Read: Genesis 23
After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre …in the land of Canaan (Genesis 23:19, NRSV).
In the mountains you can take the same walk every day, but it’s never the same walk. The weather is a shape-shifter, for one, and can offer variety from one minute to the next. The flowers and the fields change their clothes more slowly, but having been here for over a month I am able to admire their shifting taste in fashion. The baby goats, formerly alarmed by my approach, now regard me with the nonchalance of teenagers. Are they just bored with me, or do I detect a hint of disdain?
What most of us forget is that we change as well. Our experiences alter our perspective on familiar landscapes. Think, for instance, of how different the world looks through Covid-colored lenses. Or, to cite a more slow-moving example, consider how the experience of parenthood changes our perspective on our own parents.
I thought of these things as I walked through this familiar passage from Genesis. Abraham, the wandering Aramean, is grieving for his wife, Sarah. But he is just passing through, so finding a final resting place for her presents special problems. If he and Sarah had purchased parallel plots in the local cemetery back in Haran, they are useless to them now.
The locals, who seem to have a deep respect for this grieving stranger, offer Abraham his choice of their best burial sites. In fact, he has his eye on a cave at the end of a field near Mamre. It’s a symbolic choice that makes us smile, since Mamre was the place where Sarah herself laughed at the news that she was going to become a mother (Genesis 18). Perhaps the memory gives Abraham some comfort, too. In any case, he insists on paying for the plot of land, and the Bible even describes the process by which the debt is paid. (One can’t help but wish that the rest of the conquest had been carried out with such courtesy….) The chapter ends with Abraham laying Sarah to rest in what is—in retrospect—a kind of down-payment on the promised land.
There is nothing fun about a funeral. But there is a deep sense of satisfaction and closure when we are able to carry out this final act of care for those we love. Of course, there is also the comfort we receive from those who take part in these rituals of leave-taking. We cry together. We embrace one another. We tell the old stories. We even laugh sometimes—we can’t help ourselves, after all, if we remember the good times. But mostly, we need to make sure that our loved one’s earthly remains are handled with honor and care. We “tuck them in” to their final resting place.
One of the cruelest aspects of “Coronatide” is the loss of these familiar funeral rituals. So as I pass through this familiar passage I find myself feeling something utterly new: jealousy. I am jealous of Abraham being able to bury his wife Sarah with such dignity—even among strangers.
I spoke with an Italian pastor yesterday about all the adjustments he and his parishioners had been forced to make during this pandemic. Some people were simply postponing funerals—holding their loved one’s ashes until a traditional funeral could take place. What happens, we wondered, to their grief in such situations? The funeral may be postponed, but grief will not wait. He told me he has held a couple of socially distanced funerals, but without singing and embracing, they fell far short of what the mourners needed most. And then there were the funerals with three living people present—the pastor and two mourners—all in masks.
The loss of familiar funeral rituals compounds our sense of loss. It is a cruel reality that must be faced if we are to avoid endangering the living. Still, I wonder if we might still be able to perform this final act of care with creativity and courage. It will not be what we are used to. It will not be what we imagined. But it may the best we can do during Coronatide. Finally, we will simply have to trust God to tuck our loved ones in.
Ponder this April 24, 2020 podcast from “The Daily” by the New York Times. It’s called “A New Way to Mourn,” and it includes an interview with Rev. Wayne Irwin, a retired minister of the United Church of Canada. Rev. Irwin, a veteran of 40 years of funerals, talks with the host about his experience of planning an on-line funeral for his wife, Flora May.
Pray this poem by Emily Dickinson:
Ample make this Bed
Make this Bed with Awe
In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair
Be its Mattress straight
Be its Pillow round
Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground.
Listen to Dan Forrest’s Song of the Wanderer.
Text: Johanna Anderson, Thomas Ken
Music: Dan Forrest, quoting Old Hundredth
“The View from Here” Series
As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.
And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.