Earlier this summer my wife and I traveled to Indiana for the funeral of her maternal grandmother, Leah Settlemyre, the gracious and energetic matriarch of her family who died at age 89. I was particularly struck by something I had never seen before. The funeral procession traveled fifty-one miles through rural Indiana, past the place of her birth and her pioneer ancestors' original homestead, to a beautiful little cemetery in her long-time home of Roanoke. All along that route, save for two miles on a four-lane divided highway, traffic stopped completely for the procession. In California, I have seen traffic yield the right of way to funeral processions at intersections, but all along our route even opposing traffic stopped until the procession had passed. At least twice men cutting grass on riding mowers stopped as we passed. I later asked Grandma's son Mark if there was a state law which required this. He thought it was merely a customary sign of respect. Having fomerly been a volunteer firefighter for many years, I told him that in California we didn't always see that kind of respect driving a fire engine with red lights and siren!
Cemeteries are another way we show respect for the dead. I have always loved old cemeteries with their variety of tombstones (I particularly like the crosses) and personalized epitaphs. I particularly like to see them well-manicured; an ill-kept, weed-infested cemetery is a particularly sad sight.
Why Respect the Dead?
Why do we make a point of showing respect for the dead? Many cultures have not shown such respect, and when they have, it has been out of fear for the spirits of the dead. My father, who spent eight years as a missionary to American Indians, used to delight in telling of the frustration of government Indian agents when government housing was burned after someone died in the dwelling so future inhabitants would not be haunted by the deceased's trapped spirit.
Christianity, following Hebraic custom, has always promoted a respect for the dead. This careful respect has included preparing the dead for burial, marking the grave, and even consecrating ground for the burial of Christians. This is in imitation of the loving burial of Jesus Christ and is in anticipation of a similar end bodily resurrection.
The Christian respect for not only the memory of the dead but even for their bodies reflects the Christian respect for life itself. God gave man life, and man's sin brought death into the world. God's redemption saves man from sin and its death penalty. Christ gave His life so that we would have life. There are two aspects of Christ's victory over death we must understand. One is spiritual life which we can know in this life. That is why we properly speak of having eternal life in the present tense. Christ gave His life to free our souls from the curse of spiritual death. That is the first victory we experience in Christ's salvation.
In 1 Corinthians 15, however, Paul makes it very clear that there is more than spiritual life ahead of us. This chapter should be the comfort and joy of all believers facing death. It has become more profound to me since I read it to my father near his time of death. Paul makes it very clear that there is no Christian message if there is no bodily resurrection of the dead. Christ's resurrection from the dead is the firstfruits of the harvest, Paul says. We are the harvest. More precisely, our bodily resurrection is that harvest. "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death," Paul said (v. 26). We cannot spiritualize this statement away, for Paul distinguishes between terrestrial bodies and celestial bodies (v. 40). At the resurrection, the dead in Christ shall be raised and their bodies changed (v. 52) into their celestial form. The corruptible man will put on incorruption, and the mortal will give way to the immortal (v. 53-54). Then we shall understand that "Death is swallowed up in victory" (v. 55) and we shall be able to proclaim, "O death where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory" (v. 56). Christ's victory over sin was marked by His physical resurrection, as death had no claim on Him. At the resurrection of the dead, Christ will recall His people from death itself, the last enemy, and we will know eternal life, both spiritual and physical.
The Gift of Life
In commenting on the fifth commandment's promise of life for those who honor parents, John Calvin noted that life was never to be despised. Too often we see life as a burden, rather than as a gift. We see the problems of sin, whether ours or that of others, and wrongly see life as the problem. The Christian must not so completely misread the Biblical message. Life is a gift, and sin and death are the problems. Christ offers resolution to the problems of sin and death and offers us life, and that more abundantly. Life, both this earthly life and that to come, are God's gifts. When we remember a loved one we usually show respect for him because of the life he led and what it meant to us. In showing respect for even his mortal remains, we show respect for the life to come and God's promise of a bodily resurrection when "Death is swallowed up in victory."
It was the Christian belief in the bodily resurrection that led to the West's respect shown to the dead. Though we are dealing with an attitude of and customs conducive to respect, rather than any definitive Scriptural command, cremation has often been seen as inconsistent with a respect for and confidence in the bodily resurrection of the dead. One could argue against such reasoning, but there can be little doubt that this is the basis of traditional Christian opposition to cremation.
I have always found cemeteries to be moving reminders of our past. But if our respect is only for the past, for the person who once was, our cemeteries are no more than memorials. They do more than point to the past, however. We must remember that respect for the dead also takes into account the promises of God, and that cemeteries on every continent bear the remains of those who trusted in Christ's victory over the "last enemy," death itself.
Grandma's family will remember her life and her example of love to her late husband, and to four generations of descendants. We will remember her for the life she lived and the person she was. But in remembering a person for his or her life lived we only partially fulfill our Christian duty. Those who stopped for a minute along a country road in Indiana on June 1, 2002 showed a customary respect that Christians should cultivate as a deliberate, comprehending respect. We show respect for a believer's faith in the resurrection from the dead, and reaffirm ours, by a respect for their mortal remains.