Words from the Tombstone of Eliza Jane Bens, in Delaware County, Ohio:  “Go home my friends, dry up your tears.  I must lie here til Christ appears, Who you may hope will me restore unto my friends to part no more.”  She died May 9, 1841 at age 22.
Words from the Tombstone of Eliza Jane Bens, in Delaware County, Ohio: “Go home my friends, dry up your tears. I must lie here til Christ appears, Who you may hope will me restore unto my friends to part no more.” She died May 9, 1841 at age 22.
I attended a funeral not too long ago where the pastor, at the graveside, pulled flowers from the arrangement on the casket and assigned a meaning to each blossom: “This white daisy represents the happiness that Mildred brought to everyone. This rose represents the deep love that she had for her family. This pink carnation represents the friendship that she gave to so many. She is gone now, but not forgotten. Amen.” It was then that I realized that we have forgotten the significance of a Christian Committal.
The Committal, the act of laying the body in its resting place, is not a mere appendix to the funeral service or a final opportunity to eulogize the deceased. It is a moment to declare our unique Christian hope in the face of death. Some of the earliest examples of Christian art are to be found in the burial places of the faithful. It is obvious that the first believers in Jesus took great care in how they laid their brothers and sisters to rest. Here are five reasons why the time of Committal still matters:
1) At the Committal, we declare “I believe in the Resurrection.” It sometimes hits me how audacious it is when I stand at the grave of a dead Christian and announce that the body we are burying will not stay buried. As Christians, we believe in Resurrection: What happened to Jesus on Easter will one day happen to all those who belong to him. Over and over again in the New Testament we are pointed toward this message of bodily resurrection. The fact that the believer’s soul goes to be with God upon her death (and I believe it does) does not negate the fact that a bodily resurrection is our central hope. As we say in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in… the Resurrection of the body.”
 2) At the Committal, we declare the demise of death: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (I Cor. 15:55) Our faith is not just that death is somewhat assuaged by the fact that heaven awaits on the other side. We declare that death itself will be undone. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:26) Death will be forced, by God, to undo all the horrible atrocities it has committed throughout history. Without the Resurrection, death is allowed to have the final word. This is unacceptable. We have the amazing image, in Revelation 20, of death and hell both being thrown into the Lake of Fire. The central symbol at the graveside is the grave itself. What was once a symbol of horror and despair has been transformed, by Easter, into a symbol of hope and victory.
3) At the Committal, we declare the return of Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 4 declares that God will bring, with Jesus, those who have “fallen asleep”. This event will be authoritative and glorious: “the Lord himself will descend with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise…” (v. 16) We remind the faithful, at the Committal, of a grand day of consummation that is centered around the final victory of God. The spirits of the faithful are rejoined with the bodies of the faithful in the ultimate universal makeover.
4) At the Committal, we declare a New Heaven and a New Earth. I have heard well-meaning Christians refer to the body as a “meat suit” that is thankfully discarded at death: “I will be happy to get rid of this body. It aches, it creaks, it smells bad…” This thought is much more in line with Eastern religions and Greek philosophy that the New Testament scriptures. Our faith affirms the worth of our bodies. Why do we need a body throughout eternity? There is going to be a New Heaven and a New Earth! The final chapter of the Bible does not paint a picture of us living with God in Heaven, but of God living with us on Earth. (Rev. 22) You will need a new body to enjoy the New Earth. We are going to have a Resurrection body, just like Jesus. Jesus ate fish after Easter. He also appeared behind locked doors. You are going to love your new body. It will be free of its present limitations; yet will still allow us to be connected with God’s creation.
5) At the Committal, we express the trust to let go. With the rise in popularity of cremation, I see more and more families “keeping” the remains of their loved ones. Funeral homes sell lockets and jewelry where ashes can be sealed. Urns are displayed on mantles. Our faith, however, teaches us to trust God enough to let go. I believe there is real emotional value to laying the remains of a loved one to rest, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection. It is part of the process of accepting the loss and moving forward in faith. I once officiated at a Native American funeral and noted that the family insisted on seeing the body lowered and placing the first of the dirt upon the casket themselves. It obviously meant a lot to them and I could see why. We are not keeping Grandpa, God is. At the graveside, I often challenge families to decide what they are leaving in the grave and what they are keeping. I invite them to leave any hurt feelings, regrets, or family tensions (we all have them). I invite them to keep the positive legacy of the deceased.
Belief in the Resurrection does not necessitate expensive embalming or elaborate graves, vaults, and caskets. Even if a family cremates and chooses not to bury in a cemetery, I believe it is a good idea to invite them to choose a time and place of committal so that we, in the face of death, can declare our unique and audacious Christian hope. The Committal still matters.