Every Roman Catholic might not observe all the traditional, religious practices associated with the death of a loved one. And, chances are, every Jewish believer does not carry out each prescription of his ancestors regarding the dead. Yet, Jews have worthy customs surrounding the loss of a loved one that date back centuries. Thanks to the Internet and “The Jewish Virtual Library” online, the rites of Jewish burial are handily and sympathetically outlined for all to ponder.
The Jewish Virtual Library reports that after a person dies, the body is never left alone until after burial, as a sign of respect. The people who sit with the dead body are called “guards” or “keepers.” Respect for the dead body is a matter of paramount importance. For example, the keepers may not eat, drink, or perform a commandment in the presence of the dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead, because the dead can no longer do these things.
Most communities have an organization to care for the dead, known as the holy society. Their work is considered extremely meritorious, because they are performing a service for someone who can never repay them. In preparation for the burial, the body is thoroughly cleaned and wrapped in a simple, plain linen shroud. The Sages decreed that both the dress of the body and the coffin should be simple, so that a poor person would not receive less honor in death than a rich person. The body is not embalmed, and no organs or fluids may be removed. The body must not be cremated. It must be buried in the earth. Coffins are not required, but if they are used, they must have holes drilled in them so the body comes in contact with the earth. The body is never displayed at funerals; open casket ceremonies are forbidden by Jewish law. According to Jewish law, exposing a body is considered disrespectful, because it allows not only friends, but also enemies to view the dead, mocking their helpless state.
Jewish law requires that a tombstone be prepared, so that the deceased will not be forgotten and the grave will not be desecrated. Some communities keep the tombstone veiled, or delay in putting it up, until the end of the 12-month mourning period since the dead cannot be forgotten while being mourned every day. In communities where this custom is observed, there is generally a formal unveiling ceremony when the tombstone is revealed.
Now, with all due respect, the reader is asked to contrast this deferential, dutiful attitude of Jewish tradition with the haughty approach of Jesus Christ, himself a Jew, in this Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus makes a startling demand: “And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God .” Jesus’ stipulation would be a shock to Jewish ears — and probably to the ears of any mourning disciple, then or now. Philosophers have observed that respect for the dead is the measure of a society. So leaving the dead to bury the dead clearly comes across as a rude, even insolent, requirement on the part of the Master.
Jesus’ seeming disrespect for the dead may remind the reader of Jesus’ equally shocking disregard for the Sabbath. The Sabbath rest was the very sign of the Mosaic covenant. The Sabbath was virtually inviolable in Jewish practice. Yet, Jesus exalts himself even above the Sabbath: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath,” he reminds his startled audience. Certainly Jesus is not merely being pompous either in his remarks about the Sabbath or in his instruction about the dead. Jesus well knows that his ancient Jewish society held the Sabbath and the dead in great esteem. He clearly knows that these were prized aspects of Jewish life.
Consequently, Jesus uses shock value to drive home the point that if the Jews respect the dead and if the Jews respect the Sabbath, then they should respect him even more. Indeed, Jesus, as Son of God, as Messiah, outranks the dead and outranks even the Sabbath. Jesus himself is truly a new covenant, a new promise, a new approach to God, outranking all previous beliefs and practices. Jesus deliberately shakes up his audience, insisting that they take a second look at him, demanding that they understand the excellence of the person who stands before them, requiring that they reverence him ever more than their beloved dead.
Jesus’ hyperbole is justified when the believer considers that this cheeky preacher is none other than the Son of God, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the very savior of the world himself.