And Tobit Wept

Khalil Abdur-Rashid, a spokesperson for the Islamic Association of Collin County

Khalil Abdur-Rashid, a spokesperson for the Islamic Association of Collin County

From Rod Dreher comes this story of citizens in Farmersville, Texas telling Muslims they don’t want them burying their dead there:

The Islamic Association of Collin County purchased 34 acres to develop a cemetery in the sleepy burg of Farmersville because the closest Muslim burial ground is rapidly running out of space.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area already has three Muslim cemeteries, all developed and run for years without incident.

Residents in this town of 3,400 about 45 miles northeast of Dallas packed a community meeting on Tuesday night arranged by Farmersville city officials, who tried to convince locals there was nothing to fear and the planned religious burial ground will meet state standards.

Many were doubtful.

Resident Barbara Ashcraft told the Dallas Morning News after the meeting: “People don’t trust Muslims. Their goal is to populate the United States and take it over.”

There were a few who spoke out in support, but the reactions were overwhelming negative, with others other saying:

“I don’t like your religion, and I don’t even classify it as a religion,” said one man who spoke at the meeting.

“And you’re not part of our community.” [There are 22,000 Muslims in the area]

Death and burial customs are one of my interests, and one of the works of mercy we’re called to do. Tobit was judged a righteous man for burying the dead at great risk to himself. Maybe these attitudes are what we get from Protestants removing books from the Bible: they lose a beautiful example of righteousness.

I wrote about this at length when some tyrants and bigots wanted to deny a burial to marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev:

Why does Tobit do it, particularly as such great risk to himself? He makes it quite clear: it’s a central act of charity. He does three things that are righteous: gives bread to the hungry, clothes the naked, buries the dead (Tobit 1:17).

Are any of these beginning to sound a bit familiar? Because you’ve been ordered to do them, too:

  • Feed the hungry.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Bury the dead.
  • Give drink to the thirsty.
  • Give sheltered to the homeless.
  • Visit the sick.
  • Ransom the captive.

You’ll note the name of these acts–corporal works of mercy–comes from the Latin root corpus, for body, the source of the English word corpse.

There’s nothing in there about “burying the nice folks.” The command to bury the unrighteous is partly a matter of preventing contamination of the land, but it’s also interpreted as something due to any human created in the image of God. (I’ve written a whole series on how bodies and burial were handled in ancient Israel: a major focus of my study during a semester on the OT. This entry in particular summarizes Jewish attitudes toward the dead from a Biblical perspective.)

Mortality entered the world through sin. The person who handled the dead was therefore in the realm of death and sin. That’s why the person handling a corpse is considered impure for a time, but is also considered righteous. They are cleaning up the mess made by the sin of man, and in a very real sense doing close battle with that sin. It takes courage. It takes faith.

Read the rest, and let’s not be like these people. Let’s try to be better Christians. Let’s be like Tobit.

In the Midst of Life, We Are In Death

Today is two years since my father died. This is what I wrote then, July 10th, 2013. 

After a long final illness, my father finally passed away early this morning at the age of 90. Although he lived well and died at home, it was an emotional and physical rollercoaster at the end, and I was left trying to figure out the point of it all. Does it mean something, or is it just the final, cruel grinding down of a human life to ash without any hope or purpose?

I think it was the nurses who finally gave me my answer: not by word, but by deed.

My father was a strong man with a body broken–repeatedly–in service to others. Seventy-six years (!) as a church usher, 25 years as a volunteer fireman, 4 years  in the 8th/9th Air Force and the Army of Occupation in the European theater, many more years serving at his  church’s soup kitchen, and a lifetime of backbreaking construction work (one of the most dangerous and least-respected professions) to support a family. He lost the two things that were his own private pleasures–bowling and golf–following a construction accident in which he saved the life of a falling man, only to have his shoulders destroyed, leaving him in pain for the last 20+ years of his life.

His hands were rough and his fingers pointed in different directions from being crushed or broken so many times. He survived countless accidents, illnesses, and surgeries. When he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm at age 87, doctors discovered that his heart was so strong they recommended valve replacement surgery, from which he recovered quickly and completely. If not for the lung cancer, that heart would have kept him going past 100. (Yes, I know: “And other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…”)

The man was made of bailing wire and leather. In the end, this made things all the harder for him, because his body just would not stop functioning. “I’m ready to go,” he kept telling me, telling everyone. He was at peace, he couldn’t move, see, or hear well. He could barely eat. He was wasting away. He wasn’t in pain: the hospice and the morphine took care of that. But he couldn’t do anything but sit in his recliner. He couldn’t even see or hear the TV.

Last week, he stopped being able to do even that.I was sleeping in his room when he awoke needing to go the bathroom. I helped him there and we were on the way back when he couldn’t go any further. I was able to get him to the hospital bed that had been placed in his room “just in case,” and which he insisted he would never use. That was where he stayed until the end. A short time later, he lost consciousness. Every night, a different visiting nurse would tell me he wouldn’t make it to the morning, and every morning, there he was, day after day, fading away but never dying. Finally, after days of this left me exhausted and twitchy, I let my wife start sharing the burden. She took the last two days, and proved by her kindness, strength, and nurturing that women just do this better.

My father and his parents, 1942

There were brief “rallies” and flickers here and there. One day, he was muttering something, and when my mother asked him who he was talking to, he said, “All of them” with a smile. He would regain tiny slivers of consciousness and his eyes would focus on blank places in the room, one after another, and smile beatifically.

He finally stopped waking up at all, but that heart kept pumping, to the confusion of the nurses and everyone else. Less than a hundred pounds, almost a week without food or more than a few drops of water, somehow he just kept grinding on. When they said it would only be hours it was days. When they said it was probably only minutes, it was hours.

My mother got angry. “What is the purpose of this? Why doesn’t God take him?” I said maybe it was to draw us closer to God in prayer. “I’m praying less,” she snapped. “I’m angry.”

I wasn’t too pleased with Him either.

I knew that this was the way of the world, and that one day my son may sit by my bed as I sat by my father’s. I reminded him of this while I went through it, and I knew that this was a lesson taught by living and dying in a certain way, and those are the most important and permanent lessons.

But I also knew there seemed to be no earthly reason for this body to continue functioning. He wasn’t suffering, mind you. Hospice does wonders in that regard, and morphine is a beautiful thing. He just was in that shadowy land between life and death. Everyone had gathered, and left. Everyone had said goodbye. We’d had our moments of grace and our lovely farewells. It was down to just my mother and me, night after night, praying for his release. And now I finally think I understand it.

He was, at the end, as he was in the beginning: like an infant. And, like infant, he was cared for with the kind of gentleness a mother gives to helpless newborn. The nurses of hospice treated his body with dignity, even when his mind could no longer function, putting lie to the notion that only our brains matter. All of them had stories to tell about their experiences with patients’ visions of the afterlife near death, and none of them was without faith. Each had seen things in their work with the dying that made a lack of faith utterly impossible. You may not be able to say “there are no atheists in foxholes” any more, but I can tell you there are damn few in hospice nursing.

They did all this because it was their job and they were paid to do it, but they did it with a tenderness and compassion that went beyond that: that indicated people with a calling. I helped when and how I could, but they were like a kind of priesthood of care, and they were better when left to do their work the way they knew best.

Curled up in a bed hemmed in by rails like a crib, he was left to their mercies, and mercy he received. They gently washed his body, lotioned his cracked skin, put dressings on his sores, gave him medicine, changed his diapers and his shirt, brushed his hair, and talked to him. They’d moisten his lips with swabs like foam lollipops, and once in a while, to my surprise, he’d move his mouth automatically to suck the water from them.

“Sucking is the first thing we do in life,” a nurse explained, “and it’s the last thing to go.”

And that’s when I began to get it just a bit, maybe. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” We end back and the beginning. My father had lived long and been strong, growing from a helpless child into a soldier, husband, father, builder, and Christian. This man who had given everything he had to others had one last lesson to give: we are not in charge. God comes in His Own time, and in His Own way.

His body was broken for his family, and seeing it there, used up and consumed at the last, he was like a lesson in sacrifice. I could see it in a way I never had before. I could see the scars left by a hard life, and the dignity still remaining in this man created in the image and likeness of his Creator. Life draws away from us with each breath, and sacrifice is implicit in every moment. This is certainly how it should be for a father, and how it was for the Son. Each death is a recapitulation of Calvary, and in suffering we are closest to the cross.

The bodies we have are noble and God-created: enfleshed spirit. They are wombs for the soul to be born into heaven, and one day we will return to these bodies, only to find them perfected.  And after this our exile, we will come face to face with the first fruit of that womb, and there will be neither tears, nor death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain.

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Requiescant in pace. Amen.

Stunning Jeweled Saints

Smithsonian has a long, heavily-illustrated piece on photographer Paul Koudounaris and his amazing work cataloging the heavily bejeweled skeletons and corpses of saints. He’s gathered them in a book called Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs (Thames and Hudson), and they are simply astonishing. Here’s a taste:

Saint Deodatus in Rheinau, Switzerland, by Paul Koudounaris (Thames and Hudson)

You should read the entire story, but here’s the beginning to whet your appetite:

Paul Koudounaris is not a man who shies away from the macabre. Though the Los Angeles-based art historian, author and photographer claims that his fascination with death is no greater than anyone else’s, he devotes his career to investigating and documenting phenomena such as church ossuaries, charnel houses and bone-adorned shrines. Which is why, when a man in a German village approached him during a 2008 research trip and asked something along the lines of, “Are you interested in seeing a dilapidated old church in the forest with a skeleton standing there covered in jewels and holding a cup of blood in his left hand like he’s offering you a toast?” Koudounaris’ answer was, “Yes, of course.”

At the time, Koudounaris was working on a book called The Empire of Death, traveling the world to photograph church ossuaries and the like. He’d landed in this particular village near the Czech border to document a crypt full of skulls, but his interest was piqued by the dubious yet enticing promise of a bejeweled skeleton lurking behind the trees. “It sounded like something from the Brothers Grimm,” he recalls. “But I followed his directions—half thinking this guy was crazy or lying—and sure enough, I found this jeweled skeleton in the woods.”

The church—more of a small chapel, really—was in ruins, but still contained pews and altars, all dilapidated from years of neglect under East German Communist rule. He found the skeleton on a side aisle, peering out at him from behind some boards that had been nailed over its chamber. As he pried off the panels to get a better look, the thing watched him with big, red glass eyes wedged into its gaping sockets. It was propped upright, decked out in robes befitting a king, and holding out a glass vial, which Koudounaris later learned would have been believed to contain the skeleton’s own blood. He was struck by the silent figure’s dark beauty, but ultimately wrote it off as “some sort of one-off freakish thing, some local curiosity.”

But then it happened again. In another German church he visited some time later, hidden in a crypt corner, he found two more resplendent skeletons. “It was then that I realized there’s something much broader and more spectacular going on,” he says.

“It’s Not Complicated” (And a Note of Thanks)

Just a brief note of gratitude to everyone who offered prayers or left comments here and on various social media outlets and other blogs. My friends and colleagues and total strangers all reached out with sympathy and kindness. The grind of the past few weeks wore us all down, but it all finished in glory with a beautiful mass said by two priests who knew him and spoke movingly about him.

I won’t remember the exact words of Msgr. Ken Tuzeneu’s homily, but I remember the theme: “It’s not complicated.” He spoke of his own generation’s habit of questioning everything from authority to God to the meaning of life, and then spoke of my father and his generation. They realized instinctually what many of us only learned in middle age. Serve God (my dad went to mass, said grace, and was an usher), serve your fellow man (he worked every week at the soup kitchen and was a volunteer fireman), serve your country (at age 19, he quite his job and–only a few months after graduating from high-school–joined the Army Air Force), and serve your family (he ground himself down with hard work providing for his family).

In other words: just do the right things and stop over-thinking it. We know the right things: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (the first three commandments) and love your neighbor as yourself (the last seven). Jesus boiled 613 mitzvot into two, and said “Go and sin no more.”

It really isn’t that hard, is it?

Oh, and one more thing. Fr. John Basil, who concelebrated and also spoke at the mass, said that he wished he’d known my father longer, and that more people could have known him. Even when he was older and physically compromised in how he could serve, he found those things he could do and did them. Fr. Basil talked about his stories and his example, and said it was our job as those who knew him to make him known to others: to share this life.

About 10,000 people have read this post. I call that a fair start.

I’ll leave you with some images from the week that was hereabouts.

My father’s holy medal. I don’t recognize the image or know if it’s tied to a particular devotion.

Dad said the only thing that disappointed him was not seeing my kids become adults. I told him he’d see them because he’d be looking down on them. He replied with a shrug, “Or up.”

The things we save tell us what matters, even when it’s a letter from a nun to the War Department saying a red-headed trouble-maker nick-named Satan is a good boy.

Watches found among my father’s things. Sense a theme?

 

My son lowers his grandfather’s flag to half-staff.

People are good: the fine folks of Patheos sent a plant, neighbors sent some awesome food gifts, people watched kids and wrote notes and sent mass cards, and humanity once again proved we’re pretty damn good.

The diner where we ate between the afternoon and evening wakes served Shit on a Shingle, which was actually called “SOS” on the menu. I had to order it since it was favorite of dad’s even though he ate a ton of it during the war. It was wonderful.

Ending where we always end: at the foot of the cross, but with a promise of resurrection.

In the Midst of Life, We Are in Death

After a long final illness, my father finally passed away early this morning at the age of 90. Although he lived well and died at home, it was an emotional and physical rollercoaster at the end, and I was left trying to figure out the point of it all. Does it mean something, or is it just the final, cruel grinding down of a human life to ash without any hope or purpose?

I think it was the nurses who finally gave me my answer: not by word, but by deed.

My father was a strong man with a body broken–repeatedly–in service to others. Seventy-six years (!) as a church usher, 25 years as a volunteer fireman, 4 years  in the 8th/9th Air Force and the Army of Occupation in the European theater, many more years serving at his  church’s soup kitchen, and a lifetime of backbreaking construction work (one of the most dangerous and least-respected professions) to support a family. He lost the two things that were his own private pleasures–bowling and golf–following a construction accident in which he saved the life of a falling man, only to have his shoulders destroyed, leaving him in pain for the last 20+ years of his life.

His hands were rough and his fingers pointed in different directions from being crushed or broken so many times. He survived countless accidents, illnesses, and surgeries. When he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm at age 87, doctors discovered that his heart was so strong they recommended valve replacement surgery, from which he recovered quickly and completely. If not for the lung cancer, that heart would have kept him going past 100. (Yes, I know: “And other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…”)

The man was made of bailing wire and leather. In the end, this made things all the harder for him, because his body just would not stop functioning. “I’m ready to go,” he kept telling me, telling everyone. He was at peace, he couldn’t move, see, or hear well. He could barely eat. He was wasting away. He wasn’t in pain: the hospice and the morphine took care of that. But he couldn’t do anything but sit in his recliner. He couldn’t even see or hear the TV.

Last week, he stopped being able to do even that.I was sleeping in his room when he awoke needing to go the bathroom. I helped him there and we were on the way back when he couldn’t go any further. I was able to get him to the hospital bed that had been placed in his room “just in case,” and which he insisted he would never use. That was where he stayed until the end. A short time later, he lost consciousness. Every night, a different visiting nurse would tell me he wouldn’t make it to the morning, and every morning, there he was, day after day, fading away but never dying. Finally, after days of this left me exhausted and twitchy, I let my wife start sharing the burden. She took the last two days, and proved by her kindness, strength, and nurturing that women just do this better.

My father and his parents, 1942

There were brief “rallies” and flickers here and there. One day, he was muttering something, and when my mother asked him who he was talking to, he said, “All of them” with a smile. He would regain tiny slivers of consciousness and his eyes would focus on blank places in the room, one after another, and smile beatifically.

He finally stopped waking up at all, but that heart kept pumping, to the confusion of the nurses and everyone else. Less than a hundred pounds, almost a week without food or more than a few drops of water, somehow he just kept grinding on. When they said it would only be hours it was days. When they said it was probably only minutes, it was hours.

My mother got angry. “What is the purpose of this? Why doesn’t God take him?” I said maybe it was to draw us closer to God in prayer. “I’m praying less,” she snapped. “I’m angry.”

I wasn’t too pleased with Him either.

I knew that this was the way of the world, and that one day my son may sit by my bed as I sat by my father’s. I reminded him of this while I went through it, and I knew that this was a lesson taught by living and dying in a certain way, and those are the most important and permanent lessons.

But I also knew there seemed to be no earthly reason for this body to continue functioning. He wasn’t suffering, mind you. Hospice does wonders in that regard, and morphine is a beautiful thing. He just was in that shadowy land between life and death. Everyone had gathered, and left. Everyone had said goodbye. We’d had our moments of grace and our lovely farewells. It was down to just my mother and me, night after night, praying for his release. And now I finally think I understand it.

He was, at the end, as he was in the beginning: like an infant. And, like infant, he was cared for with the kind of gentleness a mother gives to helpless newborn. The nurses of hospice treated his body with dignity, even when his mind could no longer function, putting lie to the notion that only our brains matter. All of them had stories to tell about their experiences with patients’ visions of the afterlife near death, and none of them was without faith. Each had seen things in their work with the dying that made a lack of faith utterly impossible. You may not be able to say “there are no atheists in foxholes” any more, but I can tell you there are damn few in hospice nursing.

They did all this because it was their job and they were paid to do it, but they did it with a tenderness and compassion that went beyond that: that indicated people with a calling. I helped when and how I could, but they were like a kind of priesthood of care, and they were better when left to do their work the way they knew best.

Curled up in a bed hemmed in by rails like a crib, he was left to their mercies, and mercy he received. They gently washed his body, lotioned his cracked skin, put dressings on his sores, gave him medicine, changed his diapers and his shirt, brushed his hair, and talked to him. They’d moisten his lips with swabs like foam lollipops, and once in a while, to my surprise, he’d move his mouth automatically to suck the water from them.

“Sucking is the first thing we do in life,” a nurse explained, “and it’s the last thing to go.”

And that’s when I began to get it just a bit, maybe. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” We end back and the beginning. My father had lived long and been strong, growing from a helpless child into a soldier, husband, father, builder, and Christian. This man who had given everything he had to others had one last lesson to give: we are not in charge. God comes in His Own time, and in His Own way.

His body was broken for his family, and seeing it there, used up and consumed at the last, he was like a lesson in sacrifice. I could see it in a way I never had before. I could see the scars left by a hard life, and the dignity still remaining in this man created in the image and likeness of his Creator. Life draws away from us with each breath, and sacrifice is implicit in every moment. This is certainly how it should be for a father, and how it was for the Son. Each death is a recapitulation of Calvary, and in suffering we are closest to the cross.

The bodies we have are noble and God-created: enfleshed spirit. They are wombs for the soul to be born into heaven, and one day we will return to these bodies, only to find them perfected.  And after this our exile, we will come face to face with the first fruit of that womb, and there will be neither tears, nor death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain.

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Requiescant in pace. Amen.

Packing for the Final Journey

Last week my father asked me to plan his funeral. He’s dying, he knows he’s dying, and he just wants to get on with it already. He’s a practical man, and doesn’t want the burden to fall to my mother or anyone else at a time when everyone is already upset.

I waved him off, telling him we were just planning to put him on flaming ship and set it adrift. He told me not to waste the ship: a rowboat would do fine.

An Irish wake

When my mother scotched the rowboat idea, I made the arrangements for the funeral home. Sandy had already washed all the local rowboats out to sea anyway.

Being People Of A Certain Age, my parents go to a lot of funerals, so they were able to descant on the benefits and drawbacks of all the local undertaking establishments. Jessica Mitford wrote that funeral directors sell “dignity, refinement, high-caliber professional service, and that intangible quality, sincerity.” All of those things take a backseat to convenient off-street parking. There’s almost a palpable sense of irritation at dead people who get waked from places with bad parking, or long walks from the lot to the door.

That was a helpful criteria in knocking the potential vendors down to one.

Indeed, the parking offered by the final choice was quite good, even memorable.

This was the first funeral I’d planned by myself. Conditioned by Mitford and The Loved One, I was expecting an oleaginous salesman pushing me to buy a mink-lined steel casket with an Eternal Memory Foam pillow fringed in Flemish crepe and gently scented with lilac. What I got was calm, direct, compassionate professionalism.

That’s the thing with any profession: it’s known, fairly or not, for its worst practitioners. Mitford’s caustic dissection of the funeral industry was not unfair. In fact, at the time it was published in 1963 , it exposed widespread unethical behavior in the profession that lead to real changes. Swept up by that Mad Men, Madison Ave. vibe, people were manipulating the grieving at a vulnerable time in order to sell absurdities like a “Perfect-Posture bed” for a coffin. They were selling status, and if people couldn’t have it in life, they damn well would have it in death.

Mitford’s problem, however, was that she seemed to think this was wholly a product of modern First World marketing and capitalism, and merely another example of status-seeking by moneyed people, or those who desired to be thought of as moneyed. As such, it become little more than a shoddy echo of the quest of Pharaohs and potentates for a little glory on their way out. Given that Mitford was the wayward Communist child in a family of notorious Nazis, she viewed it through a lens of class and economics. Her friend Evelyn Waugh was right to note that she didn’t really seem to take any position on the subject of death and funeral customs.
Modern Americans are hardly alone in these excesses. The Ga-Adangbe of Ghana, for example, are famous for their lavish, sometimes comical, “fantasy coffins” crafted by carpenters with sublime skills at making figurative boxes. Complex funeral rites and grave accommodations are the bread and butter of the anthropologist and the archaeologist. They’re as old as man himself. Mitford seems to think it’s uniquely grotesque that it’s been commodified in modern capitalist society, but it’s not like the stone cutters of ancient Israel or the hired keeners of Ireland worked for free.

I don’t doubt there are excesses in the funeral industry today. Mitford famously got out of this world for a cremation without ceremony for $533.31. My dad’s sending-off will cost almost $8000, complete with funeral mass, wake, military honor guard, temporary coffin, cremation, and transportation. I’m told by some that’s a bargain.

I understand the horror most people feel at the thought of funeral planning, and the scams that are worked on the grieving on a daily basis. When the polite young lady presented me with a 1/2″ thick price list–which I had to sign for in advance–I was able to flip through more options (far more) than you’d face buying a new car, with a cost to match. I almost expected her to tell me she’d throw in the undercoating if I bought the extended warranty. The grieving, elderly people who are the normal customer of funeral directors would be an easy mark.

All of it is wrapped in a comfortable swaddling of genteel terminology, from the name of the coffin shell (“The Brockton Oak”) to the Everlasting Online Memorial. I could even have the entire affair catered.

We could have opted for none of it, of course. A cremation costs $595, if that was all we wanted, and as a veteran he would have received a discount for that.

But that’s not what we do. We have built a custom of grieving and farewell, and it wasn’t all engineered by the funeral industry. The tradition of paying respect is ancient, and if it’s been moved from a rough-hewn coffin on a couple of trestles in the home with a generous supply of whiskey and poteen, to a tastefully-decorated historical home (from whence “Captain Ruben Randolph and the local militia marched to the Battle of Monmouth in 1778”), then that’s all of a piece with the way modernity distances us from the more earthy realities of life. We don’t exactly slaughter our own beef or spin our own thread any more, either. And we really don’t want to. The funeral industry may well be riddled with abuses, but it’s also doing just want we want it to do. And we’re willing to pay well for it to perform that function.

Dad will get a decent sendoff, neither skinflinty nor excessive, just like the man himself. His life was almost entirely consumed by service: World War II, 25 years of volunteer firefighting, scout leadership, 76 years of church ushering, soup kitchen, and decades of back-breaking labor to sustain his family. Gathering some loved ones for a few hours to say farewell and then saying a mass to help ease his soul on its way is only his due.

I’ve told my wife I don’t want a wake. I don’t want to be embalmed or displayed. I don’t want people leaning over the box and saying how good I’ll look. I’ll look dead, and that’s never really good, even if I have an artist make me up.

My wife, however, tells me that the wake and funeral aren’t for the dead. They’re for the living, and the Church has three rites for the death of a Catholic: the wake, the funeral mass, and the internment, with prayers for each. And while my desires may be important, it’s the needs of the living–the grieving–that are paramount.

It was sensible of my father to send me off to deal with the arrangements. We have time to discuss things, and consider what’s essential (a hearse), what’s nice (flowers), and what’s wretched excess (canapes and $5000 coffins).

My dad is waiting to die. He’s comfortable, but fading, and eager to be on his way. He’s 90. He keeps saying, “I didn’t expect to live this long.” He’s cheated death an absurd number of times, including open heart surgery just a few years ago. Indeed, he’s had a bag packed for this journey since those dark days in the skies over Germany and France and Holland. The red-headed troublemaker once nick-named “Satan” by the nuns who educated him is ready to move on to his new accommodations, and he’s set to prove those nuns wrong. Our last gift to him in return for a lifetime of service will be to ease him on his way.

Tobit, And Tamerlan: The Dignity of Burial

No one wants the body of marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. His uncle Ruslan, who seems to be the only sensible member of the family, finally stepped forward to claim it, saying “A dead person needs to be buried.”

Meanwhile, a petty tyrant named Robert W. Healy, City Manager of Cambridge, intends to block any attempt to bury this killer in the city, asserting this hitherto unknown power with this glib, lawless, and offensive statement: “Under the State Law, … ‘it shall be the duty of the city manager to act as chief conservator of the peace within the city,’ I have determined that it is not interest of “peace within the city” to execute a cemetery deed for a plot within the Cambridge Cemetery for the body of Tamerlin Tsarnaev.”

Welcome to America, 2013: where a bureaucrat feels no reluctance about asserting non-existent powers in order to trample the religious sensibilities of the vast majority of American citizens.

And I say the “vast majority,” because if you’re a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, the reverent treatment of the dead–both the wicked and the just, but especially the wicked–is a matter of divine law.

If I lived in Cambridge, I’d dig the grave the myself.

I’d be in good company.

Tobit burying the dead.

Tobit was a righteous man. His story is told in the book of the Bible that bears his name, and which is commonly counted among the Deuterocanonical books because they were part of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), but not part of the later Hebrew Bible.

Tobit is a man who performs many acts of charity, but the most dangerous is his burial of the dead, particularly strangers, and, notably, those who have been executed.

And if Sennacherib the king put to death any who came fleeing from Judea, I buried them secretly. For in his anger he put many to death. When the bodies were sought by the king, they were not found. Then one of the men of Nineveh went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. When I learned that I was being searched for, to be put to death, I left home in fear. Then all my property was confiscated and nothing was left to me except my wife Anna and my son Tobias. (Tobit 1:18-20)

Tobit is able to return home after the death of Sennacherib, but he continues to bury the dead. When he returns, he makes a nice feast, and gives an order to his son, Tobias, with echoes of Luke 14:13:

“Go and bring whatever poor man of our brethren you may find who is mindful of the Lord, and I will wait for you.” But he came back and said, “Father, one of our people has been strangled and thrown into the market place.” So before I tasted anything I sprang up and removed the body to a place of shelter until sunset. And when I returned I washed myself and ate my food in sorrow. Then I remembered the prophecy of Amos, how he said, “Your feasts shall be turned into mourning, and all your festivities into lamentation.” And I wept. When the sun had set I went and dug a grave and buried the body.  And my neighbors laughed at me. (Tobit 2:2-8)

Touching the dead rendered one impure for a period of time. Although it was a necessary thing to do, performing the act for strangers is a profound act of charity. Indeed, Tobit is forced to sleep outside after performing the burial because he is impure, and he winds up blind as a result.

Some of the bodies buried by Tobit have been cast “beyond the wall,” where the unjust would have been thrown. It’s interesting to note, however, that the only place in the law where rapid burial is explicitly commanded is in the case of criminals who have been executed:

‎“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22–23

This passage, of course, becomes extremely relevant in the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the New Testament, where Joseph is considered righteous because he tends to the proper burial of Jesus.

Why does Tobit do it, particularly as such great risk to himself? He makes it quite clear: it’s a central act of charity. He does three things that are righteous: gives bread to the hungry, clothes the naked, buries the dead (Tobit 1:17).

Are any of these beginning to sound a bit familiar? Because you’ve been ordered to do them, too:

  • Feed the hungry.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Bury the dead.
  • Give drink to the thirsty.
  • Give sheltered to the homeless.
  • Visit the sick.
  • Ransom the captive.

You’ll note the name of these acts–corporal works of mercy–comes from the Latin root corpus, for body, the source of the English word corpse.

There’s nothing in there about “burying the nice folks.” The command to bury the unrighteous is partly a matter of preventing contamination of the land, but it’s also interpreted as something due to any human created in the image of God. (I’ve written a whole series on how bodies and burial were handled in ancient Israel: a major focus of my study during a semester on the OT. This entry in particular summarizes Jewish attitudes toward the dead from a Biblical perspective.)

Mortality entered the world through sin. The person who handled the dead was therefore in the realm of death and sin. That’s why the person handling a corpse is considered impure for a time, but is also considered righteous. They are cleaning up the mess made by the sin of man, and in a very real sense doing close battle with that sin. It takes courage. It takes faith.

We don’t treat our enemies with dignity for their sake, but for our own, and because God commands it. I didn’t know Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and he did not kill any member of my family or community. My reaction if he had would be considerably more complex and challenging, but no different in the end. The dead, the wounded, and their families will deal with the actions of this wicked man for the rest of their lives. He unleashed evil in the world, and his punishment is in the hands of the One who always judges justly.

That punishment is no longer our concern. Only the living are our concern, except inasmuch as we pray for the souls of the faithful departed. Only our reactions matter: what we do with hate, and how we respond to evil. It’s the key thing that makes us different as Christians. It’s not that we don’t fight, or that we don’t have enemies, or that we don’t recognize the evil festering in our midst. We must do all those things. We can even hate, because sometimes hate is remarkably clarifying.

But in the end, when we have to act, it must be in faith, in hope, and in charity. One of the key lessons of Jesus is that we must not tend downward with our enemies, but upward towards the Father. He is our model, and he asks nothing less than that we be perfect. The works of mercy benefit the world because they are proof of life, and a light in the darkness. The worse the darkness, the harder it can be to get that light shining, but it becomes even more imperative that we do so.

Evil is an absence: a corrosion of the Good. It has no true existence. The only possible response to it is goodness, not more evil. We have to fill up that emptiness. Eventually, we have to set down the hate, which brings only more darkness, and fill the darkness with charity, which is the light of Christ.

My blog neighbor Max Lindenman says that a graduate of Yale Divinity School is offering a plot for Tsarnaev, which is just as it should be. We bury the dead–even the unrighteous–not merely for the sake of the dead, but for our own soul’s sake, and to glorify God, whose light shines on the just and unjust alike. We are called to be that light, and we can’t be particular about where we choose to shine.

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 7: The Burial of Christ

The Entombment of Christ (Caravaggio)

This post concludes a series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

This 100,000 year history of human burial converges on a single point and a single day: a Friday in Jerusalem around the year 30 AD. Jesus of Nazareth dies on the cross, and his body is taken down at the request of a wealthy man from Arimathea named Joseph. The sun is setting and the sabbath is about to begin, when no burial will be allowed. Joseph must get the body of Jesus in a tomb or it will not be properly buried within 24 hours after death, as required by Jewish law.

Since there was no time to prepare a grave, Joseph had the body laid in a rock-cut tomb which he had commissioned for his own family, but had not used. We know this is the case because Matthew tells us it was a “new” tomb. It’s rather extraordinary that a man would lay a non-family member in a new tomb made for his family, and explains the reverence we still have for Joseph. (Tradition holds that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on the location of the tomb, but the church was leveled by Muslims in the 11th century, so very little of the original site remains.)

The specification of a “new” tomb would have said something different to the reader of Jesus’s time than it may to us. We consider “new” to be wonderful thing. But, as we’ve seen throughout these posts, being “gathered to your ancestors” was very important for the Jews. People were laid amidst their loved ones and relatives. There was a sense of connection to that which came before.

This was denied to Jesus. The tomb he was in was the tomb of a relative stranger. It had never been used, and thus there were no other remains to be “gathered to.” There were no grave goods with him: just a single winding sheet. He was unwashed, unannointed. This would have struck Jews of the time as a remarkably sad way to be laid to rest. He was alone in a strange place disconnected from his people: it’s a very forlorn image of despair even in death.

If Jesus had not been raised, perhaps he would have been moved to simple trench-cut tomb after the women finished cleaning and anointing his body. Or perhaps he would have laid on a bench in that rock cut tomb until a new member of Joseph’s family died. At the point, the stone would have been rolled away and another body interred. At some later date, after the flesh had decayed, his bones would have probably been gathered into an ossuary to make room for another body.

Layout of a typical burial chamber

But something else happened. The women were unable to perform their ablutions on the man they called Lord. Of all the burials and customs we’ve seen and discussed, from es-Skhul to the ossuary of Caiaphas, this one ended like no other.

Humans had lost, and grieved, and buried their dead with honor and respect for almost 100,000 years, with no hope of a life beyond the grave. The man Joseph laid in that new tomb would be the first born among all the dead.

Death itself was, finally, conquered.

 

Sources

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land )Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Negev, Avraham, Ed. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd Edition (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

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Burial in Ancient Israel Part 6: Ossuaries

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

 

Since rock-cut tombs were reused over many generations, an issue arose: what to do with the bones? Two approaches have been found.

There is evidence that, for many years, bones were placed in shallow depression underneath the beneath the bench where the bodies had been laid out. Grave goods were swept into the same depression, creating a jumble of bones beneath the bench.

Over time, this practice grew less common and the use of ossuaries becomes more prominent. Ossuaries make their first appearance in Jerusalem’s rock-cut tombs during the reign of Herod, with the earliest dating to approximately 20 BC. Unlike earlier clay ossuaries found elsewhere in the Levant, these are carved from local stone, almost always in a casket design. They’re rarely larger than 2 feet long, and, in the case of children, quite a bit smaller.

Capped with curved, gabled, or flat lids and sometimes carved with a design, they exhibit a Roman style in keeping with the influences of the Herodian period. When names appear on ossuaries, they often seem to have been carved by a different hand than the decorative design, perhaps by a family member scratching a name in Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek after transferring the bones in the tombs.

Notable Ossuaries

Association: Caiaphas, high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus
Verdict: Genuine

In 1990, a tomb was found southwest of the Old City, Jerusalem. Inside this rather small tomb was a well-decorated ossuary with an evocative name carved into the side: “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Based on date, location, and name, archaeologists immediately knew it could be none other than the tomb of the man who served as high priest from 18-36 AD: the man responsible for the death of Christ.

Please note: yes, it looks like the inscription was rather poorly and hastily scratched into an otherwise beautiful box. This was quite common (as noted above), since a family member usually transferred the bones in the tomb and scratched the name himself, in cramped, dimly lit conditions.

Association: The “family” of Jesus
Verdict: A rather lame and obvious hoax. (Please note: the inscriptions and artifacts are genuine. It’s the association with Jesus of Nazareth that is false.)

Filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, along with religious studies professor James Tabor, attempted to make the case that ossuaries discovered in the “Patio Tomb” in Talpiot in 1980 were actually from the family grave of Jesus, complete with wild and unfounded speculation that they proved Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son named Judah. The claim was widely ridiculed, with archaeologist Jodi Magness saying that it “flies in the face of all available evidence.”

Given that Jesus had a poor family, was not from Jerusalem (his tomb would have been in Nazareth), was not married, did not have a child, was laid in a borrowed tomb (thus proving he did not have a family tomb), and that the names on the ossuaries (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) were quite common at the time, the entire claim was an absurd tissue of lies created to generate headlines, booksales, and viewers for a Cameron-produced documentary. When I saw the artifacts in the United States, the exhibit didn’t even mention the ridiculous claims, and no one except the original promoters believe it was anything but a hoax.

James Charlesworth offers a summary of a symposium during which the hoax was addressed, and the weasley methods of the people promoting it. The consensus: not even close. His verdict on the grandstanding techniques of those involved and the media they duped is withering. (Please note: Charlesworth is not a marginal figure: he’s pretty much the dean of deuterocanonical and pseudepigrapha study.)

Association: St. James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem
Verdict: Undetermined. Almost certainly not the ossuary of St. James (who was inhumated).  The box is genuine.  The inscription may or may not be forged. (My opinion, FWIW: forged.)

The so-called James ossuary did not provide the tidy closure of the debunked Talpiot claims. The name on this ossuary–James son of Joseph brother of Jesus–ignited a firestorm of debate that resulted in claims of forgery and a highly publicized trial in Israel. The connection to St. James, leader of the church in Jerusalem and one of the major figures in the early church, made the find important, if true. The trial, however, was unable to prove that the inscription was a forgery, and the issue remains up for debate.

The Meaning of Ossuaries
The question naturally arises: what led to the sudden appearance of ossuaries in stone-cute tombs in Jerusalem around the Herodian period? One answer may have to do with a shift in theology. A theory has been proposed by archaeologist Levi Yitzhak Rahmani that ties the sudden appearance of the ossuaries to a new belief among Jews in the 1st century BC: belief in the resurrection of the dead. Although the Sadducees rejected the idea of a literal resurrection of the physical body, it was strongly held by the Pharisees, and was eventually accepted by Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

Rahmani believes that the practice of intermingling bones ends with the spread of this belief, with the shift to ossuaries driven by a need to keep body parts together and as undamaged as possible, ready for the resurrection. Furthermore, the decay of flesh emphasizes the Pharisaical association of flesh with sin, with sin being devoured along with the decomposing flesh.

It’s an appealing theory, offering a neat solution to an unanswered question, but it has problems. First, ossuaries often contain bones from multiple bodies, and often those are missing certain pieces. Second, many of the ossuaries were found in the richest tombs and areas, and those belonged to the Sadducees, not the Pharisees.

Ossuary from “Patio” (Tapliot) tomb, with remains

More likely, the appearance of ossuaries at this place and this time is simply a reflection of the Roman influence upon the upper classes, encouraged by the Herodians The ossuaries suddenly disappear with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, further suggesting ties to a Roman influence. It may also be tied to a sudden sense of individuality inspired by Greek thought. As we’ve seen, an extreme diversity of burial customs has characterized the region, so it’s not unusual to find new practices developing suddenly and fading from popularity just as suddenly.

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Burial in Ancient Israel Part 5: Rock Cut Tombs

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

During the Late First Temple Period (8th to 6th century BC), we begin to see the creation of multichamber rock-cut tombs. Reached by rock-cut stairs leading to an unadorned opening, these tombs were carved into the living stone, with a central space opening into subchambers. Each subchamber was lined–often on all three sides–by low benches. Over time, narrower loculi (fit for a single body) also began to appear.

The dead were wrapped in a shroud (and, on occasion, placed in a coffin) and then placed on these benches. Bodies may well have been treated with oil, herbs, resins, and other methods, many of them adapted from Israel’s extensive experience of foreign cultures. As the tombs were used and reused by families over many generations, bones would be removed to make way for new bodies. (We will address what happened to them in the next post.) Thus, we have a practical connection the Biblical phrase. “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers” (Judges 2:10 and elsewhere). People were, quite literally, gathered to their fathers.

Because cutting a tomb of this type was extremely expensive, they were only used by wealthy Jews. That’s why they were reused for many, many generations. Tombs were almost always located outside the walls of the city, unlike some earlier burials which were inside the city and even the home.

Foreign influences began to creep into the designs of these tombs, with carved headrests on the benches and various architectural details betraying the Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences over time. We may speculate that this shows the tendencies of the upper classes to adapt to foreign influences: a complaint also reflected in the scripture.

After the Babylonian Captivity (c. 586 BC), these tombs vanish for a time, along with the people who built them, and do not reappear until the Hasmonean Dynasty (late 2nd century BC). In the intervening period, Mausolus built his famous tomb at Halicarnassus (c. 353 BC), this giving us a Wonder of the World, a new word (mausoleum) and a new style of tomb: a grand edifice on a raised platform with columns and a pyramid roof.

The upper class Jews began to the imitate this form, and there is a description of a tomb (subsequently destroyed) in 1 Maccabees 13:27-30:

27 And Simon built a monument over the tomb of his father and his brothers; he made it high that it might be seen, with polished stone at the front and back. 28 He also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers. 29 And for the pyramids he devised an elaborate setting, erecting about them great columns, and upon the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor carved ships, so that they could be seen by all who sail the sea. 30 This is the tomb which he built in Modein; it remains to this day.

Josephus also describes the tomb of Simon in Antiquities of the Jews (13:210-11).

Other tombs follow a similar design: Jason’s Tomb, the Tomb of Absalom, and Zechariah’s Tomb all use the platform/column/pyramid form inspire by the tomb Halicarnassus.

Tomb of Absalom (interior)

These tombs, of course, raise as many questions about burial as they answer, because they only reflect the practices of a small, elite group. What about the common people and the poor? They have, unfortunately, left very little mark on the archaeological record because they used burial techniques that do not leave many obvious signs. Most likely, they simply buried their dead in trench or pit graves, perhaps using older structures or adapting some of the techniques already discussed.

We know from the Gospels that Judas was buried in a “Potter’s Field” (so named because the site was used as a source of clay by potters), so by the first century simple inhumations in earth were common, and we have no reason to think this had not been the case for the lower classes for most of First and Second Temple Periods. Excavation at Qumran, which features a large cemetery filled with simple trench or pit graves, suggests the practice was widespread.
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