Some have voiced the opinion that we should have exploited the body ourselves. There are some who take a macabre satisfaction from desecrating a body. It is not enough that Bin Laden’s mortal coil may have already been served up as shark food. One is reminded of John Wayne in The Searchers who shoots the eyes out of a dead Apache warrior. Ward Bond rebukes him, saying that it doesn’t matter. “It matters to him” is John Wayne’s reply.
It does matter to us. Back in 1993 when the Somalis were dragging the body of an American Serviceman through Bahara market in Mogadishu our collective horror was more intense than if that soldier were alive and being held hostage. Here on the home front, as we go to funerals for our family and friends, we know that nothing offends our sensibilities more than the thought that the soul-less body we are remembering is somehow being disrespected. A matter as simple as too much make-up, a badly done hair-do, or a poorly chosen photograph will be enough to add chaos to anguish and damage feelings for a generation. Complicating all this is the fact that the definition of “decent” is somewhat subjective. I know that it is respectful to have President Woodrow Wilson’s sarcophagus on public display at the National Cathedral, and that it is not respectful to prop up Nikolai Lenin’s embalmed corpse behind a plate of bullet-proof glass and place it on public display in Moscow. But a Muscovite might not see the distinction.
A decent burial matters to us – always has. It mattered to the Israelites that the Philistines possessed the decapitated head of Saul (I Samuel 31.8-13). It mattered to Priam that Achilles possessed the corpse of his son Hector. It matters to us that no soldier, sailor, airman, or marine is left behind on the battlefield. We know why men risk their lives for a slain comrade. We know why the Tomb of the Unknowns is sacred ground.
Jesus had a decent burial. He had as loving and opulent a burial as could be achieved late on a Friday afternoon of Passover. His body was washed, rubbed in a preliminary mixture of myrrh and spices, and wrapped in a white shroud by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Then he was placed in Joseph’s garden tomb. The Pharisees were afraid that Jesus’ followers, extremists in their eyes, might try to do something with the body, and so demanded and received a guard from Pontius Pilate. They were wrong. We didn’t do anything with the body, and no one today is sure which tomb in Jerusalem was used briefly by the Son of God.
The tomb was empty on Sunday morning – it was no longer needed, for there was no longer any corpse. Jesus is risen – physically risen – able to display his wounds and to eat fish for breakfast (John 20.26-29; 21.12-15).
Perhaps our concern for corpses is a manifestation of our powerlessness in the face of death. Let us never forget that death is defeated (I Corinthians 15.51-58), and that the victor over death shares that victory with us (Romans 6.4-11). Jesus asks us all, through our sister Martha, this defining question:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? John 11.25-26
Her answer is, “Yes, Lord, I have (completely) believed….” (v.27). Is it our answer?