Jacob was dying. He had lived a long life, 147 years if we’re to believe the statement of scripture. It had been a life full of ups and downs, a life where he was his mother’s favorite, husband to two wives (and two concubines) and buried both (nobody knows about the concubines), father to twelve sons (and one unfortunate daughter who was named and probably a number of unnamed ones), the source of a family breakup (stealing Esau’s blessing and having to skedaddle out of town), and the victim of another (his son Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers). That lost son had done well for himself in his exile before his father and family came to seek refuge from a famine back home and, incidentally, found some measure of healing of the family breach. All in all it was a pretty colorful life. Did I mention he also wrestled with God — and lost?
There were two things, other than approval from God, that Jacob sought: remembrance of his good name and the continuation of his family line and estates. He already had twelve sons by his two wives and two concubines yet while in Egypt he came to know the two sons of Joseph by an Egyptian woman. Ordinarily the foreign mother might have put those sons out of the family picture but Jacob chose a different way. Almost in exchange for a promise, Jacob adopted Joseph’s sons and ensured that they would inherit their rightful share of his estate. He had lost Joseph for so many years, it was almost as if he were getting back his son three times over.
The promise that Jacob required of Joseph had to do with remembrance as much as anything else. In some cultures, a person is not considered truly dead until up to a year goes by without anyone speaking their name or remembering them in some way. For many people, visiting a cemetery where a family member or friend is buried makes it a place of remembrance, keeping that person’s memory alive. For Jacob, it was important to him to have his body returned to his homeland and be laid to rest with his ancestors. It would be a kind of homecoming for a son who had been away a long time. It would also be a place where descendants could go and remember their ancestor, ensuring his memory would stay alive.
When I was growing up, one of the fairly frequent Sunday afternoon events was visiting this or that relative. When we went to visit the Gloucester part of the family, the day almost always included a visit to the little cemetery where my adoptive father’s parents and others rested, a place where my adoptive mother was also laid to rest. It’s a small cemetery, down a country road and in a clearing with an ancient forest on one side. During the Sunday visits the adults would tidy up the various graves, removing dead blooms, replacing them with fresh flowers or even planting annuals to add life to the place of the dead. I usually wandered around, recalling some and reading the names of others of whom my family occasionally spoke. For me, no journey back home is ever complete until I have visited there, walked again among the tombstones, remembered the departed, perhaps had a word with them or a prayer, and saw who has been interred since my last visit. I can understand Jacob’s desire to be in a similar place and also the wanting to lie forever in a place that feels like home.
Jesus was in a tomb for less than three days people more than two millennia later still make pilgrimages to one or both of the sites which allegedly held the body after his death and before his resurrection. They go to the Holy Land, visit the designated place of his birth, see the Jordan River where he was baptized, explore Gethsemane and walk the Via Dolorosa to the place where legend places his death. His name is still spoken and remembered after all these centuries yet there is something about being at the side of a tomb where perhaps his body lay that brings out the poignancy and desire to be close to him. That’s what cemeteries do – give the bereaved a place to grieve, speak, apologize, even pass on family news and, very possibly, heal from the breach. Jesus isn’t there in any of the purported tombs, but for some, something about it makes him closer than many other places.
Centuries after his death, Joseph was carried out of Egypt and returned to the country where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather lay. While it had probably taken days, perhaps several weeks, for Jacob’s body to arrive at Machpelah, it took 400 years of waiting followed by 40 years of wandering for Joseph’s body to arrive at its final resting place in Shechem. Both came “home” to the land of their birth and their inheritance. While we remember them more from the Bible stories than from direct knowledge or tombstones in a cemetery, the fact is that we remember them because of who they were, what they represented and the fact that their names and stories were preserved by their descendants even before scripture was written.
Even if our lives aren’t as colorful as Jacob’s or important as Joseph’s, may we all come to rest at wherever we consider home and be remembered for the good we have done.