It is probably not too strong to say that a Christian ceremony for burial at the cemetery is as significant as a Christian funeral at the church. But there are less Christians attending funerals today than in the past (the funeral directors I have contact with indicate that), and there are probably even fewer who go to the graveside for burial.
In the past it was different. Long funeral processions from the church to the cemetery were common. When my best friend died suddenly during a high school soccer game, the line of cars from the church stretched what seemed like endlessly, requiring help from the local police to block intersection after intersection. Most older folks learned in driver’s training to give way to funeral processions. Today, processions are rare—at least in my area of our country. Long ones even rarer. Graveside services often have very few in attendance. Sometimes families opt to have none.
But an honorable Christian burial may be considered as important as a good Christian funeral. A funeral is important. It is our recognition, not only of the sober reality that this life comes to an end, but also of the glorious reality that death is overcome. Death is a homecoming! The graveside service, on the other hand, recognizes that the homecoming is only partial: the body remains here and awaits the resurrection. Which is one of the reasons why it really is not too strong to say that having a funeral service without a burial ceremony is only half of what Christians should do at the death of their loved one.
Let us encourage attendance at the graveside of loved ones, in order to make one of the most powerful testimonies Christians can make: “We believe the resurrection of the dead!”
What a graveside service is
A graveside service is a sacred act, full of meaning, of Christian hands depositing the precious body of their loved one into the earth. From the dust our bodies came, and to the dust we return them, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the body.
A graveside service is to place our loved one’s body in the ground, with the agonizingly painful acknowledgement that we will never see them again on this side of eternity. At the same time, the careful and tender placement of the body in the grave is an expression of our faith that we will see them on the other side.
A graveside service is a visible and vocal witness of that faith-conviction. As the family gathers round the casket and peers into the dark hole opened to receive our love one’s body, the gospel preacher prays and then briefly explains and pointedly applies the Word regarding the resurrection of the body. They sing a comforting Psalm: “Because on Him my trust is stayed, My flesh in hope shall rest…I know that I shall not be left forgotten in the grave.” and recite the church’s ancient Apostles’ Creed, which comes to a wonderful crescendo in phrases that could not be more appropriate: “I believe…the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting!” It would not be unseemly to shout through our tears: The! resurrection! of the body! We could wish the gravedigger, politely waiting at a distance, would be startled out of his tedium by our extraordinarily bold confession of a tried, but unshakable faith.
An honorable, Christian burial ceremony can be beautiful. Painful beyond imagination for most. But beautiful. If I have to bury my wife some day, I pray that I have the grace to practice what (here) I ‘preach.’
What God thinks about our bodies
God loves His people not only in their souls but also in their bodies.
It is not proper to devalue our bodies, even though we may be tempted to do so when we see their weaknesses, feel death working in them, and realize that soon they will be returning to the dust whence they came. We are embarrassed by their imperfections and often find nothing attractive about them. Believers sigh over a sense of their corruption, desiring to be delivered from this body of death (Belgic Confession, Art. 16; Canons of Dordt, I, Art. 16). But God loves us in our bodies.
Based on Scripture, the Reformed confessions are emphatic about this.
I belong to Jesus Christ not only in my soul but in my body (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1). Christ redeemed my body (LD 13, 15). God promises to resurrect my body so that, in the end, I will live with God not only in my soul but also in my body. This body. “This my body, being raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul” (LD 22). Transformed body, indeed, but it will be this body! The punishment of the wicked includes bodily misery (LD 4); and the salvation of the believer includes bodily life! Father’s provision for me includes provision for my body (LD 9). Our body and soul are temples of the Holy Ghost (LD 41).
This is why Christ suffered—not only unspeakable anguish in His soul, but also in His body. His “body was offered and broken on the cross for me” (LD 28). This is why the Son of God had to take to Himself a human body and become a real man. “For since the soul was lost as well as the body, it was necessary that He should take both upon Him, to save both” (Belgic Confession, Art. 18). “Our salvation and resurrection. depend on the reality of His body” (Art. 22). And since faith unites the believer to Christ, our head, our bodies in the end will be “made like unto the glorious body of Jesus Christ” (LD 22).
The consummation of the covenant itself awaits the final resurrection of the bodies of believers!
For this reason, we not only may but must love our own bodies and the bodies of our loved ones. Not, of course, that we are proudly attracted to them, even worship them; but that (according to the biblical idea of love) we take care of them, protect them. Humans love their bodies, nourishing and cherishing them. No one ever hated his own flesh (Eph. 5:28, 29).
We give to our believing loved ones honorable, Christian burials.
Scripture teaches the importance of burials
God’s comfort to Abram was that he would be “buried in a good old age” (Gen. 15:15), and his alienated sons Isaac and Ishmael momentarily reunited to do that (Gen. 25:9). Rachel was buried; Isaac was buried; Joshua was buried. Burial was so important that the patriarchs even gave that honor to their servants, and thus Jacob and family buried Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (Gen. 35:8). When Joseph died, he bound his children with an oath to return his bones to the promised land so that he could be buried there. God’s own hands laid His servant Moses in the earth (Deut. 34:5, 6). Scripture records that the Judges were buried, Samuel was buried, and Israel’s kings were buried. The disciples of John the Baptist took his decapitated body and buried it. Our Lord commended Mary for anointing His body as preparation for His own burial (Matt 26:12). In love for their Lord, His disciples buried Him (Matt. 27:59, 60).
To underscore the blessing of an honorable burial, God’s dreadful judgments on the wicked included that they would not be buried, but instead cast as dung on the earth and carrion for the fowls (Jer. 8:2; 16:4). No one wants to imagine a body lying in the hot sun, torn by vultures and scavenged by coyotes. But God’s testimony must be imagined, if only momentarily. Honorable burials are precious.
The powerful Christian tradition, as well as the clear scriptural testimony about our bodies and about burial, are a compelling call to believers about how to behave when their loved ones die.
Emphasizing the importance of honorable burials does not take away from the truth that God is able to raise the bodies of believers who have been cremated, burned at the stake, eaten by wild animals, lost at sea, or destroyed by a bomb. He knows His own and keeps them in His hand, even then. And when His voice calls us to come forth from the graves, also these bodies will miraculously appear. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed…(I Cor. 15:51-52).
Why such hope for Christians? How can going to the graveside be a hopeful act rather than merely unspeakable pain and sorrow? Because our Lord Jesus Christ went to the grave too. He was made flesh, like us; suffered in the body, like we suffer; and died in the body, like we die. His friends gently laid His body in the dark, cold ground. But He went there as conqueror of death and became for us victor over the grave, the first begotten of the dead. And all those in Christ are sure of victory for themselves and their believing loved ones.
Why is death “swallowed up in victory”? How can we shout, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Because “the sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He has transformed the cemetery from a bleak place to a garden of hope.
What to do at the graveside
Avoiding all superstitions and unbiblical notions, let us comfort one another about this biblical truth and emphasize at the graveside what the Bible teaches: the one reality of the resurrection of the body, in two striking ways.
First, Scripture says that when we lay our loved one in the ground we must imagine we are putting them down for a short nap, as it were. From God’s perspective, which perspective must become ours, our loved one as to the body is only ‘sleeping’ (I Cor. 15:18, 51; I Thess. 4:14, 5:10). That is, their body will be raised from the grave as certainly as we will awake at the end of a night’s rest, or a child from an afternoon’s nap. Who imagines that a nap does not end in waking? We should not imagine that a burial will not end in resurrection.
For this reason graveyards are called ‘cemeteries,’ which in Latin is similar to the word ‘dormitory.’ We know a dormitory as a place for college students to sleep so that when the new day begins they can awake renewed to engage in their studies. Also the cemetery is a place of rest for the bodies of our loved ones. Someday very soon Jesus’ powerful words will wake them from their sleep. “Come forth!” Jesus will say. And they will arise, refreshed, to engage in an eternal study of the beauty of their Lord and God.
Second, Scripture says that when we lay our loved one in the ground, we must imagine that we are planting a seed. A seed, watered by the rain and warmed by the sun, will soon burst forth as, for example, a beautiful flower. God’s perspective, which must become ours, is that burying our loved ones is like planting a seed (I Cor. 15:35-38). Who doubts that a seed, properly planted in good soil, will soon appear as a beautiful new life? Nor should we doubt that the ‘planting’ of our loved one will end in the dramatic appearance of a beautiful new life, a resurrected body made like unto the body of our Lord Jesus Christ!
For this reason, some Christians have called graveyards ‘God’s gardens.’ In these ‘gardens of God’ are planted all the ‘seeds’ of those who have died. These ‘seeds’ await God’s miraculous bringing of them to life again. The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:28, 29).
So, when we give an honorable Christian burial to our loved ones, or visit the grave in the days following, we may go with hope, thinking clearly: “Christ will appear! The trumpet will sound! The graves will burst open! The dead in Christ will rise and lead the way to meet our Lord in the air! And so shall we ever be with the Lord!” Faith—clear-thinking faith—sustains us in the darkest of hours.
In the beginning God said to Adam, “In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread, till thou return to the ground; for out of it thou wast taken; for dust thou art, and unto the dust thou shalt return.” The New Testament allows us to add to that and say:
“Out of dust art thou come,
Unto dust shalt thou return,
From the dust thou shalt rise again.”
An honorable, Christian burial.