Title: The life of the dead
Date: June 27, 2010
Texts: Gen 49:29-50:24, Heb 11:32-12:1, Lk 23:50-24:3
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
I think there’s a new theme developing in my sermons over the past year or so. I really think the gospel is about our whole bodies. The good news is about our material lives, our flesh and blood, about what we do with our lives. Our spirituality is material, bodily—it has to do with the way we assemble our bodies together for worship, how we serve in our neighborhoods with our hands, how we eat together and fellowship, how we care for one another. The church is a community of people who let Jesus become flesh in our lives.
So, what does this liveliness, this physicalness, of the gospel mean for our bodies when they die? What does it mean for our bodies to be gospel, to be transformed into God’s presence for each other, and then for these bodies to die? Now, I’m not wondering about eternal salvation or heaven or anything like that.
Today I’m more interested in how we think about the dead, about dead bodies that populate the earth beneath our feet. And, if we think a little further about the dead, it’s not just that they stay under our feet, in the ground—but they also continue to live with us and in us. The essayist and poet, Walt Whitman, memorably described the ongoing life of the dead as “leaves of grass.” “O grass,” he writes. “What is grass?”—“it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” “O grass of graves” (see Lewis Hyde, The Gift, p. 232f). Grass: the uncut hair of graves.
Whitman is making an obvious, though maybe uncomfortable, observation about bodies and decomposition and the growth of vegetable life. The bodies of the dead come back to live with us through the earth. We can’t control the ongoing life of the dead—they sneak into us, without so much as a whisper. The beauty around us is “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” as Whitman put it.
But this is more than a point about biology, about decomposition and new life. Our homes, our work, our language, the concepts with which we think, the building blocks of thought and reason, and even our faith, our religion—all of this comes from the dead. We are living out the labor and dreams of the dead, those who have gone before us. In a profound sense, our lives are the leaves of grass sprouting up from the graves.
Our passage from Hebrews 11 is a meditation on the life of the dead as they continue to live with us. Hebrews wants to make sure that we keep the dead alive in our memories, in our lives. “Some suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword… the world was not worthy of them” (Heb 11:36-37). The world was not worthy of them, but the question is: Are we worthy of them? Do we continue to live out their lives? Are we healthy leaves from their graves?
“Therefore,” the author goes on, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1). The life of the dead enable our own. They make space for us to run with freedom, and with perseverance.
We need the dead, but the dead also need us. That’s what so interesting to me about this passage from Hebrews. This is from verse 39: “Yet all of these…did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:39). They would not, apart from us, be made perfect. I don’t know if the word “perfect” is the best translation of the Greek word there. The root of the word, in Greek, is telos—and it means something like “to bring to an end, to complete, to finish.” Basically, the point is that the dead have not been brought to an end. They continue on. Their lives have not been completed. They are not finished. The dead have been waiting for us, that we may complete each other, that we may finish the work together.
The way the dead continue to live through us is central to the way Jacob must be buried in Canaan, the future home of his people—this is the passage we read from Genesis 49 and 50.
What’s important about the story is that Jacob has to be buried in the land of Canaan, the future land of his people. His body must rest in the place where his descendants will live.
I thought a lot about graves on my recent trip to Boonsboro, Maryland, where I spent a week with the Mennonite church there—Mt. Zion Mennonite Church. Mennonites settled in the area in the mid-1700s. And they have been burying their dead in a cemetery that runs alongside the church. It’s a beautiful cemetery, with a section of old graves with headstones so old that you can’t read them anymore. The rain has cut jagged edges into the stone.
But I think something happens to a people who get together near the graves of those who have gone before them. For one thing, cemeteries help us remember our frailty: that we too will soon die. In a culture that is afraid of growing old and dying, gravestones keep us honest—they help us live without delusions. But graves do more than keep us humble. They also remind us of the people who came before us, who carved out a place in the world for us to live on and thrive and help bring to completion their dreams and the work they started. In a very real sense, Mt. Zion Mennonite is planted in the cemetery; the church is a leaf of grass growing from those graves. They can’t help but be grateful to the dead.
At this point all sorts of things come to mind and I don’t know how to play them all out for us. I thought I could simply mention a couple things for us to think about together.
The early Christians had an interesting relationship with the dead. They would have church services around the graves of people from their community. Everyone would go out to the graves and celebrate communion together, and even offer the dead bread and wine. Let me read a passage from an ancient Christian text, the Didascalia, which was most likely written in the 3rd century. It records some of the earliest descriptions of the church’s worship practices. Here’s the passage:
according to the power of the Holy Spirit, come together even in the cemeteries, and read the holy Scriptures, and without demur perform your ministry and your supplication to God; and offer an acceptable Eucharist, the likeness of the royal body of Christ, both in your congregations and in your cemeteries and on the departures of them that sleep—pure bread that is made with fire and sanctified with invocations—and without doubting pray and offer for/to them that are fallen asleep. (Didascalia Apostolorum, ch. 26, vi 22).
Here we find Christians holding worship services and having meals in graveyards and, in some sense, eating and drinking with the dead. There was a real sense that communion was eating at the table of Jesus Christ, whose resurrection broke through the boundary between the living and the dead, which meant that the dead were not fully dead, but lived on mysteriously through Jesus Christ, and could eat and drink at the same table. There were compartments in the graves where the worshipers placed bread and poured wine for the dead to eat and drink. The worshipers also invited the poor who lived in or near the cemeteries to eat and drink with them.
If you think this is a bit weird, you should take some comfort in knowing that other Christians during those early years thought it was weird, too—Augustine of Hippo led the way against this practice. He thought it was a better idea to give all the food and drink to the poor. As he put it, the Eucharist was for the living, not the dead. I leave it up to you to think it’s a good idea to agree with Augustine.
Okay, here’s the second thing that comes to mind about the life of the dead. Anthropologists have made some interesting observations about the Paleolithic humans from the early part of the Stone Age. Apparently that’s the era when houses emerge. That’s when the nomadic humans start building houses, permanent structures. But they built these houses not for themselves, but instead to house the bodies of the dead. They remained nomads, wandering across the earth looking for food. But they built semi-permanent houses for the dead, and returned to those houses to honor the dead. Soon, the nomads actually ceased to wander and added on to those houses rooms that served as their homes. So, basically, houses were for the dead, but the living soon moved in with the dead. And the first cities were basically cemeteries that living people decided to move into. As Lewis Mumford writes in his classic study called The City in History, “the city of the dead antedates the city of the living… [it’s] the forerunner…of every city of the living” (p. 7).
I think the people who came before us had ways of living with the dead that we no longer practice, and I’m not sure what that means for us. What does it mean that we do not acknowledge the ways that the dead in some sense continue to live among us?
For Hebrews, living with the dead enables our way of faithfulness. “We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” therefore “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Somehow, acknowledging the dead who surround us, enables us to run the race with perseverance.