Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Mark 15:43-45
Jesus’s body is taken down from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea for burial. According to the gospel accounts some of the women who followed Jesus are also there to receive the body and Nicodemus is present with fresh linens in which to wrap Jesus. In artistic renderings Mary cradles the body of her son the same way she cradled him as a child. The women leave to return home for the Sabbath and to prepare spices and ointments to bring back for the proper anointing and burial of the body of their friend and kinsman.
In reference to anointing I think of the beautiful Japanese film, The Departures, in which the main character is a cellist whose work ends when the orchestra he was working for closes its doors. He returns to his rural home town but he cannot find work to support himself and his wife. He answers an ad to assist with departures thinking he will be a travel agent only to be hired on as a kind of mortician. He is responsible for the ritual washing and preparation of bodies before cremation. The ritual washing is attended by family members who are present to honor the deceased. There is an artistic, almost musical quality to the washing. Yet, the duties of dealing with death are considered to make the cellist unclean and his wife leaves him in shame. When a family friend dies and the wife returns to observe the preparation ritual, she finds that there is deep tenderness and beauty in her husband’s care for the body of the friend. The wife who is pregnant, returns to her husband.
Another story that gives me context for my thoughts on receiving the body was told by Kate Braestrup who is the Chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. She talks about a little girl who wants to see her young cousin who has died in a car accident. After consulting with the chaplain, the girl’s parents decide to allow it and what follows is a sweet description of a little girl talking with and embracing her playmate as she says goodbye. Braestrop’s story includes her own experience after the death of her husband and her decision to see and bath his body. She emphasizes the importance of respecting the wishes of the family members who want to see, touch and honor the body of their loved ones after a tragic death.
Touch is an essential quality of human connection. Grief speaks achingly of love. Caring for the body of the deceased is a physical manifestation of both. Jesus body is taken down from the cross and tenderly received by a few of his followers – this body that has manifest all of the love and compassion of God is in fact broken for us.