“Loving Our Deceased Well”
Blyth Union Cemetery Decoration Service
June 10, 2018 1Thess.4:13-18 (Lk.23:50-56; 24:5-9)
“We will remember them” – so goes the Legion mantra when it comes to honouring the memory of fallen comrades. So we gather for this annual decoration service to remember them AND other family members and loved ones who have passed on before us. For me, it’s a little different this year – although my mother’s been gone for several years, this is the first year my father lies in a cemetery (he, a WWII veteran who fought up through Sicily and Italy along with other “D-Day Dodgers” 11 months before the Normandy invasion, died November 6 at the age of 97). The older we get, and the more loved ones we have buried, the more relevant and poignant cemeteries become.
So, how can we remember our comrades and loved ones well after they’ve died? In Scripture we find pointers to at least three ways – loving them well means –
- burying them with dignity and respect
- recalling what they taught us, and
- living differently towards others as a result.
1) ...MEANS BURYING THEM WITH DIGNITY AND RESPECT
(repeat) That’s what we come to cemeteries FOR, and why we try to keep them presentable after the fact, to honour our deceased loved ones, confer on them a certain dignity for the way they lived and impacted our lives. What’s the purpose of a cemetery “decoration service”? Presumably at least partly to honour the memory of our loved ones by keeping up their plot and markers.
Luke the gospel-writer tells us in chapter 23:50-52, “Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.” What would have happened if Joseph hadn’t stepped up? Would Jesus’ body have been dumped unceremoniously in an unmarked common mass grave reserved for criminals and the poverty-stricken? What impact might that have had on the Easter story? It was critical for the Good News that a definite place be specified from which it would be evident the body was missing.
Luke adds v53, “Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.” This involved a lot of work, effort, cost, and organization. John the gospel-writer notes that another nobleman, Nicodemus, helped Joseph of Arimathea, even contributing 75 pounds of spices for the burial procedure. Not cheap!
Luke records others involved with Jesus’ interment in vv55f: “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes.” More effort invested in the process. (Although in this case, it proved rather pointless, because the body ended up mysteriously disappearing!)
So, honouring our deceased requires some effort, some output, be it making funeral arrangements or keeping a plot leveled up or bringing some flowers to adorn a monument. Just because a person’s spirit no longer animates their body doesn’t render their physical remains valueless – that’s all we have left physically for a focus of our grief and mourning. In the Old Testament, it’s recorded how both King Saul and his son Jonathan died in battle with the Philistines. Their victors fastened their bodies to a wall at one of their towns. But we read in 1Samuel 31:11ff, “When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard of what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their valiant men journeyed through the night to Beth Shan.They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them.Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.” These men with a sense of decency traveled all night on a risky expedition and stole their enemies’ trophies out from under their noses – just to make sure their deceased leaders received a decent burial. So, loving our deceased well – means burying them with dignity and respect.
2) ...MEANS RECALLING WHAT THEY TAUGHT US
But there’s much more to commemorating a person’s life than looking after their burial spot. These loved ones and friends of ours impacted our lives by their interaction with us, what they said, how they behaved. They leave a verbal legacy, things they said, what we used to talk about.
When I was a young boy growing up, we used to hear Dad telling stories about when he fought in the war. I think it was likely part of his therapy fending off Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thankfully he filtered them pretty well for the audience and spared us the more gory ones! He also would tell us occasionally about his working in the bush as a teen doing a man’s job, or escapades with other youth. These stories help shape a child’s view of the world and how to act in it.
On that first Easter morning, when the women arrived at the tomb, they didn’t find the body of Jesus – but they did find two persons in shining clothes who said, according to Luke 24:6ff - “He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ’The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’" Then they remembered his words.”
So, recalling what our deceased loved ones taught us, remembering their words, is another way we show love and honour for them. How many of us go to do some simple task in the kitchen or dining room and find our mother’s voice ringing in our ears with guidance on how to do something?
Psalm 78(4-7) says, “We will not hide [what our fathers have told us] from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done.He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.” Helping the next generation learn to distinguish right from wrong is a vital task for those who are aging. As people of faith share their stories, how God came through for them and showed His mercy and power in their lives, we find faith rising in us because of their experience, things that really happened which they have told us about.
So, loving our deceased well means burying them with dignity and respect; recalling what they taught us; and, third,
3) ...MEANS LIVING DIFFERENTLY TOWARD OTHERS AS A RESULT
The lives of those who’ve gone on before us impacted us, they’ve left their mark upon us, and ought to influence how we live in relationship ever after. We ought to be wiser and better for their having given themselves to us in various ways. “Iron sharpens iron,” the Bible says (Prov 27:17), so we are sharpened by the way others have rubbed off on us.
In Luke 24, the women came back from the tomb, but they didn’t sit cowering in fear at home twiddling their thumbs. Lk 24:9 “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.” They shared this shocking and incredibly hopeful news with their circles.
Not long after, two disciples were walking on the road to Emmaus when a stranger came up alongside them – Jesus in disguise. He gave a short history of the Bible showing how the Messiah had to suffer before entering His glory. When they came to their destination, the stranger was going to continue on without them, but instead Luke 24:28f says – “As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them.” Then while they were having supper, Jesus revealed Himself to them, and promptly vanished. But what would have happened if they had just let Him continue on His way on the road? They might have missed out on an amazing experience. Instead, they URGED HIM STRONGLY to stay with them – that’s just like what Jesus taught, loving one another, sharing a cup of cold water. Because they did as He had taught them, and lived differently, they were rewarded with one of the earliest experiences of the Risen Christ.
Those who have received Jesus as Lord can live differently toward others as a result. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1Thessalonians 4:13f - “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”
Even a cemetery is not “the end of the line” for those trusting God: believing in Jesus’ resurrection, we can have hope, believing our deceased loved ones who also knew the Lord will be raised to a better, eternal life. We live differently as a result, with hope, not despair. And our lives can subsequently bring hope to others.
One of Dad’s favourite games he used to play with us his 3 sons was cribbage, something I understand he played a lot of in the war. Recently I had taught another young person how to play it, and just last week they reported to me they had bought their own game of cribbage and were going to teach it to one of their friends. Now, cribbage itself is not going to save the world! But you see my analogy – we can pass along good things to others and see the ripples broaden as we keep impacting lives positively with God’s love, mercy, and kindness.
Leaving the cemetery today, we can be prompted to live differently: meditating on the inevitability of death punctures our pride and self-preoccupation. It reminds us that death is a great leveler – and challenges our tendency to boost ourselves at the expense of others.
When John D Rockefeller died, one man was particularly curious about how much wealth he’d left behind. Determined to find out, this man set up an appointment with one of Rockefeller’s highest aides and asked, “How much did Rockefeller leave behind?” The aide answered, “All of it.”
Once a famous philosopher named Diogenes was looking intently at a large collection of human bones piled one on top of another. Alexander the Great was standing nearby and became curious about what Diogenes was doing. When the world-conqueror asked the old man, the reply was, “I am searching for the bones of your father, but I cannot seem to distinguish them from those of the slaves.”
Alexander got the point: all are equal in death.
May the Lord help us go forth in hope because of the Risen Christ, but also enriched and changed by the lives of our loved ones and so many other deceased whose words and example have so much from which we can learn. Let’s pray.