Archive for April, 2012

Holy Saturday: Dead Bodies, Strawberries and Sushi

Easter shopping at the grocery store today, Katherine and I filled up our cart with great stuff – strawberries, chocolate, ice cream, salmon, and even some expensive sushi that Katherine loves but we rarely buy. Eating sushi on the way home, she told me, “You know, Mom, I’m feeling pretty good about Jesus right now. . . . Because he died, we get to eat sushi.” 


I was tempted to launch into a minivan discourse on Jesus’ suffering and death and the sober character of Holy Saturday, but came to my senses pretty quick.  Katherine is right. We ought to be feeling pretty good about Jesus right now. Because he died and rose from the dead, we get to eat strawberries and ice cream and chocolate and maybe even some sushi.  If Katherine is getting ahead of herself this weekend, that’s understandable. She knows a party is coming.   


I spend most Holy Saturdays having fun with my daughters as we get ready for Easter. My only truly grief-filled Holy Week was in 2009 – a few months after my mother’s death. That Holy Saturday was given over to thinking about dead bodies – Christ’s dead body, my mother’s dead body, my grandmother’s dead body.


Here are reflections about Holy Saturday and dead bodies written while I was grieving.  This is an excerpt from my book on grief that is coming out with Abingdon Press later this month – When the One You Love is Gone.


Holy Saturday and Dead Bodies

It is Holy Saturday—the still-point between the crucifixion on Friday and the resurrection on Sunday. To mark the day, I have been looking at paintings of Jesus in the tomb and ran across one that was unlike any other I had seen before: Hans Holbein’s  “Christ Entombed.” The Jesus of this painting looks so . . .  dead.  His face is grey; his mouth hangs open; his eyes are wide, in a fixed empty stare. The painting is horizontal, on a long narrow canvas.  We see Jesus as if he was enclosed in a narrow tomb, and we were viewing him from the side. His body is bruised. His wounds gape. It is a gruesome picture, repulsive frankly.

            Somehow, when I have thought of Jesus and the passion, I have tended to skip straight from the cross to the empty tomb.  It’s easier that way.  If I do think about the dead Jesus, something like Michelangelo’s Pieta comes to mind; there is an elegant beauty to his limp form, the clean white marble, his features so delicate.  That’s my kind of death. 

Holbein’s Christ is in no way beautiful, in no way clean, in no way delicate.  Here is a picture of Jesus that shows him as a corpse, a dead man, really truly dead.

            A dead Jesus is even more scandalous than a dying one. Christians should be wearing little tombs around their necks instead of crosses.  The astonishing thing isn’t just that God in Christ was dying but that God in Christ was actually dead, entombed. 

            Really, that’s a lot more shocking than the resurrection. After all, what is a little bodily resurrection for the Almighty? How hard could that be? But God dying? It’s beyond comprehension.  

            The dead, entombed Jesus with his ashen face and open wounds takes on new power for me this Holy Saturday.  Not quite ten weeks ago, in one of those private “visitation” rooms at the funeral home, I was standing with the women of my family by my mother’s corpse, her really, truly dead body.  She had asked for a simple burial—a plain wooden box, no embalming, no mortuary beauty treatments.

            There her body lay, just as it had come from the hospital, just as she had come from the hospital, on a gurney with a sheet beneath her.  She was in her skimpy hospital gown and still wore bandages.

            Because she had died of an infection, or maybe just because she was dead, we were advised by the staff of the funeral home to put on rubber gloves to care for our mother’s precious body. Our sister-in-law Susan brushed her hair, thin and grey in death as it had not been in life until the very end.  Deborah took off the stained bandages and cleaned her wounds. We tried to remove the adhesive from her skin and to fix her body as best we could, but there was a limit to how much we could do. She was so battered—the incisions, the abrasions, the bruises.  No amount of tending and care could change that heart-breaking fact. 

As we cleaned her body, I remembered all the times she had cared for our bodies. These breasts provided our first food. These lips kissed our wounds. These stiff hands, once so warm and soft, had held ours through illness and night terrors. Now she lay there, her body shrunken, her hands stiff, her lips cold. 

Earlier in the day, Katherine, with the help of her aunt, had picked out the burial clothes: underwear, a simple black skirt, a turquoise turtleneck and a jacket.  The sandals Katherine had picked out wouldn’t stay on, so I took off my knee-high black boots and gave them to Mom . . . for keeps. Our twenty year-old niece, Zoe, added make-up: a little blush, some lipstick. Mom’s friend Daudet put on simple gold earrings.  We decided she looked pretty good . . . for a dead person. 

            As we dressed our mother, I remembered a day nineteen years earlier when my sister and I had stood with our mother by the corpse of her mother, dressing her for the last time, trying to get her stiff arms into the sleeves of the dress, working to get the panty hose slipped over her not so yielding legs. We sang hymns. We cried. We laughed.  

As we prepared our mother’s body, just as we had prepared our grandmother’s those many years before, I was struck by how very dead they looked, really truly dead. In the weeks following my mother’s death, I could not get the images of her sick body and her dead body out of my mind.

            Holbein’s Christ, ashen and entombed, is so powerful for me this year because I see now that long before my mother was wounded, long before she died and lay before us, an ashen corpse on a gurney, even long before she was born, God had come in human form and taken on not only human life, but also its woundedness and death in all its ugliness and brutality.  Christ took on not just his own woundedness and death, but my mother’s as well.  He took it on not just for that time, but for our time and for all time. 


The Resurrected Body

At the end of this Holy Week, I have been thinking not just about the wounded and dead body, but the resurrected one, too. Christians have speculated for millennia about what the resurrected body will look like. Medieval paintings sometimes portray fields of bodies being resurrected from the grave in what was considered at the time to be an ideal form—that of vibrant young men without blemish or defect. The young men climbing out of graves are very beautiful, but it seems somehow obscene.  What about the children and the women, the old people and even the sagging middle-aged people like me?  What about the bodies of the wounded and the infirm? 

            When the resurrected Christ appeared to his followers, he bore the wounds of the crucifixion in his resurrected body (John 20:19-29). Might it be true of the saints as well? Augustine, reflecting on the bodies of martyrs, wondered what would happen to their wounds at the resurrection. The “marks of the wounds,” he wrote, “will add lustre to their appearance.” These scars will be considered not blemishes but “marks of virtue.”[1] 

            This Holy Week I wonder what will count as beautiful in eternity. The very wounds and “defects” that we consider ugly in this world may be marks of beauty in the resurrected body. Perhaps my mother’s wounded body was beautiful in a way beyond our imagining. Her resurrected body may bear the marks of the wounds she took in this life, and those wounds may be her adornment, her beauty.  Might the same be true of our grief?  The wounds of the heart borne in this life may be our adornment in the next.




[1] Augustine, Book 22:19, City of God in Basic Writings of Augustine, Volume 2 (Kessinger Publishing, 2006), 640. See also Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection (Oxford University Press, 2007).