This issue of Let’s Talk is about death. As I see it, when it comes to an open discussion of death, which affects us all in a most direct way—in our bodies—we practice avoidance. The church participates in this avoidance by not paying enough attention to the body in our ministries to the dying and to the dead. We give little attention to our bodies generally, in spite of the fact that we are using them constantly. Perhaps this is why there is currently so much interest in “embodiment” in our society, especially in somatic psychotherapy. We have neglected to pay attention to what is going on in our own bodies that affects our minds (what we think) and our souls (who we essentially are). When it comes to death we tend to focus on the soul, about which we know little, and ignore the body, about which we know a great deal.
In this column, I focus on the body. As concerns our life in the body and our life before God, death is the midpoint on a continuum between being born and dying, and being buried and raised up in the resurrection. I offer here some brief reflections on each of these stages. I will reference the ritual acts that accompany each of these stages. Rituals provide ways of dealing, among other things, with the threats to life and the overcoming of these threats. Our capacity to ritualize is a neurological function generated by the repetilian brain stem. One might say that it is our nature to ritualize as a way of dealing with major issues in life. I will not comment in detail on the rites in this brief article, since commentary is readily available in liturgical manuals.
The origins of life are a mystery still being probed in evolutionary biology. What we can know with some certainty is that water and oxygen are needed for microbes to flourish. This applies to all life forms. In Genesis 2 the Lord God sculpts the man from earthen materials, but only after ground water is provided from a spring in the desert. Water must be added to shape the clay. And then the Lord God breathes life—oxygen—into the inanimate object he has created.
The science writer Tyler Volk writes, “Although the when and where of life’s origins remain enigmatic, the origin of biological death is quite certain. It began with life. Simply put, life’s very fecundity made it impossible for every microbe to live forever.” The unlimited growth of life would completely overtake the planet and life would eventually be unsustainable.
There are various ways for bacteria to be killed by agents outside themselves. But microbiologists have proposed that cells sacrifice themselves through programmed death so that life can continue to flourish on this planet at a sustainable level. Death is written into all life forms, from the simplest amoeba to the most complex primates. It is thus true, as the medieval hymn says, “Media vita in morte sumus” (“In the midst of life we are in death”). Martin Luther emended this popular medieval hymn in his chorale version, “In the very midst of life/ snares of death surround us” (Lutheran Service Book 755). This is the condition of life in the body, from the simplest to the most complex life forms, including human life. We harbor death within us from the moment of conception.
We wonder: wasn’t there some original immortality, at least for our primal parents? Actually, according to biologist William Clark, programmed cell death seems to have arisen at about the same time as cells began experimenting with reproduction. Perhaps one legacy of this original immortality is the so-called immortality enzyme telomerase, which is found in the cells of testes and ovaries. Absent the normal cells that age and die, telomerase allows cancerous cells to reproduce without limit. The unlimited growth of cells would obstruct the vital organs in the body, causing death without medical interference. Programmed cell death ensures that we will not be immortal, and also that runaway cancerous cells will be held in check. All this death in our bodies functions in support of ongoing maintenance of normal life.
This also means that death is connected with sex. In the insect world there are examples of copulation leading to death. The female praying mantis bites off the head of her mate. The penis of the honeybee, who mates the queen in midair, breaks off inside her body, blocking the entry of the next horny honeybee, and he plunges to his death. Human beings have more opportunities for sex and reproduction than most other animals. But not every sperm fertilizes every egg. As Dorion Sagan writes, “Of the trillions of cells of our bodies, only a few sperm and eggs survive into the next generation. In coming together in reproductive sex, the sex cells leave male and female bodies to grow a fresh being.”
Programmed cell death shapes our human form in the womb. The most celebrated form of this is the death of cells in the embryo that sculpt human hands from paddles into separate digits that form fingers. Tyler Volk reports that as life develops in the womb there is an overproduction of cells and they need to be culled. The large and complex human brain is especially blessed with an overproduction of cells, some of which need to be eliminated. Also, neurons compete to reach particular cells in the brain. Volk reports that we grow about twice as many fetal neurons as the brain needs. The targeted cells secrete survival chemicals to help the neurons reach them. Some neurons reach their targets; others don’t and they die. This shaping of the body in the womb continues until we are fully formed and ready for birth.
It is nothing short of miraculous that the formation of the human fetus safely occurs and the baby thrives in the womb. But awareness of all the cell death going on during the gestation period reminds us that pregnancy is a risky business, both for the mother and for the child. Prenatal care has reduced the risk but not eliminated it. Death rates for mothers and babies in many parts of the world are still high.
The pregnant woman needs to be surrounded and supported by the faith community, especially in situations where she is separated geographically from extended family members. She and the father should know that they are included in the prayers of the church. Thanksgiving should be offered for the safe delivery of the child but also for the life of the mother. This was the rite of the “churching of women” forty days after childbirth, a form of which is still provided in The Book of Common Prayer (“Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child,” pp. 439-446).
Once we are born, our cells continue to die. It is estimated that one hundred thousand cells die every second in the adult human body, which also means that another one hundred thousand cells are born every second to replace the ones that die. This contributes to our growth and to the many changes in our body over a lifetime. We retain some familiar features as we mature, and our minds are archives of memories. But our bodies are changing constantly.
But we will not continue to evolve forever because there is the issue of senescence or aging. As we get older our physical changes include the loss of muscle mass and the wrinkling of the skin. It takes more effort to fight gravity. Body parts begin to wear out. In some species life senescence and death happens as soon as reproduction has occurred. The Pacific salmon fights upstream to lays eggs and die. This is not true of all species. Mammals in particular must hang around to nourish and wean the young. Their reproduction is strung out one or two births at a time over a longer period of time. The higher primates live to see several generations of offspring.
Humans are in the upper echelons of longevity among the earth’s creatures, although not the longest. Psalm 90:10 suggests, “As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years.” This pales in comparison with the lifespans of the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Book of Genesis, much less the original immortality, but it is the psalmist’s estimate of the actuarial tables of his time, and it is close to accurate.
Human longevity of 80 and 90 years is not unknown in past ages. There were simply more circumstances that kept humans from attaining that age (e.g., disease, natural disasters, warfare), so the average lifespans were briefer. Well did the Great Litany include the petition, “From a sudden and evil death, deliver us, good Lord.” A good death was one in which there was time to prepare to die, surrounded by family members, and making last will and testament provisions for the living. Today advances in medicine, hygiene, sanitation, combined with better diets and exercise, give many of us the possibility of attaining the Bible’s fourscore years. But eventually the Grim Reaper comes calling, and the experience of dying shows that, when the end comes, our body goes downhill fast.
Cedric Mims has described the science of the body’s process of shutting down in great detail, which I have summarized in my book on Embodied Liturgy and won’t repeat here. But essentially the body begins to die when it is deprived of oxygen. Different cells in different parts of the body require more or less oxygen. If the heart stops, circulation stops and oxygen is not distributed throughout the body. This is clinical death, and it is potentially reversible if CPR is performed quickly enough. The brain requires a lot of oxygen and has little in reserve. Deprived of oxygen the brain shuts down in a matter of 4-6 minutes. This is biological death, which is not reversible.
Because of the uncertainty of how imminent death may be, at the first signs of decline into the pattern of dying, the pastor should be with the one who is dying, offering an opportunity for confession and absolution (in private), the reception of Holy Communion if the dying person can swallow (also offered to family members), and the commendation of the dying (which brings great comfort to both the dying and the living).
Upon death, the body cools down to room temperature and begins to decompose quickly. The millions of living organisms that live in the intestines began to break down their host by feeding on other organs in the body. The skin changes color, bloating occurs, and gas is emitted, causing odors. In ancient societies without refrigeration the body had to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Embalming, which was developed by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body for more extended funeral rites, removes the body fluids and the intestinal organs, the sources of corruption. Athanasius of Alexandria, an Egyptian, understood this process when he wrote, “You must know…that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it.”
Burial practices are probably the oldest human or humanoid rituals. There is archaeological evidence of elaborate Neanderthal burials 28,000 years ago! At a site called Sungir in Russia, objects were interred with the bodies of an elderly man, an adolescent boy, and a younger girl—beads made of mammoth tusks and polar fox teeth, and ivory pins and carvings. Perhaps many had been attached to clothing that has long since decomposed. In the study of diverse human societies, the most important archaeological finds come from tombs. Human beings have lovingly prepared their dead for burial and made provision to keep the body intact as long as possible, unless cremation was practiced. But there were more reasons for cremation than simply the practical. Among the Hindus destroying the body encouraged the soul to move on to its next incarnation. The Egyptians, on the other hand, wanted the soul to find its body.
In traditional societies, the family prepared the body for public viewing before burial or cremation by washing it, anointing it, and dressing it. This is what the myrrh-bearing women intended to do with the body of Jesus when they went to his tomb early in the morning on the third day after his death. Today we turn over those preparations to the funeral director. But there is no reason family members cannot deal with the body of their loved one themselves, at least with the guidance of the mortician. Families usually provide clothing, jewelry, and other objects that might be placed in the coffin. When my father died, his grandchildren placed several of his favorite objects in the coffin, including his TV remote control.
Christianity developed funeral liturgies that retained some aspects of the pagan practices of the societies from which Christians came, but added its own unique practices related to the hope of the resurrection and the expectation of eternal life. Psalms and alleluias accompanied the funeral procession, rather than dirges and laments. Like pagan Romans, Christians gathered in cemeteries outside the cities to remember their dead with a funeral meal. This was not the Refrigerium, but the Eucharist—celebrated on the mensa of the grave. But Christians also scandalized pagans by bringing dead bodies into their places of worship. Basilicas were erected over the graves of martyrs, and the remains of saints were entombed in altars or in the floor of the church building or in the surrounding cemetery. Churches now offer columbaria for the repose of ashes of the deceased. Christianity’s focus on the body has been as pervasive in death as in life.
Burial or Cremation?
The normative Christian practice has been a funeral liturgy in the church followed by burial. A funeral liturgy, as opposed to a memorial service, requires the body to be present. There has been a growing preference in our society for cremation and memorial services, rather than inhumation (burial) and funerals (the body present). This is because cremation is cheaper, and memorial services can be arranged at everyone’s convenience. Funerals are usually arranged within days of the death, since the body of the deceased cannot be preserved indefinitely.
Actually, funeral/burial or cremation/memorial is a false alternative. The body can be cremated as well as buried after a funeral liturgy. Churches and some funeral homes are making available coffin shells in which a wooden casket is placed that will be burned with the body (or buried). Barring this coffin shell, an ample funeral pall can cover the entire coffin. Anyway, what’s shameful about a simple pine box, perhaps with a cross carved into the cover?
Some people are interested in “green” burials in which the body is allowed to return to the soil via worms and microbes and “planted” under trees whose roots will be nourished by the decaying corpse. This means rejecting the use of (expensive) concrete vaults and metal coffins in favor of a wooden box put into a hole in the ground. This may not doable in every cemetery, but one can find cemeteries in which it is allowed. I’ve attended two burials (one in Indiana, the other in Virginia) in which the deceased bodies were buried in pine boxes in a hole in the ground. The mourners at the burials also took turns shoveling spades of dirt onto the coffin and filling the hole. The proclamation in the Order for the Burial of the Dead that the body of so-and-so is “laid to rest in the sure and certain of the resurrection to eternal life” is all the more powerful if the body is actually being laid to rest.
When it comes to the so-called “afterlife,” people have all kinds of notions about this. Some people believe in reincarnation—that after death our soul migrates into another body, perhaps some other animal form. Christians do not believe in reincarnation. Nor do we believe in an immortal soul, about which the Bible is mostly silent. The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds express the biblical and Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead, specifically the resurrection of the body.
This hope and expectation grew in the history of ancient Israel. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is a great vision of the resurrection of the body in which the Spirit or Breath of God is breathed into the raised bodies by the prophet to reanimate them (Ezekiel 37). We Christians do not believe that we have a divine spark within us that gives us immortality. There’s no immortal part of us waiting to be rid of the shell of the body. We do have a soul (psyche). The soul is who we are as a person—our personality, one might say. But who we are is inseparable from the body—this tangible but ever-changing body that has borne our scars and tears, and inevitably affected our souls with its traumas.
Eternal life is a gift of God. It is also an expression of love that God does not want to lose the creatures made in God’s own image. The God who created us in the first place will recreate us in the last place, with a glorified body and a purified soul joined together.
We have a hope in the resurrection of the body, but no experience of it. The only resurrection we know of so far in human history is Christ’s. People have been resuscitated. Even Jesus’s friend Lazarus was resuscitated. But resuscitation is not the same as resurrection. One of the interesting features of the resurrection stories is that Jesus’s friends and disciples did not always immediately recognize him until he did something familiar, like calling Mary Magdalene by name or breaking bread with the two disciples at Emmaus. These stories suggest that our resurrection bodies will be in continuity with our present bodies but also in discontinuity. Something about our physical appearance will be familiar to those who knew us, but, as St. Paul says, when the archangel blows the trumpet and the dead are raised, “we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:50).
Whatever the change will be for each of us, it will not be incorporeal. We will not enter eternity or inhabit a new earth without a body. We get ready for eternity not by ignoring the body, but by tending to its basic needs here and now. That means also according honor to the body when it expires, when it surrenders the breath of life for lack of oxygen. We should do no less for our deceased today than ice age humanoids did for their precious dead.
- ^One of the best discussions of the move away from Cartesian mind-body dualism to embodied mind theory is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy on the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
- ^See Eugene d’Aquili, “The neurobiology of myth and ritual,” in Eugene d’Aquili, Charles D. Laughlin, and J. McManus, The Spectrum of Ritual (New York: Columbia University Press, 19679).
- ^See Dennis L. Bushkofsky and Craig A. Satterlee, The Christian Life: Baptism and Life Passages. Using Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 149-81; still valuable is Phlip H. Pfatteicher, Commentary on the Occasional Services (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 139-64.
- ^Tyler Volk, Death (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009), 16-17.
- ^ William Clark, Sex and the Origins of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), xi.
- ^ Dorion Sagan, Sex (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009), 5.
- ^ Volk, 34-35.
- ^ Cedric Mims, When We Die: The Science, Culture, and Rituals of Death (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).
- ^Frank C. Senn, Embodied Liturgy: Lessons in Christian Ritual (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 242-43.
- ^Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation 44 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1953), 80.
- ^ See Nigel Barley, Grave Matters: A Lively History of Death Around the World (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), 54-55.
- ^ See Senn, Embodied Liturgy, 243-48.
- ^See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 147-63.