As a pastoral minister, I am occasionally called upon to greet the mourners at church prior to a funeral, or assist at a wake or committal service. Often, if I have the opportunity to chat with the funeral director, I will ask him or her what drew them to this kind of work. One young man told me that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been undertakers and he’d never really considered doing anything else. A young woman told the story of having attended her father’s funeral and being impressed by the kindness of the funeral directors. And another man told of growing up next door to a funeral home and gradually becoming aware of the opportunity for closure that the funeral director offered to those who had suffered the loss of a loved one.
Human history records a wide variety of preparatory rituals for burying the dead. For the Jewish people in the time of Jesus, these rituals included washing and anointing the body (much like what is done today), and this is essentially what Mary Magdalene and the other women were prepared to do. But since Jesus had been laid in the tomb on the eve of the Sabbath (Friday evening), they were prohibited from carrying out the burial rituals until the day after the Sabbath (Sunday). Likely this was what their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had done before them. Perhaps they had been impressed by the gentleness and respect with which the body of a loved one had been treated and had come to offer the same gift to Jesus. Or maybe they simply needed this ritual to provide closure for their own mourning.
Today, as in the time of Jesus, members of the human community take great care to respect the bodies of the dead. As Christians, we recognize the presence of the divine in each human person. Like those funeral directors — and like Mary Magdalene and the women who accompanied her — we use human rituals to affirm and proclaim that death does not have the final word.
“Christ has died; Christ is risen: Christ will come again.” ALLELUIA!
Van Benthem is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and a longtime pastoral minister, retreat leader, spiritual director and published writer and poet.