Burial Practices: Digging and Filling the Grave

Editor’s note: this is the latest in a series of posts about natural burial co-written by Kent Burreson and Beth Hoeltke. Their free, downloadable Bible study “Natural Burial: The Final Journey” (which also includes a burial planning guide) is available here: https://concordiatheology.org/2019/12/natural-burial-the-final-journey/.

Our bodies belong to our Creator who knitted us together in our mother’s womb. God then knits us together into the tapestry of the body of Christ. So incorporated into one another, we accompany each other on our baptismal journeys to the resurrected life in our renewed bodies within the new heaven and earth. We cradle our beloved fellow baptized in arms of love into death. While we loving care for our dead, loss, pain, and sadness cannot be ignored. We mourn the loss of their presence with us in this earthly life. Making this journey of mourning can be painful and difficult. Yet, rituals can assist us cathartically in making this journey, ultimately turning our mourning into dancing. We have already seen that caring for the body of our baptized dead is one ritual act that can assist in crossing that path of mourning. Another is to participate in the digging and filling of the grave of our brother or sister in Christ.

Digging the grave allows us to prepare the place of final earthly rest for the baptized. It is a caring act in which many of the people of God can participate. While digging a fairly large hole in the ground is hard work, since natural burial graves are dug to a depth of 3 ½ to 5 feet, it is a very manageable ritual when there are many hands involved. Most natural burial cemeteries will allow you to dig the grave unless there are reasons equipment must be used.

In the same way, the people of God can participate in lowering the body of the deceased into the grave and filling the grave with dirt, covering the body. Again, many of the baptized can participate, including children. The sound of dirt hitting the casket or shrouded body is the death knell. When we hear that sound we cannot escape the reality of earthly death. Our baptized sister or brother has returned to the earth. This ritual act, as with digging the grave, helps us to accept death and points us toward the end of the story: the resurrection of our beloved baptized. Through these ritual acts, we are immersed in the story of the dead, their baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. By participating in their story, and our story, we find comfort, healing, and hope for the journey into loss, sorrow, and pain. Digging and filling their graves helps us to carry the burden of their death together as the body of Christ and to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. One final act of love for those beloved by the heavenly Father.

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