Burial Procedures and Jesus’ Resurrection

“The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) estimates that over half of Americans now choose cremation over burial, and it expects more people to do so in the future. In fact, NFDA expects cremation trends will become the rule by 2040, when they predict almost 80% of funerals will center around cremation.”*   

Yes, people today are moving away from the time-honored practice of embalming, a process that forestalls the decomposition of the body so that it may be viewed during a funeral service.

In Jesus’ day, dead bodies were washed and anointed with expensive perfumes like nard, myrrh, and aloe [not quite meeting today’s standard for embalming].    The body was tightly wrapped in a shroud, the face covered in a special cloth and the hands and feet were tied down  with special cloths. 

Why start a post with a discussion of funeral procedures?

The main reason is that these procedures support the idea that Jesus was indeed resurrected from the dead and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the key factor for many believers.  Doubt about resurrection is a key stumbling block for nonbelievers. 

Resurrection is so important because it proves the immense power of God.  Scripture says that God created the universe.  If God has power over the universe, why would God not have power over death?  He created life so why can’t He resurrect the deceased after they die?  Resurrection also proves that Jesus was indeed who He said He was.  He claimed He was the Son of God, so His resurrection was just another sign from heaven that He is the Savior.    Christianity has a Founder who transcends death.  No other religion can say it was founded by a man who conquered death.  All of the other founders went to the grave.

In the words of John Stott “if Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, then He was beyond dispute a unique figure…We do not know of anyone else who has had this experience” [Stott, Basic Christianity, 46]. 

Considering the burial of people in Jesus’ day, could a human being prepared for entombment escape from their grave clothes?  Also, could a human being prepared for entombment escape those grave clothes and leave them undisturbed?  Is this additional proof of resurrection?  Does this added factor lend additional proof to the idea that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead?

In the Gospel of John, it says that Joseph and Nicodemus took about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe and anointed Jesus’ body.  They bound it in linen cloths with the spices which was the burial custom of the day.   They wound the linen bandages around the body sprinkling spices into the folds.  A special cloth was used for the head.  The body was laid on a stone slab, which had been hewn out of the side of the “cave-tomb.” 

There they left Jesus, intending to return later.  Since the day after Jesus’ death was the Sabbath, it was required that everyone rest rather than adding additional ointment and perfume to His body on that day.  They returned on the first day of the week [Easter morning], to see the undisturbed grave clothes.  

If Jesus had swooned instead of dying [as discussed in the previous post], how could He extricate Himself from the tightly wound linen?  I would think it would be impossible.  If He did find some way to get Himself free, maybe He would emerge from the tomb like Lazarus: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face” [John 11: 44].  The grave cloths would be disturbed.

One needs to pay careful attention to what John’s narrative says about the state of the grave clothes.  Stott focuses on the word “lying.”  The grave clothes were lying which is very similar to the translation collapsed.  They were not strewn about or they were not ripped.  The head napkin was not with the linen clothes but in a place by itself.  In other words, it was not bundled up and tossed into a corner.  It was on the stone slab, separated from the body cloths by a noticeable space.  It was in a rounded shape “still preserved” says Stott.   

All these details suggest that Jesus did not struggle to remove Himself from His tightly bound clothes.  These details also suggest much more. 

Let’s look at Stott’s words directly: “We [Christians] believe that He passed from death into an altogether new sphere of existence.  What then should we have seen, had we been there?  We should suddenly have noticed that the body had disappeared.  It would have ‘vaporized,’ being transmuted into something new and different and wonderful.  It would have passed through the grave clothes, as it was later to pass through closed doors, leaving them untouched and almost undisturbed…the body cloths under the weight of 100 lbs. of spices, once the support of the body had been removed, would have subsided or collapsed, and would now be lying flat” [Stott, 53].

Stott’s words spell out the true significance of this evidence.  Otherwise nonbelievers might skip over this Scripture and not think too much of what happened or may consider this “making a mountain out of a mole hill.”  **

The grave clothes were “collapsed” and the head cloth could best be described as a “shell.”  It is no wonder that when the other disciple [other than Peter] first went to the tomb, “they saw  and believed,  For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” [John 20: 3-9].  Their look at the grave clothes proved the reality of the resurrection for them and also proved the nature of the resurrection.  Stott writes “the [bindings] had been neither touched nor folded nor manipulated by any human being.  They were like a discarded chrysalis from which the butterfly had emerged” [53-54].

I wonder at times why I get the information that I do, for just last night [7/21/21], I had a conversation with a man who lost his mother-in-law this past week.  I wanted to express my condolences.  He went into some detail about her funeral.  She declared to her family that she did not want to be embalmed so people could stand around in the funeral home and “gawk” at her.  She said she wanted a simple, private family viewing soon after death.  That is what she got.  She was covered with a blanket and the family was allowed in to view her.  I believe this woman’s spirit had already been resurrected at that point even though the physical body was still here.  My friend did not report any unusual activity in this simple service; his mother-in-law did not get up off the table and speak to family members.  Could she escape her “grave clothes?” It would have been easy for her since she had simple covering over her body.  If she had arisen, could she have done so without disturbing her covering?  The answer is yes; the covering could have easily been placed on the table to make it look undisturbed. 

None of this applies to the situation with the body of Jesus Christ.  It would have been hard for Him to extricate Himself from the linens that bound Him.  It would have been hard to rid Himself of His bindings without ripping them and stretching them.  The bindings would have appeared “disturbed”.

When Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb after bringing the news of Christ’s resurrection to Peter and John, she peered into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting at the head and the foot of the stone where He lay.   Matthew and Mark said one of those angels said “He is not here; for He has risen as He said.  Come see the place where He lay.”

After previously considering what could have happened with Jesus’ body [mixup with the tomb, Jesus swooned, the body stolen by disciples or stolen by the Romans or Jews] we have looked at the disposition of Jesus’ body itself and the condition of His body supports resurrection. 

“Jesus’s body passed through the grave clothes, as it was later to pass through closed doors, leaving them untouched and almost undisturbed…the body cloths under the weight of 100 lbs. of spices, once the support of the body had been removed, would have subsided or collapsed, and would now be lying flat.”

The body of Jesus was raised by God; no grave clothes could bind Him.  He did not disturb His grave wrappings because He had already passed into a new sphere of existence. 

More evidence of the power of God and divinity of our Holy Savior…. 

*Today’s Funeral Trends, from NFDA website, accessed on 7/22/21.

**”Making a mountain out of a molehill” is an idiom referring to over-reactive, histrionic behavior where a person makes too much of a minor issue.

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