Can you crave a corpse?
My cravings, like those of most normal, healthy people, are rather more predictable: chips, chocolate, chicken wings, steak. They do not include corpses. I doubt if most people’s are any different.
And yet some of the most prominent saints in Christianity are said to have “craved” a corpse. At least, that is one common and acceptable translation for the Gospel story of Joseph of Arimathea and the myrrh-bearing women in Mark 15 and Matthew 27: After the death of Christ they went to Pilate and “craved” (some read “begged” or “asked for” or “petitioned”) the release of the Lord’s body from the cross that they might minister to it by lovingly anointing it and wrapping it in a burial shroud.
What might lead us to crave the custody of a dead body that we might bathe, anoint, and clothe the corpse of a loved one, or even a stranger? What led these women in the Gospel do such a thing?
The simple answer is that matter matters. Our material, embodied existence as humans is not just an inescapable inconvenience, but of profound significance. No matter how much we zoom around on the internet from our isolated homes where we neither touch nor are touched by one another, no matter how late and wearily we turn off our cameras after the last chat or meeting or class, our bodily existence—like that of children and seniors and pets who depend on us—still matters. And even when we come to the end of our earthly life, our material existence still matters, for ourselves and for others.
But can we say that the material life of others who die matters to us as well? Do we crave the care of corpses whom we never knew in life? Does the Christian command to love and care for the stranger apply even to their dead bodies?
Last year we saw, among other things, refrigerated trucks on the streets of cities like New York as morgues and mortuaries were massively overrun. And at American borders, bodies pile up in huge numbers, year in and year out, as thousands of migrants try to enter the United States from Latin America after frequently gruesome ordeals and travels. According to numerous reports, last year was the most deadly year, with more corpses appearing in the American Southwest than ever before; the Sonoran desert is especially deadly.
Recovering the Corpses of Strangers
What happens to those bodies, particularly the ones at the border? Websites have been set up to map the locations of these bodies, which are sometimes pored over and studied by scientists to discover what we can about these human beings. But there are many more bodies than can be studied. Sometimes they lie hidden and abandoned, forgotten by us but “known unto God” (to borrow Kipling’s phrase for the British tomb of the unknown soldier from the Great War).
Some are neither studied nor forgotten, but discovered and buried by volunteer organizations. Groups like the Aguilas del Desierto (Eagles of the Desert) spend their own hard-earned money and give up weekends to drive into deserted areas, wander around in the blazing heat, and recover bodies of people whom they have never met and will never know in this life.
Aguilas del Desierto cannot and will not abandon these bodies. When they come upon one, they seek to identify it if possible so as to let family know where feasible. They also say a prayer over the body, erect a quick hand-made cross (sometimes with the inscription No Olvidado, or “Not Forgotten”), and then let the US Border Patrol know of their findings.
Why would they do that? Who cares what happens to corpses, least of all those of strangers—or, worse, those we deride as both illegal and as “aliens”—in hot and deserted areas? Just leave them be as nature’s rubbish to be consumed by nature’s processes.
And yet these are not options available to Christians, including those involved with the Eagles of the Desert. Care for the dead, and loving, dignified regard for human bodies after death, has been a distinguishing hallmark of Christians from their earliest days in pagan Rome, as the eminent scholar Robert Louis Wilken reminded us nearly forty years ago in his book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. In a time when convenience and technology work hand in hand to reduce our various unpleasant burdens, care for the dead is one that Christians neither can nor should surrender to the cheapest, easiest route of disposal possible. It is something we should be practicing more frequently and more widely, and not just at the Mexican-American border but everywhere.
Caring for the Dead in a Ritually Squeamish Age
Why might we want to do that? The first and most important answer is that care for the dead is, quite simply, the right thing to do. It bears witness to our unalterable defence of the unbreakable dignity each and every human being has in both life and death.
The second answer is that Christian care for the dead is an evangelical possibility and imperative: it is demanded of us by the Gospel (as Joseph of Arimathea and the myrrh-bearing women showed), and its continued practice is a way of embodying the gospel and carrying it forward into deadly deserts and deserted cemeteries. Our society is more estranged than ever from funerals and rituals surrounding death. The continued Christian practice of both remains a pre-eminent place of proclamation of the one simple truth at the heart of Christianity: Christ is, in the words of the Byzantine paschal troparion, risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
We are witnessing today a profoundly troubling series of developments surrounding funerals and death rituals across our culture. Though it has been a commonplace since Ernest Becker’s 1973 book, The Denial of Death, to lament the hidden place of death in our culture, and it has been equally common, since the publication in 1963 of Jessica Mitford’s scathing polemic The American Way of Death, to lament our culture’s funerary and burial practices, neither work anticipated current developments in which death is increasingly not acknowledged in any public ritual way whatsoever. What we are seeing increasingly today is the recognition that any and all funerals are themselves in trouble, a rapidly vanishing species of ritual supplanted by quick cremations, “celebration of life” or memorial services (held, as often as not, in a pub, private home, or community hall rather than, say, a church), or, increasingly, nothing at all. Today it is not uncommon for the dead, including at least nominally Christian dead, to be bundled from nursing home or hospital to the earth or the oven without any kind of public ritual commemoration of their life or death. I can only regard these developments with deep regret because of lost evangelical opportunity and also lost psychological opportunities. Freud was right in his insight that not to deal with a trauma is most often to run the very real risk of prolonging it and rendering it susceptible of unhealthy and neurotic manifestations. We are living through a period that the Cambridge Anglican scholar Catherine Pickstock has correctly called “anti-ritual modernity.”
Many of us, being neither funeral directors nor clergy, can do nothing about the decline of funeral rituals—apart from insisting to our family members that, upon our death, we do indeed want a funeral. There is, however, one area where anybody, without any sort of professional qualification at all, can be much more involved: volunteering to set up and run Christian burial societies, not unlike the Eagles of the Desert.
Until recently in parts of the Christian world, it was common for bodies to be bathed and dressed, if not by families at home, then by other Christians in the community. The anthropologist Juliet du Boulay has documented such practices in her haunting and beautiful 2009 book, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. Among Greek villages, death was handled entirely by the family and community, without involving professional mortuaries. They undertook the bathing, clothing, laying out, and keeping vigil until the body was carried by yet more volunteers to the church, and thence to the graveyard. Villagers in the Greek islands maintained such practices in small, intimate, and rather isolated forms as late as the 1970s.
Burial societies once existed in other places outside Greece, including England. They still exist today in New York among Jews. One such society, Misaskim, is a comprehensive organization willing to “dispatch a team of volunteers—even via private jet—to any location in the United States on a moment’s notice.”
Funerary practices are rapidly changing, and there is greater and greater experimentation with “alternative” forms apart from the standard visitation at a funeral home with an embalmed corpse that is then buried in an expensive and superfluous coffin inside a concrete vault in a cemetery. Now would therefore seem to be an ideal time for Christians to begin to reclaim their responsibility for caring for the dead instead of leaving this up to “professionals,” no matter how competent and caring these figures may be. Such renewed practices would help offer not only a charitable service but also an evangelical witness.
In the large urban centres of North America especially, are such organized practices possible today? Is there a way of reviving or creating anew Christian burial societies? Could these be offered on a voluntary basis as a service or ministry of local Christian churches?
Perhaps before answering that, we might first inquire as to what such burial societies might involve. What follows has been gleaned from various sources, including especially Boulay’s book, mentioned earlier, as well as from a little book that has received almost no notice even though it has been in print for a full decade now: Mark and Elizabeth Barna’s practical manual A Christian Ending, which readers are very warmly encouraged to track down and read. It is the only such book I know of. Its practical insights are invaluable, helping readers think through the challenges of starting and running such societies.
To generalize from sometimes locally diverse practices, it seems that many burial societies would help where families could not do so or chose not to do so for various reasons. At the point of death, volunteers would be summoned to the home to prepare the body. This would include a simple washing with water or rose water, perhaps also in some places followed by anointing with olive oil, not unlike the practice the three myrrh-bearing women were about to undertake that first Easter morning. After this the body would be dressed in regular clothes, or sometimes in white garments reminiscent of baptismal garments. (In some traditions—the Byzantine for example—those Christians in clerical and monastic orders would be not washed but anointed with oil by other priests or monastics and then vested according to their rank.) As this is taking place it would be possible and appropriate for some to sing, or various musical renditions of the following liturgical texts, drawn from the rite of the “last kiss” in the Byzantine funeral tradition, to be played. I give just two excerpts here to capture the tension rightly maintained in this observance between real, raw grief and deep, abiding Christian hope in the consummation of all things:
Come, let us give the final kiss, brethren, to the dead, as we give thanks to God; because he/she has left his/her family and is hastening to the grave, he/she has no further care for things of no moment, affairs of the much-wearied flesh. Where now are his/her relatives and friends? Now as we are parted let us pray that the Lord will give him/her rest.
Come, let us fall down before Christ with tears.
For we all depart, we shall all die, monarchs and rulers, judges and potentates, rich and poor and every mortal being. For now those that were once in life have been cast into tombs. May the Lord give them rest we pray.
As these texts remind us, death is the great equalizer: all bodies will eventually be placed in their final resting place as past beauty and accomplishment also fade away.
And yet, even in death the human body has dignity and purpose. That is why we must insist on tending to corpses with love and care, respecting their undying and eternal dignity, for matter matters, in life as in death.
After preparation by volunteers, the body could then be placed in a coffin or other inexpensive (and preferably biodegradable!) container, though this is not required, and some are buried in a simple winding sheet or shroud as, of course, Christ himself was. After such preparation, the body could then be left at home for the vigil or taken to the church for a vigil during which various friends, family members, and parishioners visit and console one another while also taking turns to read the Psalter aloud.
Sometime within the next day or two the funeral liturgy itself would be held followed by burial. Traditionally in small villages this would have involved bearing the body by hand, and the grave likewise dug by hand in advance. Today vehicles and equipment might well accomplish both, though permit me to note how edifying, in a strangely unexpected way, it is to dig a grave for someone whom one loves: In August 2014 I buried a friend of mine who died too young of cancer, and six of us carried her from the church to the cemetery on the church grounds to a hand-dug grave where, after the prayers, all the men in the assembly silently took turns filling in the grave. This was hot, heavy, dirty work that was nonetheless deeply moving and consoling in ways I never expected, and have ever after looked back on with reverence and awe.
In light of the foregoing can we not imagine the creation of Christian burial societies for those families who cannot, for whatever reason, take care of the body from the time of death to the time of burial? Could we not have even one parish in a city designated as the one to call at the time of death to assemble their burial society to go and prepare the deceased? Ideally many parishes might have such volunteer societies, but if there were even one in a city, town, or region, this would be a start. These would be a great service in themselves, but also, as noted earlier, an evangelical opportunity of quiet outreach and service at the most acute and vulnerable moments when the gospel’s good news about the defeat of death’s power is needed more than ever. There is, finally, an additional merit to such societies operating: there is nothing preventing them from being richly ecumenical in the best ways, with Christians of all traditions working together in service of their fellow believers—and indeed of all people.