Burial Places – Rev. Henry Brinton

Burial Places

October 19, 2014

Deuteronomy 34;1-12

 

As the weather turns colder, it becomes harder and harder to dig graves.  Especially in Maine, where the ground can become frozen solid.

Up in Addison, Maine, a grave-digger named Everard Hall was recently interviewed by Maine Public Radio.  He still digs graves by hand, all through the winter.

“No, this ain’t no easy job,” said Mr. Hall.  “You’ve got to have a lot of determination and a lot of willpower.  And you can’t be lazy.”

Mr. Hall is anything but lazy.  And he is not about to start taking it easy, even though he is 70 years old.

“I’m a go-getter,” says Hall. “The Lord gave me the strength to work.  I’m going to work, you know?”  He’s been digging graves with a pickax and a shovel for 48 years.  He can cut through frozen soil and fashion a grave into a perfect rectangle:  Eight feet long, three feet wide and four and a half feet deep.

He has dug about 2500 graves.  “That’s a lot of holes,” he says.  “I’ve dug graves when it was 10 below zero and the wind blowing and snowing, and I’ve dug graves when it was 90 degrees.”

“Are there any graves you particularly remember?” asked the woman who was interviewing him.

“I remember all of them,” he said.  2500 graves, including his mother, his father, his grandfather, and two aunts and two uncles.  He even buried his sister, Marilyn.

“So what about your grave?” asked the interviewer.  “Who is going to dig that?”

“Oh, I’m going to,” answered Hall.  “I hope to get it laid out the way I want it myself.”  He already has a cross on his grave with his initials on it — a white cross that says EDH, for Everard Dallas Hall, right where he is going to be buried.

Hall started digging his grave last summer, but that doesn’t mean he is going to retire.  Hall will only stop digging graves when, as he puts it, he’s called home.

“I’m working for the Lord,” said Hall. “He gave me the strength to do the work that I do.  I’ve got a God-given talent, I’m a gravedigger.”

At the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the great leader Moses dies and is buried in the land of Moab, “but no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6).  Before he dies, he goes to a mountaintop and sees the Promised Land, but he is not permitted to enter it.  “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob,” says the Lord to him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4).

That had to have been one of the great disappointments of the life of Moses — to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, but then not be permitted to enter the Promised Land.  God kept him out for “failing to maintain [God’s] holiness among the Israelites” (32:51).  This reminds me that no one is perfect, and the no life is ever going to be 100 percent complete.

We need to think about this passage today, because we live in a death-denying culture.  No one wants to think about their burial place or who will dig their grave — except maybe Everard Hall, the grave-digger in Maine.  But each of us will certainly die, and we grow in faith and insight when we think about the end of life and what comes next.  

We might catch a glimpse of heaven in this life, just as Moses was able to see the Promised Land from a distance.  But we only enter heaven after we have died and been buried.

The grave-digger Everard Hall has an intimacy with death that is really very healthy.  He knows that we have a limited number of years on earth, and that even great people like Moses have to die and be followed by the leaders of the next generation.  This is all part of God’s plan, and it is not a bad thing — we believe that in life and in death we belong to God.      

What would it mean for us to dig our own graves — to really prepare for the end?  Our burial place should not be a mystery, but should be something that we look at with our eyes wide open.  We should prepare ourselves.  We should prepare our families.  We should prepare our churches and our communities.  I would invite any of you to meet with me or with Yena and prepare your funeral.  Any plans you make now will be a huge help to your family members and friends.

We also need to prepare ourselves emotionally and spiritually.  I recently read the story of Steve Hayner, the president of Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.  He is a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a close friend of Craig Barnes, who used to be the pastor of National Presbyterian Church.

Hayner is also terminally ill.

Barnes tells the story of how his friend is approaching the end of his life.  It was on Easter Sunday that Hayner began to feel ill.  He went to the doctor and received the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.  He accepted an aggressive chemotherapy treatment, and lost a tremendous amount of weight.  At this point, he may have only a few weeks or months to live.

But Hayner has not lost his faith or even his joy.  He recently sent out a picture of himself, his wife, and five grandchildren, and everyone is laughing.  He has always signed his letters with the word “joyfully” before his name, and nothing has changed since his cancer diagnosis.  He agrees with our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith:  In life and in death we belong to God.

So how is Steve Hayner preparing his burial place?  He is assisting in the remodeling of a house where his wife will live.  He is being careful about how he gives away his library.  And, of course, he is taking time to laugh with his grandchildren.

Not that any of this is easy.  His wife Sharol told about how their 5-year-old granddaughter Anna had asked about her grandfather’s health.  Anna’s parents talked about his coming death and about how Jesus would give him a new body in heaven.  Anna replied, “I wish I knew if Jesus was going to heal him here or in heaven.  But I know that Jesus keeps his promises.  We can trust him.”

This is true for all of us as we think about our burial places.  We may be healed from a disease in this life, or we may die and be healed in heaven.  But in either case, we can know that Jesus keeps his promises.  We can trust him.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord — no disease, no pain, no struggle, not even death itself.

The best we can hope for is to be given a glimpse of the Promised Land, as Moses was on MountNebo.  We can believe that Jesus keeps his promises, and that God does as well — he honored his commitment to give the Promised Land to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Maybe we will even die at a good old age, enjoying fullness of life, as Moses did — Deuteronomy says that “his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7).

But whether we are young or old, weak or full of vigor, we have to prepare ourselves for death.  Steve Hayner shows that we can live joyfully, even in the face of pancreatic cancer.  And Everard Hall shows that we can keep working for the Lord, even at age 70 and beyond.

“So what about your grave?” asked the NPR interviewer.  She was directing the question to Mr. Hall, but she could have been asking each one of us.  “Who is going to dig that?”

“I’m going to,” answered Hall.  “I hope to get it laid out the way I want it myself.”  So that’s the challenge before each of you.  To get it laid out the way you want it.  Lay out your funeral plans.  Lay out your advance directives and your medical power of attorney.  Lay out your will and your financial plans.  Lay everything out the way you want it.

Everard Hall knows exactly where his grave will be, while the burial place of Moses is still a mystery.  Let’s be as clear as we can about the end of our lives, believing that God and Jesus always keep their promises.  We can trust them.  Amen.  

 

Sources:

Barnes, M. Craig. “Joyful to the end,” Christian Century, September 17, 2014, 35.

“Digging Graves the Old-Fashioned Way. NPR, February 17, 2014,

http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=275924896

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