Death, Burial, and Augustine

Mankind has always treated the bodies of the dead with a certain degree of respect, as far more than a mere husk once inhabited by someone we know. There is a general feeling, throughout the world and throughout history, that the way we treat a body says a great deal about our attitude towards the deceased. In fact, scientists consider the first burials to be a sign of anatomically modern humans becoming behaviorally modern humans—it’s part of what separates man from the animals.

Of course, science has been wrong before, but even if a Biblical anthropology does mean rejecting some ancient, widespread transition from brute beast to what might be more properly called the image of God, we shouldn’t reject the notion out of hand. The fact remains that there is a wide gulf between how most living things treat their dead, and how mankind—and, perhaps, the highest animals—seek to honor their own.

This thought occurred to me this morning while I was reading Augustine’s City of God. It’s been required reading twice during my education, but the first time I only read selections, and the second was at a pace that barely counts as scanning, much less reading. I caught enough to know what I was missing, however, so I picked it up a few days ago and started working through it at a more leisurely pace.

City of God was written in the wake of the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in 410 AD. For the past several decades, or even generations, a significant chunk of Western Christendom has been convinced that our faith’s hold on our civilization is weakening, that we are experiencing some sort of transition into a post-Christian West. Apologetics and evangelistic materials have been written with the assumption that Christianity is on the decline and the average person needs to be both taught about it and convinced that it is true. The occasional debate between staunch Christian and unyielding atheist sells books and DVDs, or at least admission to an auditorium.

Augustine’s era was much like our own, only in reverse. It was not Christianity, but paganism that had lost its hold on civilization. But though Christianity was on the upswing, it was not yet the uncontested master of the Roman religious landscape. Then, as now, apologetical material and evangelistic tracts were written, and pagan and Christian intellectual squared off in public debates.

After Rome was sacked, the debate grew more intense, with an edge of doom tinging the back-and-forth of the interlocutors. The sack of Rome was something like 9/11, but on a far grander scale. Entire provinces were abandoned by the Roman military, and the entire western half of the empire would be in barbarian hands before the century was out. Pagans blamed this disaster, and the decline that followed it, on the neglect of their traditional gods. These Christians had abandoned the old gods, abandoned the ways of the ancestors, and taught others to do so. Now the gods were punishing them.

Early in the first book, Augustine addresses all the evil the citizens of Rome have endured, pagan and Christian alike. An outsider might say to the adherents of either faith, “Where is your god now? What can he do to save you?” In response, Augustine must, among other things, explain why God would let horrible things happen to his faithful. Among these evils is that many of the saints lay unburied, rotting beneath the sky.

Just as common as taking special care for the dead is the sense that something is profoundly wrong when care has not been taken. Ghost stories the world over tell of unquiet spirits seeking someone to find their corpse and honor it so that they can move on to the afterlife. Just as proper care for the body implies honor for the deceased, so neglect of the body implies great dishonor—they are a nobody, a nothing, a mere piece of trash to be discarded in the street, left to wind and weather and wild animals.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Augustine says, quoting Matthew. If there was something our enemies could do to our body, to our corpse, to hinder the resurrection, would it make sense for Christ to say this? Of course not. The God who made heaven and earth, who kindled the stars, lit the sun like a lamp, and hung the moon in place will not be hindered in resurrecting the faithful simply because their bodies have been mistreated.

Augustine goes on to say that funerals are meant more for the living than the dead. The godless dead will find to profit by them, and the godly dead already have their reward. It is we who remain who need consolation.

But Augustine will not leave it there. If funeral rites and proper treatment of the body do not matter to the dead, then why pay attention to them at all? For some, that question sounds like nonsense. The answer seems obvious. But Augustine is right to address it, because there are many who truly fail to see the importance of such things. This is particularly common among Christians whose emphasis is on their heavenly home rather than earthly concerns. For such, this world can seem like an insignificant and painful stop on the way to a better place.

Augustine surely understands this perspective, but ultimately rejects it. If we love things that remind us of our loved ones—our father’s ring, the quilt our grandmother knitted, pictures of long lost relatives—how much more should we honor that which was so much more intimately a part of them? The body is not a suit to be put on and taken off at one’s convenience, but our constant companion throughout life, the very medium through which we interact with the world. Indeed, Augustine says it is part of our very nature as mankind. Reading the first chapters of Genesis, I would have to agree.

Human nature teaches us to regard contempt for the bodies of loved ones with horror, but Augustine does not stop there. He appeals first to the apocryphal book of Tobit, in which the title character is commended for going out to bury the bodies of slain Jews, and honoring them with the proper funeral rites. He then points to the woman who anoints Christ’s feet with perfume. Christ praises her, saying that she does this for his burial. Then we are told how, in the Gospel of John, Christ’s body is removed from the cross and clothed and buried with all honor.

These stories, and additional incidents from the latter part of Genesis, do not teach us that our salvation or the general welfare of our soul is dependent upon the proper disposal of our bodies. They do teach us that treating bodies with respect is dutiful and pious. But Augustine points to yet another thing these passages teach us—hope in the resurrection.

In taking care for the bodies of the dead, we affirm that neither we nor God have lost sight of the dead. One day they will rise again, clothed once more with flesh and blood, neither abandoned nor annihilated. God is concerned with our bodies, because they are a reminder of a promise.

In considering this, I am reminded of a change in funeral practices I have seen over my lifetime. Cremation has become far more common in this country than it once was, even among Christians. I find the thought unsettling, and my reasons are similar to Augustine’s.

A body that goes into the ground is a seed planted. It is a promise of new growth at some point in the future, and it leaves a reminder in the soil, in the green grass of some graveyard where future generations can go and think of both what was lost and what will come again. We are creatures of mud, with God’s breath breathed into our lungs. When that breath leaves, we return to the mud until he sees fit to give it back.

Cremation says something very different. The body is destroyed, totally annihilated. Whatever ash remains does not resemble the deceased in any way, and is often scattered in the wind. I can understand why someone might do this who believes the dead are truly gone, who thinks we are momentary phenomena rising from nature for a brief time, only to return to it when our life is over. I can understand doing this, if the human image was always illusion, always something to be destroyed and scattered with the play is over. But that is not what the Gospel teaches.

I will not say that cremation is a sin. There are many reasons to do some things, and in this case some of them may be commendable. But the tone of the whole ritual seems wrong to me, an act of despair. With Augustine, I believe the things we do with our dead, though not of great importance to them, are great importance to us. With Augustine, I believe the way we treat our dead should point to the final resurrection.

Mourning is fitting for human nature, but we should mourn like those who have hope.

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A Man Stopped Being Dead

This morning, people across the country will gather with their families for a quiet spring dinner, send the kids out into the yard to gather pastel-colored eggs, and perhaps exchange gifts. Some people may go to church who would not ordinarily go. But overall, it will be quiet.

Easter is not a holiday like Christmas. Whatever it means inside the church, it means far less to those outside. The fierce, merry joy of Santa Claus may capture some of the joy, the wonder, the sense of a gift received and something magical breaking into the ordinary that rightly belongs to a holiday intended to celebrate Christ’s birth. The Easter Bunny, on the other hand, is vague and meaningless, an uncertain step up from the Tooth Fairy. And as confused as we are by the presence of this anthropomorphic bunny with his basket of abnormal, painted eggs, that confusion seems to carry over to the holiday itself.

I often wonder what non-Christians see when they look at what in some churches appears to be a laid-back celebration of spring, a celebration of some vague hope about a teacher who seems to come back from the dead, float around for a while, then disappear Jedi-style, becoming one with the Force. Is it symbolic? Is the point that his teachings live on? Or that we all live on in the hearts of our friends? Or that maybe, hopefully, we too can ascend into some unknown, but conscious existence in the clouds when we die?

No.

The point is, a man stopped being dead.

Scrap vague moralism, and think about that. Christians know what dead is. We know that biological processes stop for no man. We are all unraveling, our hearts will stop beating, our brains will stop functioning, and we will begin to rot. Decay is built into the order of the universe as we understand it. All things die, all things pass away, and all the might of every civilization, every attempt by king and conqueror to make themselves live on in story or song, in a building project, or some new polity, it all crumbles to dust, and is forgotten. The cracked and fallen statue of Ozymandias, like that of all kings and great men, lies half-buried in the sand. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Death wins. Everyone will die, and nothing we do can change that. There is no cure for death. The graveyards, the battlefields, the vast and roaring sea are full of evidence.

We believe that a man stopped being dead.

His heart did not stop beating for a minute, and then start back up. This was no resuscitation. He was whipped till the flesh came off his back, had large thorns shoved into his forehead, his hands and feet were nailed with spikes to a rough piece of wood, he was hung from that makeshift tree and mocked until he strangled. And then, to be sure, they put a spear to his side until blood and some inner fluid that looked like water poured out. Then they took him down, wrapped him in burial clothes, and left him in a tomb for the better part of three days. If he was not dead in every sense of the word, then no man is.

We believe that this man stopped being dead.

We are not naïve. The laws of nature do not permit death to reverse itself. Decay does not go backwards. Gashes do not heal on their own, after the heart has stopped beating. A corpse cannot replenish its own supply of blood. Once turned off, the brain begins to die almost instantly, and that damage is not lightly undone. Cells that burst throughout the body, muscles that come unknit, chemicals that only hold together under the right temperature, the right supply of oxygen, all these begin to fail. When you rot for three days in the grave, you do not come back. It cannot happen.

It happened.

We believed that a man stopped being dead.

The force that kills the poor and the rich, the force that humiliates the best of us, that weakens the strongest of us, death was beaten. Natural law, the world as we know it, was violated, reversed. The impossible happened, a miracle beyond miracles, nothing simply strange, but something supernatural—“above nature.” A dead un-rotted, a dead man un-bled, a dead man healed, and a dead man lived. He rose in his tomb and folded his burial clothes, walked outside passed armed guards who were preventing the theft of his body, and lingered in the area long enough to surprise his friends who had come to practice the local approximation of embalming.

A dead man stopped being dead.

And that’s not all.

That dead man claimed to be God. He claimed to know why everyone dies, why we’re trapped in this unraveling world. We sinned, he said. We rebelled against the God that created us. He gave every good thing imaginable, our very lives, and we slapped him in the face. Then for a thousand years, and a thousand years again, and on and on, through generation after generation, we set about killing each other, humiliating the weak, being cruel to man and beast and world at large. We deserve death, and death comes for us.

But God would not let the story stop there. The God who made us, and gave us every good gift, the God we hate, whose creation we seek to destroy, whose image-bearing people we constantly dehumanize, that God still loves us. He came to earth in the person of his son, walked the rough and thorny ground that we walk, faced every temptation and trial we ever faced, and at the end of the day, the people he came to save seized him, spit on him, beat him, and crucified him.

That was the punishment we deserved.

He went to the cross willingly. He took on our sins, our evil, the shame of every hateful thing we’ve ever done, the guilt of every crime, the penalty for every line we crossed, he took it on himself, and died. But as he died, he experienced the true thing that makes death hard for us, the thing that makes living this world unbearable. “My God, my God,” he said, “Why have you forsaken me?” For a moment, it seemed he was cut off from his Creator, from his purpose and meaning, from the source of all life and happiness, from the source of any hope in the future.

But he stayed on the cross. He died. He took on our penalty, our humiliation, he said, “It is finished,” and he died.

And it was finished.

Everything we had ever done wrong, everything that separated us from our Creator, from a life worth living, from hope in the future, everything that ever meant we had to die—it was finished. Over. Done with.

And they placed him in the grace.

He was dead.

And then, he stopped being dead.

The story did not end with the penalty paid, with a final humiliation. No, he came back, alive, whole healthy. Death itself reversed, the impossible happened, he rose from the grave, and he lived.

Think about that. Our sins are done with, over, finished. And so is death. If we died in him, if our penalty was paid in him, then we rise with him. We, too, receive the promise, we, too, receive the hope. If sin could not hold us, then death cannot hold us.

All of creation, all the slow decay, the dark unraveling, the doom of man and beast and every green thing, all death, is coming undone.

Christ the Lord is risen today.

We, too, shall rise.

Death—humiliated—Death, too, shall die.

That is what Easter means. Not a warm feeling in our hearts, not the survival of the teachings of a kind, young teacher, and not merely the hope of a vague, bright consciousness beyond the grave. No, the reign of death is ending. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, rose to heaven—not the cloud-filled afterlife, but the throne-room of God—and sits at the right hand of the one who rules the universe. All things that look bleak and hopeless, all evil in the world all death, their time on earth is limited. The one who runs the show is guiding things to better a place, a grand finale, a great and hopeful conclusion. Death is dead. The way of the universe is changing.

In Christ, all died.

In Christ, all shall rise.

And that is what Easter means.

The Crafty Whites of West Virginia

I recently watched a documentary titled “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” The family in question, descendants of the Appalachian entertainer D. Ray White, are all notorious criminals. The camera follows them for several months, recording outrageous interviews and wild parties, births and deaths, prison visits and one sad farewell at the entrance to a rehab center. We meet murderers, thieves, and plenty of drug traffickers and addicts. When all was said and done, however, it was not the horrid lifestyle or its grim consequences that held my attention. What that left me thinking were the insights these white trash criminals had into human nature and the way the world works.

Towards the beginning and end of the documentary, there are several interviews with local lawyers and justices of the peace. One of these men was very insistent that while the Whites were not educated, they were far from stupid. Every one of them, drug addled as they were, was intelligent. And despite this native intelligence, they were all trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and violence.

Behind this lifestyle is a belief that the world is inherently a hard place. We have no control over the course of our lives, because those around us with more wealth and power are determined to use us for their own ends. And if we are not stabbed in the back by someone in authority, or struck down by some crippling accident, in the end death will come for us all. Life here is nasty, brutish, and short. All we have is our family, our wits, and a brief opportunity to work the system and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

It is not as if they are unaware that the fast and loose lives they live have consequences. Throughout, the Whites are quick to admit what they did to get themselves into any given mess. They do not even necessarily think those consequences are undeserved. This is simply how life is–you try to get away with as much as you can, and if you are caught, tough luck.

More striking is the fact that this family is quite firmly grounded in a Biblical view of the world. They are aware of heaven and hell, aware of Christ’s free offer of salvation. There is also no mistaking the fact that they are hell-bound, and know it. That is simply where they stand.

I find it funny that Christians will sometimes compare outlaws like these to more reserved upper-middle class pagans, and come out on the side of the more respectable sinners. The Whites have a real insight here. If life is hard and the world ahead is hell or annihilation, then living a quiet life is ridiculous. Eat, drink, and be merry. Get high on whatever you can find, get money however you can, fight whenever you feel like it, and sleep with whoever you can get. Tomorrow we may be dead, so live now. When Mamie White was asked what she wanted people to do at her funeral, she said, “Party their balls off. Blow pot in my face and snort pills on my head, and…f***in’ rock and roll, baby!” Death comes to us all, so live like you’re dying.

There is no doubt that the Whites pay for their wild ways in the here and now. Hangovers, heartbreaks, addiction, jail time, and lost family members haunt every one until they meet an early death. They may die thinking the party was worth the price, but that is hardly a world worth living in. I do not want to settle for that world, and I do not believe we have to.

As Mamie White and Jesco affirm, there is a God in heaven. He offers us salvation freely. And here is the thing: death–which haunts our heels every day we live–death claimed the very Son of God. But Jesus came back from the grave. He came back whole and healed, and he will never die again. The world was given into his hands, and nothing can any longer stand in his way. The Bible says that if we believe this, and if we confess that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved. Death no longer has any claim over us. Any suffering in this life is only temporary. There will come a time, at the end of all things, when those who follow Christ will be raised from the dead and given an eternal reward. That is a hope worth living for.

But someone who lives like the Whites, if they fall on their knees and repent and follow Christ, is still left with addiction and bad habits and a world of consequences. Because they are now the temple of God, they cannot keep living as they once did, and that is a big change to make. But Paul assures us in Romans that if we will to do what is right, it is no longer we who sin, but the sin that dwells in us. And we have been freed from that law of sin and death, so it can be conquered. Furthermore, Christ has promised to help us walk in righteousness if we simply ask him.

The Whites of West Virginia have a far greater insight into the human condition than many who live cleaner lives. But the consequences of that clear vision is a life that matches the despair they see. But the Gospel is an answer to that despair, a way out of Boone County and the world of drugs and violence they have created. Their lives pose a great question for all of us, and Christ is the answer. I pray that the Whites, and people like them, would come to see it.

God bless.

Draft One.

Today I sat down in the school library, read a book for theology, took an online test, and shifted my backpack over to a desk near an outlet. There I pulled out my laptop and started to work. Within in five minutes, I realized something. I was done. That was it.

For fifteen minutes I spliced each of the separate chapter files together into draft file. 41,427 words, 99 pages of 11-point Calibri. One complete draft.

Now, I’ve got months to go in terms of editing, and sending it to buddies to edit, and re-editing before I try to get this puppy published. But I’ve got a draft to work with. A glorious draft of lost children in another world putting a king back on his throne. A glorious draft that I am looking forward to cutting, amending, adding onto, tweaking, and tinkering with. In short, complete butchery. Death before resurrection. Good Friday before Easter.

But right now, I’m all Christmas.

The Son Rises

I have a confession to make. I did not get up to go sing at the graveyard at sunrise, like I intended. There was a group of friends who did, and judging by Facebook, it was glorious. But I did not. Fortunately, this provides and apt metaphor and appeals to an overused pun.

Without doubt, the Resurrection was the most glorious, triumphant, unexpected victory in all of our history. It was the crowning moment of our Lord, when he rose from death, having defeated it. If this story were written by Tolkien or Robert Jordan, and probably if it were written by you or me, it would feature some sort of loud acclamation, armies cheering, flowers being thrown, and  a large feast being planned. Also, probably a wedding, if the story is any good. Keep that in mind. We’ll come back to it.

But that is exactly what did not happen. The Bible actually doesn’t tell us when Christ rose from the dead. We are told that it happened, we are given a few details, but no one was there to see it. In fact, the stone had been rolled away and the guards snoozing for some time before the ladies who were blessed to be the first witnesses came along and started witnessing.

The most important event in the world, without which our faith is empty, happened quietly, off-screen. We only noticed afterwards. It was, and here comes the overused pun, a dawning. The Son rose, and gradually people began to notice. First the Mary’s, then a few of the Apostles, and so on until the light of this Gospel began to spread throughout the earth.

When we today get up for sunrise services, we are indulging in an opportunity the original witnesses of the resurrection did not have. We are, symbolically, celebrating the defeat of death as it happened. It is a glorious symbol, and brings the victory home.

But neither for the world, nor for most people, was that event so strong and sudden. In a moment, there was a shift from death to life, but that beginning was hidden away in a tomb. We are not at once sanctified and sinless. No, by virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, the Lord counts us so, but we must grow into that counting. The light of the Gospel changes everything, but it takes time for its full effect to work its way out. The Son has risen, but the day has only just begun. Rejoice, for there will not be another night.