From the Gospel according to Matthew:

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 27:57-62 (NRSV) – July 31, 2014)

Doorway into Bench TombOne evening during our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, while we were staying at the guest house of the White Sisters of Nazareth in Nazareth, our tour director took a group of us into the basement of the convent and then deeper underground. We entered an excavation in which a First Century home and, nearby, a tomb had been discovered and were preserved by the Sisters with little fanfare or public acknowledgment.

The tomb was the sort known as a “bench tomb” containing an outer room, where the bodies would be prepared, wrapped in linen and anointed with spiced, aromatic oils, and an inner room, where the bodies would be laid on stone benches carved in the walls. The bodies would repose for a few years while desert air, insects, and the processes of decay did their work. Later, perhaps after about four years, the bones would be removed, placed in an ossuary, and the ossuary taken to a necropolis for their permanent rest.

Our guide referred several times to the outer room as “the room where women wept.” It was the women’s job to attend to the bodies of the dead, to prepare them for their time of decay on the tomb’s stone benches. Each time he said it, I thought of a couple of lines from a poem by T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.”

And I wondered, what would the women have talked about as they went through the task of washing the bodies of the dead, anointing them with the oils, wrapping them with the linen bindings?

Would they talk only about the deceased? Or would the conversation move on to cover other things of daily life — marriages and births, departures from the village, illnesses and aches-and-pains? Would it stray into less familiar territory — philosophy and art, “talk of Michelangelo,” current politics, synagogue governance?

What might Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have discussed if they had had the opportunity to perform their ritual task that Friday afternoon? The gospels give us no clue and we are left with only our imaginations to fill in the gap. That is the frustration, as well as the beauty and wonder, of religion. True faith does not seek to answer every question, fill in every space, but leaves room for the believer’s active fancy to flesh out the story. What might the women have talked about? Use your imagination!


A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!


Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.