The day I buried my grandma was hot and humid, like almost every day in Singapore, and the funeral home prepared large golf umbrellas for all the mourners to beat off the heat. We each got one as we got off the air-conditioned bus in one and twos, and immediately we opened them with that little whump of a sound that a really solid umbrella makes when it opens.
You could hear crickets in the cemetery – a sure sign of being out in the boondooks in Singapore. Not traffic. Crickets. The graves were all ordered neatly next to each other, no spaces between them, first-come first-served, because in Singapore we are efficient like that, no family plots or prior reservations, just all the people of each faith in the order that they died.
Large blue plastic crates had been placed around the open grave for us to stand on, to prevent the soil from eroding, and a few of the ladies who were wearing heels had to mince over them gingerly because there were so many holes in them. The earth underneath the blue crates was reddish brown, and there was a large white canopy erected above the deep hole for shade.
Soon some beefy men were lowering the white coffin into the grave with the help of a log and some rope. It went down swiftly and precisely, with moments to spare. Then we were holding roses and singing two or three hymns, our hands overly full with umbrellas and leaflets and flowers, and balancing on the uncomfortable plastic edges of the crates.
Then the pastor said his homily, and one thing he said struck me over all the other things. “… And we believe that it will be this body, this very body that will be raised up again, on that day,” he said. And all I can remember about that moment was just how very unlikely that seemed, how improbable, how totally bogus a claim to make.
My grandmother was dead. The corpse that we had closed the lid on for a final time was inanimate, completely devoid of life. The glass that separated us from her registered no breath, and her body had already gotten that waxy look that the dead have, as though the thing were a Madame Tussauds model of a person rather than flesh and blood. The thing bore no resemblance to the living person I loved.
How could this body, now on its way to decay and decomposition, come back to life? How could it be reanimated and restored, and why would God want to have anything to do with this mound of matter anyhow? I couldn’t even be sure of where her remains would rest fifteen years from now, because all graves in Singapore are exhumed after that period of time anyway. Would I want her bones reclothed in flesh again?
In that moment the Christian promise seemed more like a zombie movie nightmare than a source of hope and comfort. And the unlikelihood of the thing, how close it seemed to be to some made up fairy story told to pretend death didn’t matter, how likely it seemed to be wish fulfillment speaking, just flooded my heart.
Of course we don’t want to die, and that’s why we tell ourselves this. Of course we don’t want our loved ones to be really gone, so we make up the resurrection so we’ll see them again. I thought of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus: how Martha answered rotely, automatically that “he will be raised up on the last day” when Jesus said he would live again. Is this something that gives us real hope, or something merely that we believe as a part of a catechism we rattle off by heart?
I found it hard to believe in the supernatural in that intensely physical place. The blaring sun, the unbeautiful blue crates, the golf umbrellas were all so practical, so matter-of-fact; the fact that a bulldozer and not a gravedigger would pile the earth on my grandmother was another dose of reality that hit a discordant note.
I felt that Jesus and his graveside raisings belonged in a different era, a different space, a different place. They could not happen for my grandma, whose remains would not even lie beneath this plot of land in fifteen years.
I don’t have a resounding comeback to round out this piece with. It is simply an account of bitter doubt, a moment of skepticism that I am still contemplating the meaning of months later. There was no doubt that my grandmother lived a Christian life, and I believe with all my heart that she has gone to her reward, but the idea of her body being perfected and brought back to life just seemed so outlandish to me, although I know it is a tenet of my faith.
What makes it even harder to imagine is that I can hardly remember her whole anymore. The last few years of her life she spent demented, and I didn’t want to see her back like that. I wanted her back whole. And her body had become so frail and brittle and broken, I wanted a whole new body for her, not the old one patched up somehow.
Oh, to see her again in the prime of her youth, with the crowning wisdom of her age combined. To see her as I had never seen her – as my grandfather had seen her when he first fell in love with her. To look into her eyes again and see not blankness but recognition and love. To see her embodied in the body that she deserved, not the body that had failed her, with the brain that had obscured her. That I do not find hard to want, hard to believe. It must be, somewhere, in some realm beyond this realm. It must.
Judith Huang ’10 was an English concentrator in Currier House and now works as an editor at a newspaper in Beijing.