Ash Wednesday 2019 by the Rev. Martin Elfert



Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103 or 103:8-14

There is a documentary from 2014 called A Will for the Woods. The film follows a man in early middle age, maybe more or less the age that I am now, by the name of Clark. Clark has lymphoma, he is undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment. And simultaneously, he is facing the escalating likelihood that the treatment isn’t going to work, that he isn’t going to get better, that the end of his life is approaching sooner than he ever imagined possible.

And so, even as his visits to the doctor continue, Clark and his wife Jane start thinking about his death and, still further, about what will happen after his death. And by that, I don’t mean that they ask theological questions – Clark and Jane are Christians, and so his hope, as we say in the funeral service, is that in death, life is changed, not ended – but rather they ask a much more earthy and basic and ancient question, What will we do with my body after I die?

What Clark decides pretty early on is that the standard-issue funeral ritual is not for him: he does not wish his body to be embalmed, to go into a metal casket, for that casket to be surrounded by concrete, for it to be placed underneath an impossibly perfect lawn. He wants none of the rituals that announce to the world I am not dust, and to dust I will not return. Nor does he want to expend the fossil fuels required by cremation. He wants his last action on earth to be as ecologically responsible as possible.

And so Clark and Jane start looking seriously into what is variously called Green Burial or Natural Burial. Their interest is deepened when they learn that a local cemetery owns several acres of undeveloped forest (the “woods” from the title of the film). This is forest that the cemetery is planning on cutting down and turning into the aforementioned perfect lawn with row upon row of headstone. But if enough people like Clark get interested in being buried in and among the trees as they are, then the cemetery is willing to leave the woods standing.

The film has a tragic and beautiful trajectory. Because Clark does not get his wish to get better. But he does get his wish to preserve the woods, for his resting place to be in the midst of nature, for his body to lay beneath the earth and beneath trees. Partway through the movie, he and Jane visit the place where he will be buried. It is a scene full of big feelings. For the two of them in then moment, assuredly. And also for us as we watch. To stand there among this beauty, to know that your body will soon become part of this beauty and will feed this beauty: well, it is wonderful and strange and, to use a Biblical word, fearsome all at once.

Eventually Clark dies. And Jane and their friends enact a ritual that, maybe, will seem bizarre or macabre or inappropriate to us in the developed world in 2019, but that would have seemed thoroughly normal to our ancestors. They bring Clark’s body home from the hospital where he died. They wash him. And then they lay Clark out on a pine box in the living room, and all of their friends come to visit and to sing songs and to pray.

At night, Jane sleeps on an air mattress on the floor beside her husband’s body.

And then after a few days, they seal the pine box and they take him to the forest, to the place that Clark and others have preserved through their choice to purchase a plot there, and Jane and all of the people who loved Clark lower his body into the ground, dropping greenery onto the lid of the casket before picking up shovels and taking turns covering it with earth – no backhoe involved.

Our sometime organist, Bill Crane, leant A Will for the Woods to me. It’s a movie that overlaps heavily with Bill’s own vocation. Because, in addition to being a musician, Bill is someone who has a long history of sitting with people in grief and or in trauma or who are approaching the end of their lives or all three. He is someone who, as the amazing expression has it, serves as a midwife to the dying.

Bill says that his experience is that folks who behave as Clark and Jane and their friends did, who behave as our ancestors did (remember that the place where we used to receive guests and where the body of a deceased loved one used to rest was called the parlour – and then it got rebranded as the living room, a name change that sure sounds like a renunciation of anything to do with death) find healing more quickly, they engage in the hard and necessary work of grieving better and more thoroughly than those who follow our society’s standard-issue script. The standard-issue script being: don’t talk about death, don’t plan for it, don’t write a will act, as though we could live forever if we just avoided eye contact with the grim reaper; and then, when death comes, have the professionals get the body out of sight as soon as possible, because – why? – because a human being’s mortal remains are offensive or dangerous, because they destabilise our story that death is something that happens to other people?

If Bill is right, then this day in the church and, indeed, the whole season of Lent that it introduces is both subversive and freeing. Because this is the day that we say that death is real and inevitable and, not just for other people but for us, and it is also the day that we say that forgiveness is real. That healing is real, reconciliation is real. That resurrection is real.

Somehow, these two themes: you are going to die and new life is yours are, well, they are indivisible. Maybe this is counterintuitive, maybe it is a mystery. But maybe it makes profound and ancient sense. Because to do as Clark and Jane did, to stand in the woods and say, This is where I came from and this is where I am going back to, to say, I come from dust – this dust – and to this dust I shall return (all metaphor is gone in this moment, this is real), well, it is to know that we come from somewhere beautiful and good and safe that we will go back there. To name our earthy origins and our earthy destiny – and maybe this is unexpected given the amount of time and effort that we put into denying finitude and death – sometimes leads us to an unexpected okayness with all of the loss and grief and endings of this life.

On this day we engage in the weird and ancient ritual whereby we draw the sign of Jesus on each other’s foreheads, in which we say to one another, Don’t forget that you are going to die. Together, let’s remember that we are here just for a while. Let’s remember that from the dust we are fearfully and wonderfully made by the very hand of God. Let’s remember that we will go down to the dust and feed the trees, our dust will go up into the sky and dance with the saints, our dust will be on earth as it is in heaven. When that happens we will participate in resurrection.

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