Grandmother invited my new bride and I to move in with her for a few months after we were married, and again for another few months the following year after coming back from a time in school out of state, before we settled in our own place. Thus she gave us, as a newlywed couple, our first home. Almost exactly twenty years later, I visited her at her home (with a few brief exceptions, she continued to live on her own until the end of her life). She clearly didn't feel well, had a headache, and was struggling to breathe that night, but she had these bouts from time to time, and she recovered fairly well before I left. I heated up a frozen microwave meal for her, though she didn't seem much inclined to eat. It would turn out to be her last meal in this life. The next morning, my Dad found her, unconscious, and called for an ambulance. Two days later, she was gone.
What follows below is, first, my brief eulogy; then, the graveside service from the BCP. I adapted it slightly for our needs, but the only original element is the short sermon in the middle. I publish these here today in memory of Grandmother, with gratitude for her life and faith.
Grandmother, you knew this day would come. You hinted at it for years. We waved off the hints, less brave than you to face the beginning of the next chapter of your story. But it was more than a failure of courage: we simply couldn’t imagine anything, even death, outlasting you. You outlasted the Depression, World War, the early loss of a father, the early loss of a husband, and forty years of widowhood. You outlasted repeated assaults on the fortress of your flesh, coming home from the hospital time and again when the doctors said you wouldn’t; going back home to live on your own time and again when we said you wouldn’t.
You loved me as your first grandson. You loved my wife as if she were your own flesh and blood. When marriage was just behind, you were happy to give us our first home. When death was just ahead, I was honored to give you your last meal.
Through every change, you remained standing when the dust had settled. Breathing hard, with the effort of living, and with the pain of weakened lungs, but still standing. And when you could stand no more, we stood and sang around your bed, surprised that this day had come, surprised that you had not found a way to outlast once more. You fell asleep in the nighttime, and morning had not yet come.
We will lay you to rest in Tennessee, your first, but not your final, home. From dust to flesh 85 years ago, and you were born into this earthly world, your first home. From flesh to dust now, and you are born into the heavenly world, your second home. But still not your final home. Not yet. For someday, dust will turn to flesh once again. One final change. Then you will have outlasted the last enemy, and you will breathe hard again, with the effort of living; but no weakness, no pain. Only joy. And I will see the old strength again, reawakened, and reborn. Dust to flesh. Then it will be morning.
The Order for
The Burial of the Dead
I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
De profundis. Psalm cxxx.
OUT of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord; * Lord, hear my voice.
O let thine ears consider well * the voice of my complaint.
If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is sinfully done, * O Lord, who may abide it?
For there is mercy with thee; * therefore shalt thou be feared.
I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him; * in his word is my trust.
My soul fleeth unto the Lord before the morning watch;
O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy, * and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel * from all his sins.
Let us sing together the first and last verses of Amazing Grace.
A reading from the fifteenth Chapter of the first Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
1 Corinthians xv.
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death...42 ...The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body...50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O Death, where is your sting?
O Death, where is your victory?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
Here follows the sermon.
“This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.” We’ve heard it often enough, and it is true enough. The heroes of the Faith in Hebrews 11 are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Heaven is the hope of the believer, the destination of the traveler, the comfort of the dying. To Heaven all who are in Christ shall surely go; when they close their eyes for the final time, they will awake in Heaven. We confess it, we believe it, it is true.
But there is more to the story. And it may be that, in missing, or perhaps forgetting, the rest of the story, we have allowed a bit of confusion in our minds. I suspect that, if pressed, most of us would remember the rest of the story, but it seems we don’t talk about it much. So many songs and poems talk about Heaven as if it were the final destination. But is it? We remember that the Bible speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth.” And it is this to which the Bible, from beginning to end, looks forward: we begin, in Genesis, in the Garden; we end, in Revelation, in the Garden-City. We are told in Psalm 22 of a time when “all the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD.” The Bible sets forth a time of redemption for this world, not just an escape to another world somewhere else.
Again, we do go to be with Christ in Heaven when we die; but God still has a purpose to redeem this world in the long run. When Paul says, in Philippians 3, that “our citizenship is in heaven,” he goes on to say, that we are waiting, not just to go to Heaven, but for Jesus to come from Heaven. And for what purpose? Paul says, in verse 21, that Christ “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”
And John looks for a day “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment."
Thus, what awaits those who die in Christ is blessing, and peace, in the presence of God, but only as a temporary place of rest. In the Biblical story, history does not end with God’s people going to Heaven, but with Heaven coming down to Earth: “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.” Thus John in Revelation 21. Notice that it is not that men go to dwell with God, but that God comes to dwell with men.
The resurrection of the body: we will not live forever as disembodied spirits, but with real, physical bodies. Again, the dead will come out of their graves; God will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body. What was His glorious body like? He clearly possessed supernatural powers, but he also ate fish; and he said, “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And in the Scripture we read earlier, it is the body that is sown in corruption, dishonor, and weakness; and thus it is the body that is raised in incorruption, glory, and power. If you are in Christ, you will not be playing a harp on a cloud forever, like in the Sunday comics. You will have a glorified body, and you will live in an earth transformed by the presence of Heaven.
There is, therefore, as one theologian puts it, such a thing as “Life after Life after Death.” Or as another pastor once said, “Heaven is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.”
As we say farewell to Mary Russell, better known as Molly, as Mom, as Grandmother, we should think of her new life in biblical terms, for she has gone on ahead of us, and she, I am quite sure, understands all this far better than I do. Doubtless, if she could hear this weak attempt at explanation, she would laugh at some of my misunderstandings. But as we think of her, and what her life is like now, there are certain things we can be sure of: first, she is far better off. All weakness is gone, all pain, all sickness is over forever. Second, she is with Christ, for to be absent from the body, Paul tells us, is to be present with the Lord. Third, she is in a place where she will not remain forever: someday, her spirit, now with God, will be reunited with this same body that we today commit to the ground. And just as the bodies of God’s people will undergo death and resurrection, so will this world, which will be transformed into a new Earth, united with Heaven at last.
This is the great hope of the Christian: that death will not have the final word. Death is an enemy, and even though we rejoice at Grandmother’s new life and joy, we feel the bitter wrath of that enemy as she is taken from us. But as we just read, death is the last enemy, and it too will be thrown down when Christ returns. If you are in Christ, you know the hope of life beyond the grave, with a resurrected body that will never know pain or death again. If you do not know that hope, I know that my Grandmother would want you to know it: to consider the truth of these promises made by the one who made the ultimate promise that He would rise on the third day after he had died; and the clear testimony of history tells us that he kept that promise. Grandmother would ask you to consider carefully and well the claims made by this man who changed the world by his death and resurrection.
Let us pray together as our Lord taught us.
OUR Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, As it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil. Amen.
O MERCIFUL God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life; in whom whosoever believeth, shall live, though he die; and whosoever liveth, and believeth in him, shall not die eternally; who also hath taught us, by his holy Apostle Saint Paul, not to be sorry, as men without hope, for those who sleep in him; We humbly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight; and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all who love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. Grant this, we beseech thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. Amen.
UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.
I HEARD a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit; for they rest from their labours.
ALL that the Father giveth me shall come to me: and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. He that raised up Jesus from the dead: will also quicken your mortal bodies by the spirit which dwelleth in you.
Wherefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.
Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fulness of joy: and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.
REMEMBER thy servant, O Lord, according to the favour which thou bearest unto thy people, and grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, she may go from strength to strength, in the life of perfect service, in thy heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
GRANDMOTHER, unto God’s gracious mercy and protection we commit you. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace, both now and evermore. Amen.
Go in peace.