When I imagine the women who came to the tomb to see the body of Jesus the day after he was crucified, I understand their sickened panic. The body had been taken somewhere unbeknownst and unknown to them. It was out of their sight, out of their care. He was out of their sight—not an empty shell, not “just” a body, but the one they loved. Mary Magdalene was devastated. She ran to Peter in horror: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
There is something about the human spirit that inherently seems to understand the importance of caring for the dead, of moving them carefully from the place of death to a place of rest, finality, and farewell. What we have come to know commonly as the funeral is based on this fundamentally human behavior. It is understood that the dead cannot remain among the living, and yet their removal from society is never a task met with levity. Evidences of tender ceremony are noted in the oldest human burial sites ever found.(1) This movement of the dead from the place of the living to a place of parting is full of tremendous symbolic meaning.
For British statesman and avowed atheist Roy Hattersley, this meaning and symbolism has been a complicated part of the imagination with which he views the world. For years he has disapproved of the funeral service, finding it a paradoxical attempt to soften the blow of utter darkness, with clergy fulsome about the dead man’s virtues and discreet about his vices, and congregations gathered more as a matter of form than feeling. In the mind (or at the funeral) of one who remains committed to the unpleasant truth that life simply ends as haphazardly as it began, there is no room or reason for the promise of resurrection and the pomp of certain comfort.
And yet, Hattersley writes in The Guardian of an experience that almost converted him to the belief that funerals ought to be encouraged nonetheless. His conclusion was forged as he sang the hymns and studied the proclamations of a crowd that seemed sincere: “[T]he church is so much better at staging farewells than non-believers could ever be,” he writes. “‘Death where is thy sting, grave where is they victory?‘ are stupid questions. But even those of us who do not expect salvation find a note of triumph in the burial service. There could be a godless thanksgiving for and celebration of the life of [whomever]. The music might be much the same. But it would not have the uplifting effect without the magnificent, meaningless words.”(2)
Hattersley’s attempt to remain consistent from his views of life to his experience of death is admirable. For it is indeed peculiar that an uncompromising atheist can conclude there is something almost necessary in a distinctly Christian burial. If what makes for human existence is, in essence, the material, bodies without any inherent facet of the sacred, then the act of moving a body to the place of farewell is far more a matter of mere disposal than hallowed journey. In other words, Hattersley realizes positions like his leave no room for a “decent send-off,” a beautiful, last farewell. And yet, he is far from alone in his need for it. As Thomas Long notes in his comprehensive study of the funeral practice, “[D]eath and the sacred are inextricably entwined.”(3)
The Christian burial is moved by this understanding, taking its cue from no less than the death and resurrection of the human Son of God. Human beings are seen neither as “just” bodies nor as souls in temporary shells, but as dust—indeed, as material—material into which God has breathed life. Human beings are embodied within a story that the Christian funeral tells again and again: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Because Jesus traveled through death to God before us, Christians believe it possible to make the same journey. Because Christ has journeyed from birth to tomb to the Father, we take this journey again and again with those we love and let go—with both lament and hope.
In this embodied gospel of death and resurrection, suffering and redemption, humanity’s instinctive need to accompany a body from here to there is strikingly met with the particulars of “here” and “there”—namely, life here among the Body of Christ to life resurrected in the presence of the Father. And so, we go the distance with the bodies we love, we accompany them to the grave, we weep at their tombs and we follow them with singing: because it is a journey we do not want to miss.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Thomas Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 3.
(2) Roy Hattersley, “A Decent Send-off,” The Guardian, January 16, 2006, accessed March 20, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/jan/16/religion.uk2.
(3) Thomas Long, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 4.