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The Symbolism of the Christian Dead; Or, the Silent Teachings of the Sepulchre.

A Sermon delivered in St. Paul's Church, Hoboken, Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity, 1862.

By Vandervoort Bruce

Hoboken, New Jersey: A. O. Evans, 1863.




WHAT beauty, and pathos, and sublimity, are there in the words of the expiring Patriarch! These were the very last words to which he gave utterance in this world. Robert Southey, than whom no one knows the power of language or the force of thought better, says the words are unequaled in beauty, in pathos, in sublimity, and in majesty, by mortal man, inspired or uninspired. Heartily, to this sentiment, do we respond, Amen.

Far be the attempt from us to follow the dying Patriarch in his heavenward vision. An humbler work claims our attention, and to that humbler work we invite the best of your consideration.

Our purpose is to deduce a few instructions for our guidance and direction. What we shall say, we have entitled "The Symbolism of the Christian Dead; or, The Silent Teachings of the Sepulchre."

The Patriarch, in his dying words, you notice, speaks about "the purchase of the field, and of the cave that is therein." Now, strange as it may appear, we are under the impression that this is the first "purchase" of land ever made in this world; even as we know it is the first record of a "purchase" with which the world is acquainted. We rejoice that the land was "bought" for "a possession of a burying place;" because, while we admit, in our present imperfect state of being, that the tenure of land is indispensable, we maintain there is no title to land more sacred--more inviolable-- more lasting--more absolute, than the right with which every man is invested, with or without any act on his part, to enough of his mother earth to sleep in, undisturbed by mortal man, "until the earth and the sea shall give up their dead." Before this title, in our judgment, every other title or claim to land so needed, or so occupied, must "bow and obey." And with the enforcement of this right, every living man is entrusted for its enforcement every living man is held responsible--and by its enforcement every living man only guarantees and guards, to the extent of his ability, the most sacred of his mortal, and one of the most sacred of his immortal, rights--a right for the enforcement of which he is held answerable in time and for which he will be held responsible in eternity, by Almighty God, as well as by his brother man.

The question which now presents itself is, What are the duties we, as Christian men, owe the Christian Dead? or, What are the claims of the Christian Dead on the Christian Living? The only answer to this question is to be derived from the Interpretation of the Word of God given by the Church of God. Of this answer, we are but the echo.

Before the Resurrection of our Blessed Lord, did it ever occur to you, and if not, you will find it to be so, before the Resurrection of our Blessed Lord, never had there been the resurrection of any mortal. "Christ," in the words of the Apostle, "is the first fruits of them that slept." If our Saviour were not the Victor of death, those restorations to life from death even, of which we read, wrought out by His Power, exercised by Himself, or delegated to His Apostles, never would have taken place, nor could a time ever come wherein the graves of the Departed are to be converted into starting points for the audit of the Final Judgment. Is it not evident, from these facts, that our Saviour is just as much the Author of the Resurrection of our mortality, as the acorn is the origin of the forest oak?

It is important, we think, to keep this fact in mind. It is the alone foundation, on which can rest the respect and reverence which we claim for our Bodies when they shall become pulseless; and which we owe, by every consideration by which we can be moved, to the lifeless Remains entrusted sacredly to our love and custody.

What are the respect and reverence we owe the Christian Dead? The custom which has ever obtained among the Jews is, to entrust the dead to the embrace of our mother earth. The dying Patriarch, with his expiring breath, enjoined upon his sons, with a pathos, and sublimity, and majesty never excelled, if ever equaled, what to do with his lifeless Body in these words: "Bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Macpelah;" beside, and with, the Remains of all those gone before him, to whom he had been sacredly allied and was tenderly attached. In the mind of the expiring man of God, there might have been, and doubtless was, a conviction that his body would be reanimated again (for God has, ever and anon, made known to those whom He is about to call to Himself, even to little children, "Holy Innocents," as the Church names them, more of His purposes and doings than come within even the confines of His Verbal Revelation); but in the minds of the Jewish people probably, at that time, certainly long prior to the Incarnation of our Divine Lord, the belief in the Resurrection of the Body, if cherished at all, was latent or dormant.

The custom which obtained among the Heathen, so far back as we are informed, either was to embalm or burn their dead. The reason by which the Egyptians were influenced, in embalming their Dead, was not, we are persuaded, because they ever expected to see their dead animated again; but because they were controlled by the fiction which is called "The Transmigration of Souls:" to guard against the possibility of the soul of any eminent person's escaping and entering into any inferior animal, the Egyptians wound his body around with bands of endless linen, steeped it in a preparation of adamant, placed it in a ponderous sarcophagus, and interred the body, so encased, in one of the catacombs of their huge and amazing pyramids. It is obvious, we think, in all they did with the bodies even of their illustrious dead, they were prompted by no motive whatever of an ennobling character, but swayed and controlled exclusively by slavish and unmanly fear.

The motive by which the remainder of the Heathen were influenced, who burnt their dead, we know not. Doubtless, they thought, and creditable enough to them the thought is, that a Body which had once been animated by a rational spirit, and by that rational spirit is never again to be animated, is too much honored and exalted ever to be mingled up with the dull earth, or enter again into the changes which the animal or material world undergoes. To prevent the slightest possibility of which, or rather the least probability of which, sometimes they would scatter the ashes of their dead into the air; or, throw them on the surging waters; or, cast them, when the winds were howling, from the top of the loftiest mountains; and sometimes, to make the annihilation of the dead complete, as they thought, the ashes of the bodies burned were placed by them in urns, above ground, exposed, without reverence, to the heat, the rain, and the winds, until, in the most effectual manner, the Remains ceased to be discoverable.

What a change, when the Lord of Life arose from the Grave, was wrought in the minds of those who had been or became Christians, in reference to What awaits the Dead, and the reverence, in the meanwhile, to which They are entitled. The Jews even began to understand the meaning of their own customs aright; and such of the Heathen as embraced Christianity rejected the practices with which they had been identified.

What are the claims of the Christian Dead on the Christian Living?

The first duty, in view of what has been said, the opinion is entertained by us, which we, as Christians, owe to the Christian Dead, is, not to bury them until they have experienced what is commonly called "a change." It is not necessary that the suggestion be made plainer, as it is understood, doubtless, by all within our hearing, upon whom the care of the Christian Dead is likely to devolve. This evidence of Death is final; all others are unreliable. When this token is presented, and it is practicable, a Burial ought never to take place before the completion of the second day; though the completion of the third day is preferable, because it corresponds with the time during which the Body of our Lord was committed to, and guarded in, the chamber of the dusty Sepulchre.

Why should we hasten to inter the Bodies of beloved Ones, entrusted to our care, before God, in His Providence, intimates that it is necessary? By timely attention to their Remains, we begin, as we cannot otherwise begin, to realize what they have experienced. Though there is something more unutterable than we can conceive of in the Chamber of the Dead, yet we cannot admit that any emotions of fear or dread ought to be entertained by the Disciple of the Cross. It would be natural for an Heathen man to feel so; but surely no good Christian ought ever to entertain any other thought than that a separation, for a brief while, has taken place between the perishable Body and the Imperishable Soul.

Let the good old custom, while the Dead are with us, be continued, of the members of the family, or loving friends, going frequently during the day, and during the night, if they do not prefer to remain there all the while, into the Room where the beloved One is sleeping his last mortal Sleep. In the Chamber of the Departed, let Prayer be offered; and especially that the survivors, "with all those who have departed hence in the faith and fear of God, may have their perfect Consummation and bliss in God's eternal kingdom." But if any come to look upon the Silent One, prompted by neither love nor sorrow, "Hide it up, hide it up; draw the decent curtain;" and say, untremblingly, "Hence! curious" mortal, presume to pry not into the fearful "mysteries of corruption."

It is desirable, if possible, that we should bring the Remains of beloved Ones to the Altar of the Church. Here they ought to have been consecrated to God, with the Souls and Spirits which animated them; and here, when the Souls and Spirits depart from them, to God their Bodies ought to be returned. The Church, in every way, is preferable for the purpose, to any other building. Its walls are in harmony with the occasion. And, if my own experience avail I would say that, save on very special occasions, nothing more than the Burial Service of the Church is needful for consolation, for instruction, for resignation, and for Joyful anticipation. On all hands it is conceded to be the best that has ever been compiled or uttered.

When, in this way, we reverence the Christian Dead, and comfort ourselves, no more is done by us than what we owe to ourselves, and to the Bodies which have been consecrated unto God in Holy Baptism; but, what part Disembodied Spirits take in the Services of the Church, or in what way the Bodies of the Holy Dead thereby are benefited, we take not upon ourselves to say. The meditation of every Christian survivor, in these particulars, must be his only teacher.

Where shall the Christian Dead sleep until "the earth and the sea give up their dead?" In answering this question, we but echo the sentiment of the aged Barzillai, and other illustrious "sons of God." Let the Ashes, if possible, of many generations be gathered together in the same Tomb; or rest side by side within the same Enclosure. But, for as much as The Church too often battles in vain against the inroads of commerce, the fluctuations of human opinion, and the demands for what is called the public weal, it becomes us, if we have not, to secure a domain, ample enough for the purpose, not liable in this way, or in any other conceivable way, to be interfered with; and, set it apart legally and sacredly and gladly as the Home of the Christian Dead. Let the ground so chosen, and so set apart, be walled in; separated, in fact, as it ought to be in our intentions, from all ground and uses which are "common or unhallowed;" and made, in this way, ever to present Itself, and be, in its distinctive character. If Symbols are used, let them be Christian Symbols; if Inscriptions are written, save the name, date of the birth, and period of the death, of the Deceased, let no words be inscribed on the Monuments upraised, save the Words of Inspiration."

If we comply with these suggestions--suggestions, it seems to me, which commend themselves to every one, then when we and our children walk through the pathways of the Burial Ground, or look upon its Monuments, or read Its Records, it will be their satisfaction and our happiness to realize that the Christian Dead, as well as the Living, are blessed of Heaven, with a Home; our children and we will begin to anticipate "the new creation;" so animated shall they and we become with Christian Hope as to lay aside all childish fear and heathen dread; no other interpreter than the Home of the Christian Dead will we need of the sublime words with which the Saviour cheered and sustained Martha, "I am The Resurrection and The Life:"--and to us will come home this delightful assurance, with which even the Invisible Saints are thrilled and delighted, that we are in the Garden of The Lord; and, though its Marble Columns and Granite Tombs must one day quake and crumble, yet that its Crypts and Mounds open will break and bloom in glory immortal.

"Far be it, O! my Soul, from thine expectant essence,
"To be heedless, if indignity or folly desecrate these thine Ashes:
"Keep them safe, with careful love; and let the Mound be Holy;
"And, thou that passest by, revere the Waiting Dead."

Formerly it was customary to have the Burial Ground immediately in connection with the Parish Church. Other things being equal, no better site can be secured. But in a country like ours--where villages, and towns, and cities, grow with such unprecedented rapidity--it is, perhaps, not practicable. The next most desirable place is, what we have already suggested; what is called, and called with great propriety, a Cemetery; away from where the turmoil of life will probably be, and guaranteed, by the highest authority known in the State, as exempt from cupidity and shielded from irreverence.

Where the Home of the Christian Dead is not known, if those who approve of It will cause the needfulness and benefit of It to be promulgated, they will undoubtedly find the entire community bidding them God Speed in the matter; the people will co-operate with them when the people understand It as they do, in such a manner as to cheer them with resources abundant; and the happy consciousness ,will be the reward of such pioneers, of being permitted to be the Instruments in the Hand of God, not only of revering the Dead, but also of conferring on the Living advantages invaluable.

Tablets, in addition to Monuments in the Burial Ground, were placed formerly on the walls of our Churches. Some of the old Churches in our country and abroad, still have their walls covered with these tokens of Respect and Love. Why, of late, the custom has become almost obsolete, we know not. We regret it--gladly would we do all that lies within our power to revive the custom. To the honor of Trinity Church, New York; and of Grace Church, New York; be it said, that when it was deemed necessary to pull down their old Edifices and built new Ones, the ancient Tablets on their Walls--Mural Monuments, as they are called--were taken down carefully and restored religiously to the walls of the new Churches. It is to be regretted, we think, that the Custom is not still observed. It is only a token of grateful affection, to which every member of the Church by Baptism is entitled; and which those claim from us especially, who loved and served the Church while living. To write the names of such on our walls, and connect them with some one of the blessed Truths revealed by God, is only, we are persuaded, to be permitted to be Co-workers with God in causing "The righteous to be held in everlasting remembrance."

So far as the Living are concerned, the observance of the Custom must be salutary. We come to Church to worship God--to confess our sins unto Him--to receive from Him pardon of them--to avail ourselves of the only means of present happiness and future blessedness--and to commune with "the Spirits of just men made perfect," "and with Angels, and Archangels, and all the Company of Heaven." The very walls, it becomes, while we are engaged in such a service as this, to remind us of those who have gone hence in the Lord, and await only our coming, that They may be permitted to enter into the "Consummation of their perfect bliss."

We would advise, in addition to Mural Monuments, in every instance wherein the means of the Parishioners admit of it, the placing in our Churches, as has been done in Calvary Church, New York, paintings of sacred Scenes; and, as has been done in St. George's Church, New York, the erecting of Statues of some one or more of God's illustrious servants; and to build, as has been done in St. Stephen's Church, Philadelphia, Chapels opening into the walls of our Churches, to whose sacred custody may be entrusted an Embodiment, wrought out of solid marble, of some one or more of the great Truths which it has pleased Almighty God to make known to us. Our Churches, in this way, would be in fact, what they are in theory, and what they ought to be--The Dwelling, the most sacred to which we can go--The Building, the most impressive within our experience--and The Ornament of the place wherein we are permitted to sojourn, confessedly the grandest and most imposing.

If not a sparrow fall to the ground without God's special permission, it is but reasonable to infer, that those beings whom He created after His Own Image, redeemed with the Blood of His Son, and has again made them like unto Himself in Paradise, it is but reasonable to infer, I say, that they know more about what is transpiring in the Church, Visible and Invisible, than we do; and enjoy, in a sense of which we can not fully conceive, the fullness of the blessedness which comes from the Omniscience of God. If this be so--and who can doubt it--it must be within the province of the Sainted Dead to whisper to us, during our bereavement, "Sorrow not, even as others which have no hope;" with all the tokens of Reverence which we offer to them they must be gratified; and when they look down upon us from the abode of their serene and Sainted Rest, and behold us, as they may, honoring their pulseless Bodies with the Burial Service of the Church, and guarding them with the Faith that they are one day to be animated again and brought back to their primal honor and glory, they must be thrilled with a pleasure and delight undoubtedly exceeding all else with which this world can animate and inspire them.

Rest, Holy Dead. We hope to be worthy of your Example. We will do what we can, that you may send down upon us the selectest of your influences. We will be much in thought with you; and, if permitted, would have you much in thought with us. Succor and defend us with the Grace, and Wisdom, and Holiness with which you are favored and blessed. Without us, you cannot be perfect; nor can we be perfect, without you. But one remove are you now from your final Rest; before we can be with you, it is needful for us to bear a while longer the burden and heat of life, and to cross unscathed the Dark Valley. As we look forward to the Resurrection awaiting the just, it becomes us, more than it becomes you, to join in the offering of the prayer to which, with joy, continually you give utterance, "How long, O Lord, Holy and True, how long?"

Laus Deo.

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