Taken early 1900’s. Photo is in the Public Domain.
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (NIV)
And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph. (ESV)
It puzzled me in random moments, why the bones of Joseph were given such treatment. Why did it matter where his bones were buried? What was the point? Dead is dead, right? The body is merely an earthly container for that which is spirit and soul, right?
Well…perhaps not. Do we not subconsciously know this on some level? The question may seem an odd one for many of my acquaintance, but in my family and in my church heritage, the body is treated as a husk, once the person dies. It is a thing of matter and not of spirit, not containing our essence anymore once death has come upon us. The physical, the material world is seen as less than, It is a trifle, fleeting, unimportant. And so, we cremate our dead. Why spend money on a coffin and all the trappings when we can scatter someone’s ashes to the wind?
But the bones of Joseph trouble me. Even my husband, who wants to be cremated, wants to be brought “home” to Colorado. Why? Why does it matter where our remains are laid to rest? But it does, doesn’t it?
My niece is buried in a plot outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming. Buried, not cremated, her physical being, though deceased, is not burnt to nothing, She lays there among other kin, other children, mothers, fathers, grandparents…and it provides some sense of comfort to the grieving to know that their loved ones remains are treated with respect and dignity.
I’ve undergone a huge shift…from wanting a “Viking funeral” with my body set alight by the flames of burning arrows as I am set to sea in a wooden boat, to earnestly wishing for an Orthodox burial. I do not wish to be embalmed. I find that hideous and unnatural. I wish to be buried in a coffin like this. And to have an Orthodox funeral service and burial service. Granted, this costs more than a burn ’em and bury ’em plan such as I had before, and I understand the need for such. I also know that this means I will not be buried with my grandmother and grandfather, or the rest of my kin. Sad, but I’m at peace with that.
How I came to think so differently is a matter of some wonder to me, though perhaps not to my reader. I puzzled over the different views of the body and of the veneration of relics, the utter respect shown to the physical being of the deceased, but a light came on when we read the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment. The hem. And he felt power go out of him. There is something to this. The physical is important and is affected by the spirit. If the hem of his garment was infused with his power, how much more his physical body? And if his physical body was affected by the spirit, it stands to reason that all physical matter, all our bodies are affected, even infused, perhaps, by our spirit. We are not mere spirits trapped in a body, but they are intertwined in some way that I do not understand. If our physical bodies MATTER, and retain or are infused with our spirits, then the dignity of a Christian burial seems to make more sense. I wonder how it is we have gotten away from that? Or is it just the particular church I came from? I don’t really know.
I will admit, we had two of our dogs cremated upon their death. But when it came to it, I could not bury them because I did not have land that belonged to me. I could not bury them in land that would belong to another, where I could not come and sit by them. If you knew me, you would understand why this is an odd thing. But I find it to be an impossibility to unceremoniously spread their ashes at the beach, or on a trail…somewhere to which I may not be able to return. And it bothers me that I do not know the precise place where my paternal grandfather and grandmother had their ashes spread.
Perhaps I don’t have a full understanding of the Orthodox way of thinking on this matter, but now, being convinced that the physical matters, I cannot go back.