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For us, when a person—or any living creature for that matter—dies, we understand the necessity for burial or cremation. The process of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” just isn’t that pleasant. During the time of Jesus, within Jewish culture, cremation was not practiced, so everyone would buried in the ground or in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock, but did you know that—according to legend—burial in the ground goes all the way back to Adam and Eve and the murder of Abel? The legend states:
“Adam and [Eve] came and sat by the corpse [of their son Abel whom Cain had murdered], weeping and mourning for him – but they did not know what to do with Abel’s body. A raven whose companion had just died said: I will teach Adam what to do. The raven took his dead companion, dug the earth before the eyes of Adam and his mate, and buried him in it. Adam said: We will do as the raven.” And so the practice of burial began, based on the teachings of a Raven.
Within Holy Scripture, there appear to be many traditions and teachings with regard to the burial of the dead, but no specific laws dictating how it should be done, and most of these traditions were practiced in the burial of Jesus: the body anointed, wrapped, and then placed in a tomb. As we read today, the tomb that Jesus was buried in belonged to Joseph of Arimathaea, who had gone to Pilate and requested the body of Jesus so that it could be properly buried.
These are events which we are all familiar with. The crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We talk about these things often. We also talk about how we will have eternal life through Jesus, and that there is a place prepared for us, but the one thing we will avoid talking about like we would avoid the plague—whether because of self preservation or simple denial—is the topic of our own death and burial. (And now you’re all depressed… sorry, but that’s not my intent.)
Ignatius of Loyola writes: To almost all the questions that might be asked about you the answer would be “perhaps.” Shall you have a large fortune, great talents, a long life? “Perhaps.” Will your last hour find you in the friendship of God? “Perhaps.” After this retreat, will you live long in a state of grace? “Perhaps.” Shall you be saved? “Perhaps.” But shall you die? “Yes. Certainly.”
We shall all die and someone will place us in the ground or a mausoleum or a niche in a columbarium. Because of this fact, the Saints will ask us to keep this event of our own death always before us. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule, “Remember to keep death before your eyes daily.” Not to dwell morbidly upon it, but as a reminder to remain vigilant watch over your soul, so that when that time does come, you are not caught unprepared.
A story from the desert monks: “News spread that an elder father lay dying in the desert of Skete. The brothers came, stood around his deathbed, clothed him and began to cry. But he opened his eyes and laughed. And he laughed again, and then again. The surprised brothers asked him, ‘Tell us, Abba, why do you laugh while we cry?’ He spoke, ‘I laughed at first because you fear death. Then I laughed because you are not ready. A third time I laughed because I am going from hard work to enter my rest – and you are crying about that!’ He then closed his eyes and died.”
Don’t be afraid to think of the “last things,” keep them before you, not with a heavy heart, but the heart of one who is persevering until the end and one who will receive the reward of joy and peace.