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On Burying, or Planting in the Promise of the Resurrection
"[our] love... could not save her from death."
By Caroline Hummel
Every mother knows the distinct pleasure of fussing over her sleeping baby. In a pantomime performance, Mother straightens the blanket, adjusts the swaddle, and touches the beloved ear. Like a mother bird in springtime, she meticulously picks up each twig and sets it down in the same place. Even after the babies have grown, Mother checks on them after they have fallen asleep, and busily makes these unnecessary and unnoticed improvements.
Or consider a mother watching her child go through a medical treatment. I sang in an MRI machine on my hands and knees above my 3-month-old daughter to keep her still while the machine looked for a mass in her brain. I received my 6-month-old son wrapped in warmed blankets as he woke from anesthesia in post-op. The feeling in my ribcage was familiar: a pressing urgent desperation to make everything better for this tiny precious body. It is what the princess felt when, after the birth of her firstborn son, Rumpelstiltskin returned for his prize.
I did not expect to feel this for the dead.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Miscarriage ended my third pregnancy at five weeks. It was quick: a faint blue plus sign that vanished in blood. I stared at each clot, trying in vain to recognize the person I loved. I was ashamed of this diligent performance. Its soul is not here anymore, I told myself. Just stop. I was left with a thousand-image montage of what could have been. My rational brain could not cope with the massive reality of death even though mothers have mourned their babies since Eve mourned Abel. In 1921, the infant mortality rate was 76 per 1,000 live births. In 2021, 5.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. Miscarriages end an additional 20-25% of all pregnancies.
Sensing something had gone awry after finding out I was pregnant for the fifth time, I ordered labs. For a week, the percentage that reflected my child’s likelihood of survival cruelly shrank smaller and smaller. On Friday, my HCG had only increased by 20% when it was supposed to double daily. My body was again betraying me. Four days later, contractions swept over me for eight hours until I delivered my baby in a bathroom. It was 7 or 8 weeks old, perfectly formed, still in its sac. Instantly I became Mother Bird. I wanted to see if it was still alive, keep it warm, fuss over its precious self. Helpless, I choked back my instinct and told myself that my baby had already died. Every time I go into that bathroom, I regret not picking up my baby’s small body out of the toilet.
Three years later, I was startled to again wrestle with the same instinct when the cemetery employees wheeled my grandmother’s casket away. Looking at the smooth exterior of the casket, I felt that same raw love for her cold, vulnerable body. They placed the casket into the hearse and closed the hatch. I had the irrational instinct to run back and put my hands on the hearse. Something, again, stopped me. I walked away from the hearse that carried the coffin that carried the precious, empty body destined to return to dust.
Earlier, at her deathbed, I had whispered to her unresponsive body all about Christ’s atonement, our imperishable hope, and the future resurrection. I fussed over her blankets and kissed her smooth bald head. I love your whole person, I often think when I hold my tiny baby and sway next to the crib in the dark. I thought that now with my grandmother, the grandmother of pot roasts and oriental rugs and dancing in the kitchen, who now weighed less than a hundred pounds and lay still. I love your whole person. My grandfather sat in the corner and watched me as I whispered and sang all of God’s great promises. A silent kinship existed between us in the tremendous love that we shared for this small woman, a love that could not save her from death.
Since driving away from the cemetery, every time there is cold or rainy weather I struggle with regret that I did not touch the hearse. Against my will and reason, I often think of her body in the ground, out there in the cold. Even after death, our bodies temporarily hold on to the memory of our lives. Muscle memory, interrupted by the ceasefire of synapses, still shows itself for a while in the curve of shoulders or in the pattern of wrinkles. Months later, I consider the rate of decomposition, and wonder what is left of her. Every day, the chemical makeup of her body turns into other things separate from her. Time unmakes her.
In this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9)
When I sneak into my children’s rooms at night to fluff and fuss over their blankets after they have fallen asleep, I look in awe at their faces and hands that are destined to turn to dust. I tremble at the preciousness of their small bodies. I recognize that their little bodies will grow tall and strong until the bell curve changes direction. A moment will come when they realize that their bodies have been growing weaker and older. Long before that moment, the entropy will begin. I marvel that these bodies grew from microscopic babies like the ones I have mourned only to grow into aged empty bodies like the ones I have mourned.
These may seem like dark and morbid thoughts. They would be, if not for the resurrection. Each body that is laid in the ground, whom I have loved in its entirety, is not abandoned or forgotten. It is buried like a seed. One day my Lord will return to judge the earth, and then he will trample his enemies under his feet. Though destined to return to dust thanks to the curse, my own body and the bodies of my children are simultaneously destined to be raised in glory thanks to Christ. Knowing that the resurrection is a sure, fixed, and material reality—a historical event after which material people will eat a material feast—redeems the ache and the instinct to hold on to precious bodies even after the souls have left them behind. Christ will return to raise the bodies of his adopted children. Then will my instinct, to go back and unbury the dead, rest.
Caroline Hummel is wife of eight years to Jack, mom to four kids ages 1-7, and the Director of Advancement at Cedar Classical Academy in Okemos, MI (www.cedarclassicalacademy.org), which Caroline and Jack founded in 2019. In her free time, she likes to garden, gather, hunt, and fish.
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