Reflections At a Graveside

THE SUN WAS breaking through the clouds, and it was mild for a British January day. My friend had chosen to have a ‘natural burial’: he was to be buried in a wicker basket in an open field at the edge of a wood. 

I stood with his family and other friends under the eaves of the wood, overlooking the beautiful countryside of Herefordshire and Worcestershire with its rolling hills and green quilted farmland.

What were our thoughts as we laid him to rest? The grave seems so final. There is no opportunity to say anything we perhaps should have said before; even just to tell him how much he was loved, that we wished we could have spent more time together. In these situations there is a sense of emptiness, frustration, loss and finality.

Jesus at the Graveside

It is interesting to think of the Lord Jesus at the graveside of his friend Lazarus. The account is in John chapter 11. How did he feel?

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the house of three close friends, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. Mary came out to meet him, weeping.

He groaned in the spirit and was troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

(John 11:33–36).

Grief, compassion, sympathy and even anger are suggested by the original Greek words which are used to describe how Jesus felt over the death of Lazarus. The anger almost certainly was because some of those present were insincere and were using the occasion to be critical.  As we read on we find that Jesus was in fact about to bring Lazarus back to life again—fully healed of the disease which had caused him to die. But let’s make no mistake, Jesus genuinely felt the grief as all other human beings do, standing beside the grave of a loved one.

Why Do We Die?

I hardly need to ask the question: why is death such a terrible thing? The answer takes us back to the very beginning—to Genesis chapter 3. Adam and Eve had been given a command, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17). They disregarded God’s command and did their own thing. God had said that they would die if they ate the fruit, and so it happened—their nature was changed and they became dying creatures.

Was this not right? What a dreadful thing it would have been if they had become immortal sinners, considering the amount of wickedness some people manage to cram into one life-time!

So there had to be one rule for all. This was God’s sentence:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3: 17–19).

This is not the full story, but what it amounts to is that humankind’s existence from then on would be a struggle, which would be a constant reminder of mortality. This theme is continued throughout the Bible:

Nevertheless man, though in honour, does not remain; he is like the beasts that perish

(Psalm 49:12).

This is pretty terrible stuff! But what we should also realise is that it is all out of God’s love for us. The entire human race has become corrupt because of sin,* and living for ever in that state of corruption would be a terrible condemnation. So, yes, we die—and potentially we perish for ever. But God has given us hope.

Hope Beyond Death

John’s Gospel expresses this beautifully:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16–17).

Yes, there is still corruption at work amongst all men and women—but by faith in God there is also hope of an everlasting and incorruptible life.

So as I stood at the graveside of my friend, I was comforted in the knowledge that not only was he loved by all of us standing there: he was loved by God also. And God is able to make him live again.

My friend believed in God, and his life revolved around that belief. In his life he had tried by faith to follow the example of Jesus, who had lived an ordinary human life subject to all the challenges of human nature, but unlike us overcame them all. Jesus died a terrible death on the cross, then rose again from the dead—the same Jesus, and recognisably so, to live for ever. He is alive even now, in heaven, watching over his people and waiting for that time when he will return to set up God’s Kingdom. When he returns he will take to himself those who have followed him in their lives —whether they are alive or dead at the time he returns, that won’t matter—and they will live with him for ever in his Kingdom.

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Notice how the Apostle Paul expresses this. Those who are loved by God are described, not as perishing, but as asleep. Naturally, at the end of each day, we go to sleep and expect to awaken in the morning, refreshed, ready to start again—so this is the hope for all true believers.

Paul continues:

For since by man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at his coming (vs. 21–23).

My friend is sleeping, and awaits the resurrection at the last day.

What Matters in Life

So what really matters? It matters of course that we have used this life well—to the honour and glory of God, living it as closely as we can to the revealed will of God, by faith.

It matters that amassing a fortune, having a good time, worldly ambition, human pride all count for nothing. What really matters is that we believe in God’s love for us—that He is willing to forgive us for all our weakness and sin through the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are baptised and live as he wants us to then when he returns he will by grace grant us that wondrous blessing of eternal healthfulness—whether we are alive or dead at the time.

He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son (Revelation 21: 7).

And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith (1 John 5:4).

So on that bright winter morning as I gazed into the grave’s abyss, it was in the sure and certain hope that my friend will rise from the dead. By God’s grace we will meet again.

David Nightingale