Buriers Without Barriers
Long before the Unsinkable Molly Brown, there were the Unbendable Myrrhbearing Women ...
If you don’t know who Antigone was in Greek mythology, you should. Her name means the “unbending one” (from anti- plus gon- “corner, bend,” as in diagonal, polygon).
Antigone’s tale has been the inspiration for plays and operas across centuries. Briefly told, her brother Polynices was on the wrong side in a civil war and was slain. King Creon decreed that no one should bury him. His corpse was to lie where it fell and suffer the ravages of wild animals and decay. In ancient Greek thought, to be unburied meant that one’s soul could not depart to its assigned place in Hades, and so it was a sentence of eternal homelessness as a literal lost soul. King Creon even set a guard over the body of Polynices to ensure that he would suffer this most ignominious of fates.
Antigone came and buried her brother anyway. She accomplished this by sneaking up on the body and throwing three handfuls of dust over it. Again, according to ancient Greek sensibilities, three handfuls of dust were sufficient to count as a burial, and to allow the soul to be released and to go into the underworld. But for this act Antigone was brought before the king. Creon questioned her: Did you not know the decree? Did you not know that the law is punishable by death?
Antigone was, true to her name, unbending. There is, she said, a more ancient law—a divine law—which takes precedent, which says that it is a duty to bury one’s dead. The divine law that a sister must bury her brother supersedes the law of any earthly king.
The ancient Jewish people had an even greater reverence for the deceased. They upped the ante, as is reflected in the Law of Moses. It is a commandment for a Jew to bury the dead—not just a brother or a relative—but any dead person who was found lacking the dignity of burial, Jew and non-Jew alike. This was more than a custom or a duty: it was a religious obligation for all. For the Jews the act of burying the dead was considered a mitzvah, a virtue, an opportunity to do something godly, which is to say, God-like. God Himself buried the unburied. Who? Moses, as we read in Deuteronomy 34:6. Of the seven works of mercy, the rabbis taught, the last and greatest of them all was to bury the dead—especially when the one did so without regard to personal expense, loss, or danger. Burying the dead was a supreme work of mercy, in part because it was a good deed for which no reward was possible, not even a “Thank you.” Dead men tell no tales, and they speak no gratitude, either.
Every year we set apart one Sunday to celebrate our own Unbending Women, the Myrrhbearers: the Theotokos, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleopas, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Joanna, Salome, and Susanna. They came to the tomb early in the morning to give Jesus the dignity of a traditional burial. Just sticking a corpse in a cave, they knew, hardly constituted a real committal: it was hardly better than three handfuls of dust.
They did their deed of mercy:
despite the peril of early morning darkness;
despite the threats from the Roman authorities;
despite the expense of costly myrrh and spices;
despite the exertion of carrying their supplies to the tomb;
despite the horror of having to handle a body long dead,
of contending with the mutilation of a scourged and crucified body.
It was, in short, a perfect storm of miserable circumstances into which the Myrrhbearing Women sallied forth. They were unbending in their resolve, even though there could be nothing in it for them but grief, pain, loss, shame, arrest, abuse, ostracism, and even death.
We celebrate the Myrrhbearing Women because they were chosen to be the first witnesses of the Resurrection. But saying only this skips half the story. Why were they chosen for this honor? It was not random or arbitrary. It was because they among all the disciples were the most worthy. They were brave when others were cowardly. They were faithful when others were faithless.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is said. It is also the sincerest form of praise. Beyond simply dedicating one Sunday out of fifty-two to the Myrrhbearers, we should follow their example of obedience to the will of God.
How? First, by seeing to the burial needs of our own departed. May it never be the case that any of our parishioners should not be buried simply because a burial costs more than a cremation. Truth be told, the price differential need not be as great as it might seem. If any member of our community is in danger of not being buried, the priest should be notified immediately. As a church we will find the funds to make a Christian burial possible. It will not be in a fancy casket or in a magnificent mausoleum or distant cemetery, and there may not a DVD photo montage or laminated prayer cards. But it will be a burial, as our Holy Tradition dictates.
Secondly, we should all make sure for ourselves that our desire to be buried and not burned is legally documented and known to our families. Better yet, set aside the money now to make this happen, so no heir feels that his or her inheritance is diminished by following your wishes. No longer can any of us assume that our adult children will know or respect our desire for an Orthodox funeral and a Christian burial—not when modern society pressures us to bend our faith to accept the “expediency” of cremation.
Thirdly, it would be a tremendous witness to our city if our parish were known to offer burial for those who might otherwise be disposed of like medical waste. In particular, a family that loses a child might be too strapped for cash to pay for a burial. Some churches and synagogues step forward to help in these circumstances. We should be one of them.
Like Antigone, like the Myrrhbearers, we will not bend! Let the financial barriers to Christian burial give way before we do!
“My son, let your tears fall for the dead, and as one who is suffering grievously begin the lament. Lay out his body with the honor due him and do not neglect his burial.” Sirach 38:16
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