Then he charged them, saying to them, ‘I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors—in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, in the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah— the field and the cave that is in it were purchased from the Hittites.’ When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.–- Genesis 49:29-33
July 4th always brings memories of celebrations back home, those with family and friends, both living and dead. Although my family never made trips to the resting place of many relatives, we would drive a few times each year to visit, plant or replant flowers, tidy up the area around the gravestones, and tell stories, of a few. Many of our relatives did not attend the then-tiny church where the cemetery was, it was important for many family members to be buried there among their parents and relatives. The church has grown in size, and the number of relatives interred there has grown as well.
This morning’s Eucharistic Reading finds the Israelites still enslaved in Egypt. Jacob, the patriarch of a large and growing family, was dying and called his sons and their offspring to his deathbed to bless them and to give his final wishes. He wanted to lie in with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and his first wife, Leah, in the place Abraham had bought from the Hittites. The place was named Machpelah, near Mamre, in Canaan. It was like the family cemetery.
Joseph then went to the household of Pharaoh and asked that Pharaoh allow him and his family to take Jacob to his desired resting place with his ancestors. With permission granted, Joseph, his brothers, and many Egyptians undertook to travel to Machpelah. Joseph and the others stayed there seven days, mourning and weeping, then returned to Egypt. I find it interesting that so many journeyed to a land that was to be their homeland, yet they returned where their children and herds had remained. They stayed there another 110 years before it was time for them to go and claim Canaan that God had promised Abraham.
This sentence especially touches me: “When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” The image of drawing up his feet and peacefully dying has such a poignancy about it. It represents a death many of us would hope for, yet, denied to so many, especially in the time of the continuing pandemic, war, and violence.
This passage caused me mentally to revisit the family cemetery back home. I have even found it courtesy of Google and can see it and the list of those buried there. I can mentally walk down the row of gravestones marking my adoptive family, from Mama and Daddy to my brother and an aunt and uncle, with room for my sister-in-law when her time comes. It is comforting to know just where they lie, and to be able to visit them, even virtually. It must have been comforting for Joseph and his kin to know that Jacob was laid among his ancestors as Joseph would be himself.
Do you have a family cemetery? Do you visit on occasion? What does “Gathered to his ancestors” mean to you? Is it even important these days?
As dearly as I love my family, it becomes less and less critical to me where my ashes will lie. I do pray I will be able to draw up my feet and die peacefully. My faith teaches me that it is less important where I will be buried than it is that the promise of Heaven and a single small room in a mansion with those I love. Somehow that is comforting – even if I’m not in any great hurry to get there. I want a few more visits to the family cemetery, even if I have to do it from a couple of thousand miles away.
Image: Burial of Sarah, Gustav Doré (1866), from Doré’s English Bible. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.