From the Gospel according to Matthew:
After conferring together, [the chief priests used the silver Judas returned] to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 27:7-8 (NRSV) – July 25, 2014)
Until our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary my wife had never traveled overseas. She’d been to Canada, but that was it for foreign travel for her. For our anniversary we went to Ireland, something we’d talked about doing for many years. In fact, it had been my plan for our honeymoon, but that (obviously) didn’t happen.
Since then, we’ve returned to Ireland and we’ve traveled in Israel and Palestine. Each time we’ve gone overseas (and I’ve made two other trips by myself), she has insisted that we up-date our wills, temporarily transfer assets to our children, and make other death preparations before leaving. My wife is afraid of dying in a foreign land and (I suppose) of being buried in a potter’s field.
I’m not. I don’t care where I die and I don’t care where I am buried.
I wonder if that difference between us is because there is a “family plot” where she knows her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are buried, whereas my deceased family members are just about everywhere.
My father, the first of my nuclear family to die, is buried in Las Vegas. My brother, the next, is buried in his hometown of Winfield, Kansas (his wish and that of his second wife, another Winfield native). My mother and stepfather were cremated and their ashes deposited in a church memory garden in southern California. My mother’s only brother, the only extended family member whose grave I know of (because I handled the arrangements), is buried in Winfield like my brother, but in a different cemetery. I have no idea where my grandparents are buried; my father’s parents are somewhere in Denver, Colorado, and my mother’s somewhere in or near Long Beach, California, I think. Visiting family graves for Decoration Day would be an expensive road trip!
There’s none of these places special enough to me — except maybe my hometown, Las Vegas — that I would want to be buried there, and even Las Vegas is without significant meaning to anyone else in my family. (Our daughter was born there, but she considers Kansas her “home place.”) So I bury me anywhere, even in a foreign country; I don’t care.
In any event, I wonder about those foreigners in that field. Like the man whose betrayal money purchased their graves, their burials would be attended to by non-family. Perhaps, like his, their burials would be hastily arranged and the rituals only partially attended to. Like him, they would be buried in tombs not their own. But did they care? I think not.
Recently, a group of us clergy were talking about funerals and funeral planning. One of our group pointed us to a wonderful essay by undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch entitled Tract: I commend it to you, as well. Interviewed about that piece by Frontline, Lynch said:
[Q] Will you care after your death if they take care of you in death as you did your dad? Will that matter?
[A] Whether or not my family is involved with the care of my body, that’s their business. I’ll be the dead guy, and the dead say nothing. This is a sign to me that they don’t care, that heaven is not having to worry about these things, so I’m determined not to worry about them either.
But, you know, we used to say to my father, who directed a fair few funerals, “What do you want done with you when you’re dead?” and he’d say, “Well, you’ll know what to do.” I think mine will know what to do, too, not because I’ve said, “Do this or that,” but because they have seen life as I have seen it, and they sort of know me and I know them. And so they’ll know what to do.
[Q] And yet you write that beautiful essay Tract in your book, The Undertaking, which is in some way a map, is it?
[A] Well, read it closely, and what I’ve written is that as long as they deal with it, I don’t care what they do. I do not care but that they do it honorably. That they do it for themselves I think is very important. So yeah, I enjoyed writing that piece. And I do think that while the dead don’t care, the dead matter. The dead matter to the living. And at least so far as my experience is concerned, the living who bear those burdens honorably are better off for it.
“The dead don’t care, the dead matter.” I don’t care and when I’m dead I’ll care even less. I really don’t think my scattered family members cared. Those foreigners buried in the potter’s field, once they were dead, didn’t care. But they did and do matter. They matter most to the One whom they were like, the one who had no hole, no next, no place to lay his head (Lk 9:58), not even a grave of his own, the One who like them (and like Moses before them) was “a stranger in a strange land.” (Ex 2:22, KJV)
“The dead don’t care, the dead matter.” And they matter to the One who has gone that way before.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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