A couple of weeks ago we were at a wedding. We were invited to the evening but not the reception, so we’d brought a few sausage rolls and a pack of crisps for lunch and went looking for somewhere to eat it before we went on to the afternoon activities we’d planned—exploring the Cotswolds in this instance.
We sat in the graveyard of the church because we found a bench. Some would find this morbid, though they reveal a lot about themselves when they do so. Some would find it disrespectful, I imagine, though I would ask them to see if they can really verbalise why. I find graveyards sobering, but fascinating, and ultimately hopeful.
We didn’t explore the graves but I did read all the ones within sight of our bench while we chewed our sausage rolls. These were mostly fairly modern stones, placed in the last 50 years, a few of them much more recently.
They were not hopeful.
I wasn’t surprised, I’m well aware of our culture’s bizarre attitudes to death that require it be hidden from sight, because we hide what we fear. The fear I understand, it’s the refusal to face it that is so decidedly modern.
What the gravestones did convey was the deep love of those who placed them for the relatives whose bodies they were marking, and their strong desires in most cases that their loved ones were now at peace. I would not wish to suggest anything other than that these markers were signs of love.
But I’m a pastor and a theologian (if you’re allowed to dub yourself that, I’ve got a degree in theology, anyway) and so my mind tends in the direction of the symbol these stones and the words on them are meant to convey. We used to write “rest in peace and rise in glory” on grave markers. We’ve shortened it to just the first part now.
In much the same way most Christians speak of the hope after death as the intermediate state of being in the presence of Jesus in the heavens above rather than the Bible’s hope in the state after that: the resurrection of our bodies and the world.
I imagine these two developments are linked.
Here’s what I saw as I watched the graveyard, eating my crisps:
A planter in a garden, with carefully labelled markers by each tiny seed so that the gardener would remember what each seed was as it grew. When we bury our bodies we plant a seed in the ground, waiting for it to grow into an oak of righteousness in the new creation. We remind ourselves that what is now is brief, and what comes after is long and joyous. Burial is fundamentally hopeful.
Contrast this to the symbol of cremation, an historically pagan way of preparing the dead, when we confess that our bodies mean little and it’s our souls that matter. We see this story in operation in many different arenas in our world.
We bury bodies facing east for the same reason that church doors are in the west so worshippers can face east. Jesus will return with the sun on the clouds (Revelation 7, Isaiah 46, Matthew 24), he will be seen in the east. We bury bodies facing the return of Christ, towards their resurrection. This is another deliberate story we tell ourselves in our actions because burial is a hopeful act.
When we take a departed friend and carefully prepare their body, we say that this is them, even though they are briefly not inhabiting it. We stand against the lie that our bodies are sacks of meat that we carry around while our minds are what matter—we say that these bodies are us, for all soul and body can be parted for a time.
When we place that body in the ground, we prepare it for the future, we make it ready to rise again and meet Christ in the air as he returns. In the meantime, it is a seed returning to the earth.
Let us not be confused—of course the body decays and that does not matter for the resurrection, the same as if a body is cremated what we lose is the symbolism and the rich story not the actuality of the resurrection. But what is life without stories? All acts speak, why would we choose acts that don’t speak the truth?
As the body rots and returns to the earth, the story continues in two ways. Firstly, seeds die before they give birth to trees. Secondly, if our body becomes one with the earth that doesn’t break down the story—we await the marriage of heaven and earth in the marriage of Christ and the Church.
So, friends this short reflection is simply to say this. Bury your dead. Plant them in the earth. Mark their grave with words of hope. When you visit them listen, and perhaps you will hear on the wind the chime that animates the universe, the song at the heart of every atom: after death, life.
“Death is swallowed up in victory.1 Corinthians 15
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
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