Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself. (The Book of Common Prayer)
Yesterday, I found myself once again at Forest Lawn, with the privilege of conducting a memorial service on behalf of one of the families from our church. I did not personally know the woman whose memory was being honored, but got some sense of her through the wonderful stories family members told. She was a woman of sharp wit, and the feistiness to have the kind of adventures late in life that I wouldn’t dare now. It was good to hear the laughter reverberating through the chapel as she lay in repose up front. Somewhere, I thought to myself, she might be getting a good laugh out of it herself.
When the chapel service ended, the assembly drove in slow procession behind the hearse to the gravesite. One of the blessings of living in Southern California is that you can have a outdoor service in late November and enjoy perfect weather. It was that kind of day. I recited the 23rd Psalm and spoke again of the hope of resurrection. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer, sang Amazing Grace, and waited for the actual interment.
“Interment.” An odd word, borrowed from the French: en-terre-ment, to put something into the ground. It’s the part of a memorial service that refuses to be over-spiritualized. A box is sealed and lowered by pulleys and cables into a hole in the earth, an almost rude reminder that life–and death–are inescapably physical. These bodies of ours are like complex machines that eventually wear out and break down. There’s only so much fixing you can do, only so many parts that can be replaced.
But maybe it’s the kind of reminder we need, to prod us to remember that our hope is for a physical resurrection to an incorruptible body:
Listen, I’m telling you a secret: All of us won’t die, but we will all be changed—in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will be changed. It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die. (1 Cor 15:51-53, CEB)
That hope is central to our identity as Christians: so much so that Paul insists that if the resurrection is not true, “then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (1 Cor 15:19, CEB).
Revelation 21:4 points us forward to a day in which God will dry every tear and utterly banish death itself, along with all mourning, crying, and pain. More prosaically, I take it for granted that this also means no more eyeglasses or hearing aids; no more wheelchairs or medications or feeding tubes.
No more graves.
Now that’s a hope worth living for, the only one that truly takes the sting out of death.