My Dear Friends in Christ
Grace and peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In a past assignment, I was asked to go and officiate at a graveside service for someone whose funeral mass has been in Denver, Colorado. It was one of those situations where the person died in Colorado but wanted to be buried back here in Iowa but the priest (for obvious reasons) didn’t want to tag along for the burial. I arrived at the rural cemetery on a typical Iowa summer day. It was somewhere between 95 and a hundred million degrees outside. And the farmer that had the field adjoining the cemetery decided it would be the perfect day to fertilize his crops so the fresh smell of hog manure greeted us as we stepped out of our vehicles. I decided then and there to be brief. There was only a few family members present along with the urn that contained the cremains of their father. I did all the burial prayers, “Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust…” but felt relief when it was all over and I could finally leave. As I opened the door to my truck, one of the daughters of the man who had passed away came up to me with two small boxes approximately the size of ring boxes. She asked if I would bless them. I asked what they were and they said the crematorium provided small “take home” portions of the cremains for each child but put the majority in the urn. I couldn’t believe it. The church is very clear about cremains. We don’t have a problem with them as long as they are kept intact and buried in one spot. Yet, the hot smell of hog manure was so overwhelming that all I wanted to do was get away as quickly as possible. So, instead of doing what I should have done and told them to put them in the grave, I said a blessing, got into my truck, and inhaled for the first time in fifteen minutes.
As I look back on that experience, I have to admit to my own confusion surrounding the church’s teaching on burial. Why should we believe we need to buried in one spot? I think of the number of people who have died in airplane and helicopter accidents in which no bodies were recoverable. Or the people who have lost a limb throughout their life that aren’t buried with the limb. Or, what about all the saints whose bodies are put into altars throughout the world. Why would the body of a saint, who we’re sure will one day be resurrected, be allowed to be scattered around several churches, perhaps even in several different continents if being buried in one spot was so important?
The Greek Philosopher Plato who believed that we are made up of body and soul, the body being evil and the soul being good. Christians take our understanding of the body from the Jews. The Jews believed that the human being is made up of a body and a soul and that one without the other is not a real existence. A souless body is dead. A bodiless soul is an evil spirit seeking to take possession of a body. When body and soul are matched up by God then he puts his spirit which holds them together.
Our readings today talk a lot about this dynamic. Focusing on the gospel, we hear about the death of this man Lazarus. Jesus is confronted by his friends Martha and Mary that had he been there, their brother would still be alive. They are, understandably, struggling with the reality of the loss of a loved one so you can’t be too hard on them. The trouble is that, despite the fact that they should know him better than most people, they only seem to have faith in Jesus the healer. He needs them to have faith in himself as the resurrection. So, in order to show that he was the resurrection, he brought their brother back to life.
Part of the reason the church asks that we not scatter our ashes all over the place is to show respect for the body. Some people believe that, after death, we become pure spirit and live in heaven as such. But, each time that we gather together for church we profess in the Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. We aren’t just referring to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. We’re talking about the resurrection of our own bodies. We are given a body and a soul from God. Both are gifts given to us to be used with care and respect. As we prepare for the great victory over sin and death that is the cross, let us remember that we hope to raised body and soul in Spirit.