Christian burial

By Micah Jackson

A couple of weeks ago, Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, died after a long illness. As an admirer of Billy Graham, I was sad that his wife had passed away, but I will confess that one of the first questions that came into my head when I heard the news was “where will she be buried?”

This was not a random question. For the last several months of her life, there had been some controversy about plans for her gravesite. Last December, The Washington Post reported that Ruth and Billy’s son, Franklin, wanted them to be buried at the now open Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Ruth, according to the story, didn’t like the Library, and wanted to be buried at The Cove, the Graham’s rural home near Asheville. She felt that the Library was too commercial, and wasn’t the kind of place she’d like to have her body. Novelist, family friend, and Ruth Graham biographer, Patricia Cornwell, also opposed the Charlotte site. “I was horrified by what I saw,” she told Billy after touring the library. Ultimately, the leaders of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association prevailed. When Ruth Graham was laid to rest, it was at the place Franklin favored, a garden at the end of a cross-shaped stone walkway, at the end of the Billy Graham Library and Museum tour.

It reminded me of another recent controversy about the burial site of a celebrity. When Rosa Parks died in 2005, her body was laid at the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Detroit. Though she and some of her family members received their plots for free, prices to be buried at the chapel skyrocketed, especially after her death. Reports indicated that the cost rose to more than $65,000 for plots near the woman who many say touched off the civil rights movement.

This is nothing new, really. Early in Christian history, many people wanted to be buried ad sanctos, near the martyrs. At first there was competition for actual burial plots near those whose faith was officially recognized. When that became impossible due to the large number of Christians (and the comparatively few saints), people began scattering the ashes of the faithful near the graves of the saints, and then finally near any site associated with them in life.

Why this human fascination with the final resting place of a person’s body? Should it matter to a Christian how their mortal remains are treated or where they are laid to rest? After all, the body is just a shell. After death the soul is released from this world and makes its way to the next. But, (if you read 1 Cor 3:16 this way) the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and should be treated with the utmost respect. Jesus had a body, just like ours, and we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.”

The Book of Common Prayer is clear, “Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church.” (BCP 468, 490) The burial rite assumes that a coffin with the body normally will be present at the funeral, though Episcopalians are choosing cremation in increasingly greater numbers. And this makes sense. Because the Spirit of God resides in our bodies, and because we have been marked with the cross of Christ at our baptism, our bodies are holy, and should be disposed of as any holy object when its useful life is over—by burial in the earth, or by reverent burning. During the funeral, the body is censed with three swings, the same honor paid to a cross, a gospel book, or any other symbol of Christ and his Resurrection.

Christians have always honored the mortal remains of the faithful dead as the former home of a member of Christ’s body. And this is as it should be. But our true home is in Heaven with our God. Disputes over the disposition of our bodies aren’t worth a family splitting argument, or a $65,000 price tag.

The Rev. Micah Jackson, a priest of the Diocese of Chicago, is a doctoral student in Homiletics at the Graduate Theological Union. His personal blog is St. Jerome’s Library.

Past Posts