Works of Mercy: Burying the Dead

Preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at Worcester College Chapel on 8th February 2015.

Thank you very much to the Chaplain for his warm welcome.  It is always a pleasure to return to this, probably the most visually stunning Chapel in Oxford.  Like yourselves, I have often studied its many intriguing images and messages during the odd moment in a sermon.  The Chaplain’s seat directly faces a rather salutary frieze that I am rather fond of.  It depicts only five of the traditional seven stages of man’s life: a child in arms, the toddler learning to walk, a youth, a young man as he is at this College, then him as a man of the world and finally, at the very top, a funeral pyre with a woman weeping beside it.  Nursing mothers and young children are not unknown in this college, thanks to the wonderful heritage of the boy choristers and now the new blossoming Frideswide Voices with its girl choristers, there are also a few young men and women about the place, but the sight of a funeral pyre or a coffin is a rare occurrence.  On the odd occasion when one is processed from a hearse round into the Chapel, it seems odd, strange, out of place in the world which is so full of life, and youth and expectation.  There are curious looks and awkward pauses from those who rush to get to lectures and have the misfortune to bump into this somewhat unusual spectacle.


As parish priest to three beautiful medieval churches and their equally idyllic churchyards the case is very different.  With up to thirty funerals a year I now find that one of my main tasks is to fulfil that work of mercy which is to bury the dead.  Death and the sacred rituals which surround the end of life is a normative part of my world and the world of the villages of Garsington, Cuddesdon and Horspath.   The sight of a hearse driving round the village lanes in which the deceased played and lived is a regular occurrence and the folk who come to pay their last respects invariably will have at least two or three such occasions to attend each month.  Saying that, one of the images which has most haunted me over the last six months has been a photograph on the Medicin Sans Frontiere website that showed an open grave in Sierre Leonne.  Unlike the open graves I see in Garsington churchyard this one was deep and ten times as large, because it was a mass grave that held about 20 bodies, wrapped up in white shrouds lying next to each other.  An aid worker stood at one end and a few people were dotted around including a young girl, not much older than my Katie.  All I could think was why was the grave still left open, why didn’t they cover them over and give them peace, who was there to say the funeral service for them, where was a priest?  At the height of the ebola pandemic last year who was it that was burying the dead?


During the equivalent catastrophe in England during the 1340’s and then again in the 1360’s the answer to that question was clear, it was the priests, the ordinary parson who carried out his duty to bury the dead.  Yet of all the victims of the Black Death it was these loyal servants of the church that most suffered with two thirds of them being wiped out in a matter of months.  Even today, so many years later, where our world view is radically altered, it is still the parish priest who buries the dead.  A humanist minister, or Funeral Chaplain may now have replaced the parson at the crematorium but no one can be lowered into a grave within a churchyard without the Incumbent or equivalent priest being present.  It has been commented before by those who have lived through the harrying experience of the death of a loved one, that in the days to follow it feels as if the professionals move in, from the police who must be called out if such an incident happens at home, to the funeral director that takes them away, to the priest who comes to arrange the ceremonial.  They may have a chance to see them in the chapel of rest to say goodbye but it is these professionals who lay the last human hand on their coffin and fills in the open grave.  The most a family is able to do in burying their loved one is to sprinkle some earth or flowers at the service.  For in our modern world burying the dead has become privatised by a series of professionals, who in the most sensitive and compassionate way, help a grieving family to navigate the dark waters of burying their dead.


Once I had got over the initial visualisation of the terrible toil that has been exacted on communities by the ebola epidemic, I guess what it was that so shocked me about the Medicin Sans Frontiere photograph was its lack of these figures who have become so necessary in the modern process of laying the dead to rest.  There was no funeral director, no priest and most telling of all no grieving family in this picture only a little girl and an aid worker.  This picture reminded me that to bury the dead is more than just the role of the priest or the responsibility of the family, it is a work of mercy that we are all bidden to do as we live out our faith in practical and real ways.


The scriptural basis for including this within the corporeal acts of mercy can be found in the book of Tobit which is one of the Aprocryphal or Deutercanonical books of the Old Testament.  Tobit is probably most famous for his son Tobias who had the archangel Raphael as his guardian angel, but Tobit like Daniel is an icon of a loyal Israelite who even in captivity under the Assyrians kept living out his faith in ordinary and practical  ways.  He fulfilled the corporeal acts of mercy by giving food to the hungry, clothing the naked and ‘if I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it’ (Tobit 1:16).  So he displayed the mercy of God to those he knew and did not know by ensuring that the dead were given some form of respect and burial.  I hope that none of us will find ourselves in such a desperate situation that it is down to us to physically lay the dead to rest, yet there are such people even now across the world whose task it is to do this.  So how can we, in the world in which we do live, fulfil this mandate to bury to dead?


At Christmas time in Garsington churchyard a remarkable transformation begins to slowly take place over the weeks which lead up to this central of all festivals as the graves begin to be visited and covered in beautiful wreaths of flowers and candles.  The sight of so many physical emblems of grief reminds everyone who walks down the path to the church that whilst Christmas is a time of family and fun for many it is a poignant reminder of loss and the empty chair that will no longer be filled.  Months even years after a loved one has been laid in the ground there is still the need for someone to act and speak those words of the kindness and mercy of God.  For the professionals soon leave, even though we would wish to be there every day to help that person through their grief there is the next funeral to do, so it is the rest of us who must overcome our timidity and fear of saying the wrong thing to reach out to those who still need help to bury their loved ones and release them into the eternal.  But here we must remember that it is not us who act or speak but it is the mercy of God and we are but his messenger, his angel who through a card or a kind word, a cake or a smile will enable someone to gradually let go into new life and help them bury the dead.  Amen.