The body in the box
Theology of death and dying with the 4 yo...
|With my Aunt Lorraine, circa 2014
(Snuggling in the silence after bedtime prayers)
4 yo: What happens when you die? Does your body break apart?
Me: Your body turns off, your heart stops beating and you wait for God to take you to heaven.
4 yo: But do you have the same body?
Me: In heaven? Well, I don't know.
4 yo: (Weepy) But I like my body!
Me: Well, honey, let's remember the Bible stories. Those are our best clues... (some chat about resurrection story).
4 yo: But how does God get you up to heaven?
Me: (Long explanation about putting bodies in the earth as a first step after death.)
4 yo: But they will get dirty!
Me: They put the bodies in a box.
4 yo: (Incredulous) What? A box? A box is too small? How can you move around?
Me: Well, you can't move around, you're dead. And the box is the size of a person. (More comments about death here).
4 yo: Mommy, what else don't I know about heaven?
We didn't know it, but my then-four-year-old would see his first body in a box just weeks later, when my beloved aunt and godmother Lorraine died. She was 85, a retired teacher and small-town museum founder, and had lived a life of enthusiasm, warmth and deep faith. We flew to her small Midwest town, just the kids and me, to attend her funeral. We arrived just in time for the visitation, where I softly and tenderly led my little ones to the side of the box where her body lie. My children, ages 4 and almost 2, peered inside, more curious than scared. We touched her hands. We were not afraid. I was glad I had told them that bodies end up in boxes.
Someone in my seminary training told me to always touch the bodies just after death. By which I mean, if you're the chaplain/pastor and the family has invited you into that sacred and holy space with one who has just died, touch the hand. Perhaps make the sign of the cross on the forehead. You give tacit permission for others to touch, too. It's not as scary then, whether you're four or forty-four. This is all different during a pandemic, of course. We weep for those lost moments of touch upon the living and the dead.
I don't know what God will do with our bodies someday. I don't know if the resurrection means that I'll be 5 feet 6 inches forever or if no laws of physics apply and our eternal form is beyond mortal comprehension. Maybe the latter? Like my 4 yo, I remember as a child panicking about the eternal fate of physical body, the one I was still trying to figure out. I'd seen a lot of bodies in boxes by then. As a child, we attended every funeral at our local Lutheran church (all with caskets) so my mom (and later me) could work with the ladies in the church kitchen, setting out platters of ham sandwiches, cookies and bars, and pitchers of thick, sweet punch.
It didn't occur to me then that the physical presence of the bodies at those services shared a mystical connection to the abundant food that the living ate after. The body of Christ, broken for you. Bodies broken, bodies fed. There's comfort in this rhythm, this blessed assurance, when I don't exactly know what to say to my kids or to myself. Our bodies are broken, our bodies are fed. The love of Christ doesn't always give me the answers, but it gives me nourishment to sustain, and to share.
Note: Conversation occurred February 17, 2018
Another note: This conversation doesn't reflect cremation or other burial methods, which I experience as just as holy. I had to pace myself with the 4 yo that night!