My mother’s father recently died. He was a good, humble, loving, hardworking man. He was a lifelong church member, a descendant of folks who joined the church in New York, lived through Kirtland, Missouri, Nauvoo, made the long walk over the plains, and settled in Weber County. He was a veteran who served in the air force. He and my grandma raised their four daughters in Ogden. In retirement, they moved back east and lived in Mendon, NY. They served faithfully for years in the Palmyra temple. They later moved to Nauvoo and served in the temple there. While they were living in Nauvoo, nine years ago, he had a stroke. He was paralyzed but worked hard and regained some mobility, though he was basically confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. After his first stroke, they moved back to Ogden. In recent years, he had more small strokes and early this summer he suffered a massive brain bleed that resulted days later in his death. In all his years after the stroke I never once heard him complain. And he died with dignity and without desperation. I love him.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I packed the three kids into the minivan and made the long drive out from Rochester, New York to Ogden, Utah to his funeral. This was the second time in about a year and a half that we had traveled to Utah for a grandparent’s funeral (my dad’s mom died last January. As we rolled across the plains and through the mountains into the setting sun, and then back into the rising sun a few days later, my thoughts were preoccupied by the idea of burial, and this post is an attempt to gather those thoughts.
In our western culture we traditionally bury our dead in the earth. Consistent with that tradition, church policy expresses a preference for burial over cremation.
But why burial? Do we bury to get rid of the body? To hide it from our view as it moulders?To dispose of it? Perhaps, at least in part, but not everything that is buried is disposed of, though. People bury other things, as well, aside from bodies and garbage. People bury treasures. Time capsules. Things they want to be kept safe. Things they want to protect from theft or from rot. Maybe things they want to preserve for the future.
But the impulse to bury things to preserve them is not always a good one. Although he speaks in a parable, Jesus speaks harshly of a man who hides his Lord’s treasure in the earth to preserve it. The lesson seems to be (at least in part) that rather than think only of preserving wealth to ourselves, we should instead use it to do good, because it has no inherent value sitting there in earth. Its value, rather, lies in what it can do when it is put to use. The Lord’s penny invested with diligence is worth more than the penny that just bears minimal interest, and the penny that just sits in the earth is worth nothing.
And often, burying our treasures to preserve them to ourselves doesn’t even work. In this fallen world all things decay and fail, moth and rust corrupt the treasures that we bury, robbers dig them up, and those who hide up treasure to keep it to themselves will often find that it has become “slippery,” in the words of Samuel’s curse on the Nephite gold. There is only one escape from Samuel’s curse: he who is righteous and hides up his treasure “unto the Lord,” rather than unto himself, will find it again. He who seeks his treasure shall lose it, and he who consecrates his treasure to the Lord, divesting himself of it for Jesus’ sake, shall find it again.
People bury other things as well. We bury seeds in the earth, in the hope that they will spring forth with new life as living plants that will bear fruit that can nourish, preserving and strengthening life, herbs that can add savor to life, relieve pain, and heal. We don’t usually call it burying, we call it planting; but it is a similar act, just in a different context and with a different expectation.
I think burying the dead should have something in common with hiding up treasures unto the Lord, and with planting seeds. We bury the dead not as someone throwing broken dishes down a dried up well, but as Moroni, Mormon, or Ammaron carefully hiding up the sacred relics. We bury our dead because the body, our physical self, is not just a husk, but a sacred relic created in God’s image, and a treasure.
We Christians have a complicated relationship with our bodies. On the one hand we believe they are created in God’s image and are his handiwork. And we as Mormons are reminded even more than other Christians that physical flesh is divine. On the other hand, we are also constantly reminded that our flesh is errant, corrupt, sinful, and a natural enemy to God. I think reconciliation lies in the hope that our flesh, despite its evil nature, will be redeemed. If we can submit the will of our flesh to the will of the Spirit, as Jesus did, then our flesh can be redeemed from its sinful nature. Our physical self does not need to be despised and eradicated, but tamed and put to consecrated use. And if it is consecrated, through grace, it can also be redeemed and made holy. Thus our bodies, despite their weaknesses, can truly be our holy relics, our treasures, pennies entrusted to our care by a loving God.
So when we die, we can bury our loved ones’ bodies not as garbage, but hide them up as treasure. We know that burying the body will not actually preserve it, because in this fallen world all things decline and fail. Moth and rust will corrupt even precious metals, and we know our organic bodies, once dead, are even more subject to corruption and decomposition. But still, we hide these relics up unto the Lord–the only way to escape Samuel’s curse–because we trust him to take these broken, errant physical remains and redeem them, make them his, and make them by his grace to be something better than the mortal selves they once were; trusting that unlike our mortal life, which slips away from us each second that we live as mortals, our resurrected life will be redeemed from the fall and will no longer be “slippery.”
We hide our dead bodies up unto the Lord in the hope that they will spring forth in the
resurrection as living branches of the true vine, bearing the infinite potential of eternal life within themselves like a seed. And like seeds, our physical selves must first die before they can be reborn in new life.
Dedicating a grave has something in common with Moroni begging the Lord to keep the relics safe in the hope that they would one day far into the future be brought out of the earth and put to consecrated use. It also has something in common with a farmer begging the Lord to prosper his planted seeds, in the hope that one day in the not too distant future they will spring forth and will grow until they bear fruit. We don’t just bury our dead; we hide them up unto the Lord; we plant them in the hope of the resurrection.