Burial by Water
Neil Gaiman writes incredibly creepy stories, and in his landmark “Sandman” comic series one of the creepiest is Cerements (Sandman #55, collected in World’s End). It describes a city called Litharge, somewhere that is not quite this world. Litharge is a city totally dedicated to the rituals of death and the reverent disposal of the dead. Its citizens are all master undertakers, and people send their bodies to Litharge for burial. There are five types of burial, as young apprentice Petrefax rehearses to his master Klaproth: burial by earth, burial by fire, burial by mummification, burial by air, and burial by water. There are variations on each of these.
How do you wish to be buried? In our society most people go for interment in the ground, or cremation. I usually tell people I want to have my own plot six foot by two, on which my weeping widow and children can fling themselves, and I don’t care for cremation for myself because there are more green ways to reverently dispose of a body. But I am also somewhat intrigued with burial at sea, where a body is slid into the ocean – but I am not aware of any funeral home or burial society offering that option.
But, of course, I’ve already been buried – buried with Christ by baptism into his death. This is described in today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Baptism is a burial by water, and this is most obvious when one is baptised by immersion. One goes under the water and comes up again, corresponding to death and resurrection. This death does not replace the death of the body that we must still face, but it is the means by which we join with Jesus in his dying to sin and rising to new life. Whatever dominion sin had over us is negated, and we are free from its effects.
What does it mean to say that we are to consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”? The freedom we now have is a freedom to do good works, to worship God in Christ without fear, and to assist our neighbours near and far. It is not a license to act as if we are beyond good and evil, but an encouragement to live as if the fullness of the resurrection is already here, and the day of judgement has arrived. So we share our goods, inviting all who can to join us at the feat of the table of the Lord. Cosmic categories seemingly from creation collapse, and we act as if in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The gifts of the Spirit come to each of us and we use them for building up the body of Christ. This is not a mere imputation of righteousness – the sanctification of the person is what the resurrection looks like in the remainder of this life. We become more Christ-like.
I don’t worry much about death. Not that I do not have life insurance or a will, and I don’t take unnecessary chances while crossing the street; I do not want to die early, and I do want my affairs in order. I am probably more concerned about those who live after me and who love me. But I do not worry about what will happen to me, because I have the hope of the resurrection and the knowledge of a merciful God. I know that I have sinned and gone astray, but the God revealed to me in Christ is one who forgives me in spite of all that. When I die, God will not be done with me, although what will happen after that is, in most senses, beyond words. But having been buried with Christ I seek to walk by the newness of life.