I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
– 1 Corinthians 15:50-54
“The old picture of the soul re-assuming the corpse – perhaps blown to bits or long since usefully dissipated through Nature – is absurd. Nor is it what St. Paul’s words imply. And I admit that if you ask me what I substitute for this, I have only speculations to offer.
“The principle behind these speculations is this. We are not, in this doctrine, concerned with matter as such at all; with waves and atoms and all that. What the soul cries out for is the resurrection of the senses. Even in this life matter would be nothing to us if it were not the source of sensations.”
– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer
My wife announced that she and I will be cremated. Okay, we are not dead yet, maybe far from it. Yet, it took me back to the historic times of ancient Rome when the Christians preserved the bodies of the dead in the catacombs so that God would have something to work with upon the resurrection of the dead. I was, for a time, confused.
My wife’s argument was quite sound. Firstly, we can’t afford it. We probably could if we spent our money preparing for it, but that would mean giving up activities in this life. While we are still able to travel, she has family scattered from Houston, TX to Minnesota. My sister lives in Mississippi and our sons are in Nebraska and Tennessee. Whenever I get contract work, it goes mostly to travel expenses. Yet, if we placed value on burial, we could afford it. It’s a matter of choices, and she’d rather bless the grandchildren with anything left over.
My wife’s second argument is more sound. No one would ever visit. Her father’s ashes were taken back to Holland. With the rules that apply there, it became costly to the family to pay for maintenance of the plot to prevent the remains being moved to a pauper’s grave. We could be buried (in a casket or in an urn) at a National Cemetery. We are both veterans. That eliminates that cost, but my wife is right. Who would visit?
We’ve known members of the family, and friends, that enjoy travelling through old graveyards. I remember two instances where I got involved.
My first instance of studying graveyards was in my college years. My mother gave me a copy of the church membership and put me to work solving the mystery of the very old church members. Most were relatives of active church members and easy to find. One of them was a founding member of the church, that was established before the war of 1861 – 1865. (If you look up the war in a search engine, there are over ten different names for it, depending on which side is talking and their attitude toward the subject. I shall avoid the name entirely.) This church founder would have to have been over 120 years old at the time, so the graveyards of the county were a good start. I found his tombstone in a family plot in the Baptist cemetery. From the date on his tombstone, he died at the Battle of Shiloh. He was a Lieutenant in the Confederate Army. I suppose that when the family received the body, they did not see fit to tell the church down the road that he had passed away. In those days, a Baptist thought he’d go to the wrong place, if he just visited a different church. Their son had created a church for a different denomination. How horrible!
My second tour of an ancient cemetery was way out in the woods. My mother’s father owned some land from when he was a logger. When he retired from the timber business, he had two tracts of land. One was donated to the boy scouts to build the scout camp in northern Mississippi. The other tract stayed in the family. It was so far into the woods that it had to stay dry for a few weeks in order to visit the site and get out without getting stuck on the dirt roads. On a visit when our boys were small, my mother found an abandoned graveyard on the property. A lot were cousins, but mostly the people buried there were unknown. Most of the tombstones were too weather-worn to be read. We looked among the gravestones. I got interested in the date that people died. You could tell when scarlet fever or some other deadly disease had come through that area. In one case, there were five tombstones with the same last name, all dying within a week’s time.
But that was my wife’s point. That graveyard was abandoned, forgotten. The entire graveyard! When was the last time that you drove over a hundred miles to see a tombstone? We have no family within 700 miles of where we now live.
That brings me to the Scripture and the C. S. Lewis quote. Why preserve the body?
Most people who have out-of-body experiences report seeing their body. This isn’t a death or near-death experience and then returning to the body. But if this has anything to do with what happens next, our soul will have already left the body before the old body is disposed of. We’ll be celebrating in heaven before the funeral. And if anyone visits the grave, they are visiting the decayed remains of someone who has already left the building.
I like Lewis’ comment about the soul assuming the corpse, even when it has been blown to bits. I have photos from the atomic bomb blasts in Japan. What if the soul returns and all that is left of the body is a shadow on the sidewalk? Indeed, as Lewis said, this is absurd.
Let’s trust in the Apostle Paul’s words. However you choose to be interred, you will be given an imperishable body in the new life. When the trumpet sounds, I doubt any of us will be looking around for the remnants of the old, we will be striding forward, toward Jesus, in our new body.
Soli Deo Gloria. Glory to God Alone.