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I have noticed recently that there are fewer funerals. By funerals I mean services following death that include the body of the deceased. We now have “celebrations of life” and “memorial services” after the body is privately disposed of. Perhaps the purpose of this change is turning away from the seemingly morbid fixation on a dead body toward celebrating the life of the person who has died. It all seems very healthy and positive. After all, the body is just a shell, like the chrysalis of a butterfly, now releasing the immortal soul to its eternal destiny. The body is merely a throw-away byproduct of a person’s true life.
The problem is that this is not Christianity but a pagan belief in the immortality of the soul. In contrast, Christianity seems almost embarrassingly materialistic. Its most ancient creeds proclaim the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.
The poet W. H. Auden once quipped, “I wouldn’t be caught dead without a body.” That’s a very Christian statement. Our salvation is not about some ethereal heaven or disembodied existence. It is about a new heaven and a new earth, with resurrected material bodies.
We aren’t fully human without a body. We are made, by our Creator, as material, bodily creatures, and our redemption must therefore include our bodies. This was revealed in the resurrection of our Lord, who rose not as a disembodied spirit, but as a wounded, walking, talking, eating and drinking human being. Certainly his resurrected body was extraordinary in that he could move through locked doors and appear out of nowhere. It had seemingly overcome the limitations of time and space. But it was a material, physical body nevertheless.
That’s one reason why it’s a good and Christian thing to honor the body of the deceased person by having the body present at the funeral service, and to accompany the body to its final resting place on earth, even if that be a cremation.
I recently officiated at a funeral for a 103-year-old mother and grandmother whose body lay before the mourners in a casket. At the very beginning of the service I said, “We are gathered here to praise God, to witness to our faith, and to give thanks for the life of our mother and grandmother. We gather to mark her departing from this world to be at home with the Lord. We also gather in the presence of her body, which gave us birth, fed us, embraced us, and touched the lives of so many with love and healing. So we honor her by accompanying her body to its final resting place on this earth, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
Then a white pall—a cloth covering—was placed over the casket. (It’s telling that we tend to use the term pall negatively—“his demeanor cast a pall over the gathering.” To cast a pall, in Christian terms, really means to clothe with the glory and honor of Christ.)
As the pall was placed, I said: “The apostle writes: ‘For all who have been baptized into Christ have clothed ourselves with Christ.’ In her baptism, [name] put on Christ, and in the day of Christ’s coming she shall be clothed with Christ’s glory.” What a wonderful declaration of the gospel in physical form!
To honor the body is to honor the God who created us as material beings. It is to point to the central place the material creation has in the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. And finally, it is to remind us all that our hope is in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”