Often in the hours that precede a slow, lingering death, I, their pastor, hear someone say, “That [meaning the body] is not him. He is not here anymore.” The awful scene of bodily failure is divorced from the person who inhabits those arms and legs and face.
There is, at every deathbed scene, a climactic moment when finally death arrives. Breathing stops, the machines are, yes, unplugged, and grief arrives in the heart. This moment may seem like the final act in mortality’s drama. Yet, in a real sense for Christians, death does not “end” with death. That is where it begins. Christian death, death modeled after Christ, may begin when the body dies but has its ending at the tomb, in the dirt.
That is why, as a pastor, I like the committal service. More than funerals, more than eulogies or sermons or prayers, it anchors a truly Christian view of physical death.
A True Glimpse
The disciplines, rules, and prayers associated with the committal of Christian bodies to the ground confess what the Church teaches about the death of the baptized. Where it is still practiced and has not been twisted by the indulgent egotism that has destroyed much funeral making, there one may truly glimpse the meaning of Christian death.
With the reading of Psalms, with shouts of victory, the congregation moves to a hole in the dirt, a casket poised to disappear. All the attention at this point is directed to the dead body. The focus of the rite is not to point to a vague, continuing spiritual existence or to imagine where our loved one “really” is right now. The point is to consider the remains, the resting place of God-made bones and skin and hair.
We commend the body to rest, hoping in the return of Jesus Christ and the final vindication of God’s creation, now ruined. Here is the antidote to talk of IVs and respirators and morphine. Here the body is buried in the ground like Jesus. Dust to dust.
Here we cast all our hope on the God who creates out of nothing, who created bodies from the same dirt that now receives them. Here the final likeness to Jesus that we know in this life is reached: buried in our baptism, buried in our death, just like Him.
The Real Triumph
Here finally is the real triumph over death, not through chemotherapy or catheters but faith. I lead the people in saying “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” even as that body, completely lifeless and void, is swallowed by the earth. Swallowed, consumed, digested even, but not defeated. For, as the committal reminds us, God the Father made that body, God the Son redeemed that body with his blood, and the Holy Spirit made it his temple.
At a set point in the service, I signal the attendants to lower the body into the grave. Placing the body in the ground is not the final sadness but the last defiance. We go to the graveyard believing that on that great Easter to come it will be as St. Matthew says, that the tombs will break open and the bodies of the saints will rise to life.