The Thistle

Mr. Benjamin’s Funeral: A Reflection by Dr. David Jones

Dr. David Jones, who retired from Covenant Seminary in 2007, offers this recent meditation on the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for facing the hard reality of—and seeing the ultimate joy in—the death that awaits us all.

In October 2013, after a five-year legal battle, the Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey in southern Louisiana achieved a landmark ruling in favor of free enterprise when the Supreme Court declined to review lower court decisions, thus leaving intact the monks’ constitutional right to sell caskets to the public without being certified by the state board as full-fledged funeral directors.  The story in the Los Angeles Times carried this headline:

 Monks in Louisiana win right to sell handcrafted caskets

The Supreme Court allows monks in Louisiana to sell low-cost caskets, a victory for small entrepreneurs against state-enforced economic protectionism.

Mimicking the old Johnny Carson/Jack Webb “Copper Clappers” routine, I composed a faux headline of my own:

Constitutional case closed

Cloistered Cajun community can continue crafting commercial cypress caskets.

“Handcrafted caskets” brought to mind my first funeral as pastor of the Boatswain Bay Evangelical Presbyterian Church on Grand Cayman Island.  My wife and I arrived on Grand Cayman fresh out of seminary in January of 1964, the year after Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a bestselling critique of the funeral industry in the U.S.  Whatever the merits of that critique, I took away a whole other perspective from my first funeral as a novice pastor serving in a different culture.  Call it “the Caymanian way of death.“

Mr. Benjamin, the oldest member of the congregation, was already in his eighties when he was converted to Christ.  (His full name was Benjamin Ebanks, but everyone called him Mr. Benjamin.)  I have never met a more grateful person.  He would sometimes drop by the manse, having traveled some distance on horseback astride a homemade wooden saddle.  We would offer him some small refreshment over which he would give thanks at length.  Once he brought us a small kitten in his pocket as a present.  It grew into a beautiful white-and-black cat, the source of much amusement and congregational pride.  And safety.  Scorpions that invaded the manse were shown no mercy.  As soon as the cat found them out, their end was sure and sudden—no second chances.

As his health declined, Mr. Benjamin began constructing a plain wooden coffin, but his wife and daughter made him stop; they couldn’t bear the sound of him sawing and hammering on what was to be his final resting place.  So when he died, the coffin was a rush job—burial had to follow within 24 hours—but the men in the family set to work, and we gathered in the little church for the service.  We had something of a wait because it took longer than expected for the paint on the coffin to dry.  We passed the time singing hymns accompanied by the little portable pump organ, a relic of the church’s Sunday school origin.

At last the coffin arrived, and I had the privilege of conducting a worship service in which everyone present recognized God’s marvelous transforming grace in the life of Mr. Benjamin.  At the conclusion of the service, the deacons fastened down the lid of the coffin amidst loud cries of anguish from the family.  I then led a procession out to the church’s graveyard where the deacons had dug a grave in the sandy soil.  The deacons lowered the coffin into the grave, and after we committed Mr. Benjamin’s body to the ground, the family delivered the first shovel-loads of earth onto the coffin amid much loud weeping.  The congregation, each of whom had a personal copy of the lyrics in Ira D. Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos, sang hymns about the gospel of Jesus and the hope of the resurrection until the deacons had finished filling in the grave and formed the earthen mound over it.  Then the family, whose grief over the earthly separation had been assuaged by the ceremony and the congregational singing, covered the mound with flowers.  I had never seen anything like it, being used to the “American way of death” in which those who gather at the graveside leave with the coffin still above ground and the dirt covered with astro-turf or whatever, unhelpfully obscuring the reality which the Caymanians were allowed to face and thus to be comforted by Scripture and the singing of their fellow believers.

At the time I wondered whether the raw emotion of the event was really all that helpful.  Adding to the trauma, the coffin got stuck on the way down, and a deacon had to jump in the grave with a shovel for an impromptu expansion maneuver.  But on reflection, I think it confronted the Last Enemy in a way what is lacking in typical funeral practice today.  Too often, I feel, even when the funeral is in the departed loved one’s home church, there is an incomplete theology of “heaven” without reference to the hope of the resurrection.  When you’re standing by an open grave watching and hearing a coffin being covered with earth, the ultimate goal of our redemption comes into sharp focus and you sing heartily with new appreciation the old gospel hymn:

In the resurrection morning

When the trump of God shall sound

We shall rise, Hallelujah!  We shall rise!

Dr. David Clyde Jones is professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics. After serving for two years as a missionary-pastor on Grand Cayman Island in the West Indies, Dr. Jones joined the Seminary faculty in 1967. His special interest, Christian ethics, is reflected in his publications and service on national church committees dealing with subjects such as nuclear war, medical ethics, divorce, and abortion. Dr. Jones’s sensitivity to these and other issues which directly affect the church have made his classes a special mixture of practical and theoretical material. He is the author of Biblical Christian Ethics (Baker, 1994). Dr. Jones retired in 2007, but continues to be available for occasional teaching at the Seminary and elsewhere, along with his ongoing ministry of writing and consulting on various ethical issues. Dr. Jones and his wife have two sons and six grandchildren.