To Hold Death’s Hand: A Christian Manifesto on Care of the Body at the Time of Physical Death

grave-and-coffinIntroduction:

Christian Identity, Ritual and Practice

This is a manifesto for Christians, and by that I mean broadly all who identify themselves with Jesus Christ, a person who died and rose again, and whose dying and rising connects individuals with God and each other. How the idea of Jesus’ dying, rising and connecting is intellectually understood has been debated and has divided Christians since the beginnings of Christianity. For all denominations that would claim Christ, however, resurrection – literal and/or figurative – can only be understood by way of the cross, which is to say, by way of death.

Followers of Jesus Christ, whether through scripted liturgies or extemporaneous testimonies, speak of a new life in which death has lost its power over the believer because of the dying and rising of Christ. This new life, the proof of it, its manifestation, may be understood, witnessed and lived out in many ways, but death and resurrection are central to the Christian faith across denominational lines.

I call for practices at the time of death that are more fully informed by the Christian (and therefore the Jewish) tradition and for intentional symbolic action (ritual) that informs and is transformed by those practices. I hope to set the stage broadly enough that all who consider themselves “Christian” will find resonance. Specifically, as the life of faith is practiced, nearly all Christian faith traditions consider baptism a fundamental and/or climactic symbolic action in the life of faith. Baptism loses some of its symbolic power when its connection to death is minimized and when our experience of death is sanitized. As a natural corollary, death will continue to grip our souls insofar as baptism is disconnected with death and the baptized do not hold death’s hand.

The ritual eating of bread and wine (or juice), whether called “Communion” or “Eucharist,” must also inform and be informed by practices around death. If not the Spirit’s voice may be dampered whether the rite is understood solely as an act of remembrance or as Christ’s “actual” body. A deeper connection between death and our understanding of Communion/Eucharist will better prepare the faithful to accompany the dead and to deal with death in all its forms, and in turn, dealing with our own dead will deepen our understanding of this central rite.

The community of faith, which is to say the body of Christ, that is constituted whenever Christians gather, cannot know itself or its mission where death is glossed over. Christians, in buying into cultural practices that render death too neatly dressed, contained, or simply absent from the regular ritual life of faith impoverish their worship, and their understanding of the community as a body made up of the living and the dead, and indeed the “living dead,” which we will say more about later. Experience with the dead has the power to inform our understanding of our most important constitutive rituals (Baptism and Eucharist), and fundamentally, the very act of gathering for worship and fellowship.

Finally, renewed practices for death care and interment will bring the Christian community to the beginning, not the end as we unearth a lost understanding of the created world as the original site of God’s love for us. This ending at the beginning is intentionally placed because renewed death care and burial practices are not simply about environmentalism – or to Christianize the concept: “stewardship of the earth.” Rather, a deeper understanding of land, covenant and love based in the Hebrew Scriptures will call the Christian community beyond mere conservationism to an encounter with the divine.

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