise to walk in these ways, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our children and our children’s children.
*Hope to Die The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body
Scott Hahn, Emmaus Road Publishing, Steubenville, OH, 2020