Burial at Sea on the Galilee

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Ashes, Ashes

Tears filled Jessie’s eyes when she took my hand one evening and said, “I brought Derrick’s ashes. Could we have a service tomorrow in one of these beautiful places around the Sea of Galilee?” I knew her well. She was with her son on our trip to the Holy Land, which her husband had wanted to go on. He died quite suddenly, and I had led his burial service eight months before. His son was escorting his mother on the trip to honor his dad. I was expecting some tears and sorrow along the way but not expecting to do a burial at sea.

My mind raced through the itinerary for the next day. I envisioned a time and a place that might be perfect. Holding her hand, I said, “Of course, Jessie. We will do something.” I asked her son to bring the ashes in the morning and carry them all day. Let’s see what would happen.

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The next day, at five o’clock in the evening, we boarded a boat on the Sea of Galilee to motor across the lake to the hotel in Tiberius. The night’s weather was calm and still, and the lake was like glass. We pushed off from the dock and began the 30-minute journey. It was getting darker by the moment, and after about 15 minutes, I asked the captain to cut the engine. The northern shoreline had a few speckled lights. Tiberius, the only city along the lake, was glowing under its street lights. In the east, the hills of Jordan were shadows. To the west, a very faint glow on the horizon. Darkness had descended. I asked the captain to turn off every light possible. It was dark. The boat floated to a dead stop.

I came to the widow and her son and asked if they were ready for the brief service and commendation. They nodded.

I asked our group to take their seats so I could speak to them about something important. They sat on the boat’s benches. “I want to answer a question that everyone wants to know but may never have asked: What happens after you die?”

I told them the story of Derrick and Jessie and the ashes on board.

Unless a seed…

I opened my bible to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and read a few verses from Chapter 15 under the glow of my iPhone. I added some commentary along the way to give the words some context.

Paul loved the church at Corinth. As harsh as his letter sounds sometimes, he had great affection for these believers. They wanted to know about death, dying, and life after death. Some members of the church had died, and they wanted to know what happened after that. What hope did the Christian faith promise?

Paul knows that we all die in weakness. Our bodies fail us. Our bodies are like seeds sown into the ground. They are dead shells. Like ashes when burned in the fire, they are dust. But, as we see in Christ’s resurrection, they will be raised in glory. Dead is dead. But Christ’s Resurrection means life eternal!

I tried to amplify Paul’s image of a seed sown into the ground. If you look at an acorn, you would never be able to predict the glory of the giant oak that will come from it. The seed that goes into the ground bears almost no resemblance to the shoot that comes out of the ground. It goes in as one element, one class, one degree of glory: a dead shell. But what comes out of the ground is a wholly different order. The new tree has glory, strength, and might. What emerges from a dead seed is actually going to be filled with strength and force. It is of a different dimension.

Paul’s words are powerful:

What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is so n in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is so n in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:43-44)

When the Dust Settles

In a word, Paul is saying this: when the dust settles, we will be made like him:

As was the man of dust (Adam), so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven (Jesus), so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:48-49)

There was silence on the boat as we all took in the meaning of these words. I waited a minute or two and then continued the service:

Tonight, we release the ashes of a wonderful brother in Christ on the surface of the Sea of Galilee. He died in the faith of Christ, and as Christ lives, our brother will live. Derrick died in bodily weakness, as so many of our loved ones have. But glory is coming  Death, no matter how it happens, is never honorable, but resurrection is the glory that awaits.

The mother and son joined me at the bow of the ship. Then, speaking the memorable words of Job, I declared loudly,

“I know that my Redeemer lives. And on the last day, he will stand upon the earth. And in my body, I shall see God. I shall see him who is my friend and not a stranger.” (Job 19:25–27a)

The son opened up the small packet of remains and released the dust and ashes out into the wind and onto the surface of the darkened lake.

I concluded:

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All we go down to the dust, and yet even at the grave, we make our song, Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.”

I looked at the rest of the group behind me and saw a boatload of people weeping for Jessie’s loss and, clearly, for all of their losses over the years. We have all lost loved ones. Death is an ugly thing. But, as Paul wrote, it has no stinger. It has no bite. It has no victory. Death has no future.

It is Well with my Soul

As we returned to the mid-part of the boat, a woman with the most glorious of voices began to sing, “It is well with my soul.” We all knew that something extraordinary had come to us. The Word had come and filled our hearts with hope.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
We pulled up to the dock at Tiberias. It was clear that the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one had been healed by the Word of God in a very powerful moment of worship, release, surrender, and faith. I will never forget that night on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus once came to his followers in the evening when they were in their own distress. He spoke his Word and brought his peace to quiet that storm. He still does.

Photo by Alphonso Chen from Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

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Published on

March 6, 2024

Author

David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

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