Essie Dunbar had epilepsy. In 1915, when she was 30 years old, she suffered a massive seizure. A doctor declared her dead, and her funeral took place the very next day. Her sister arrived from out of town as the last shovelful of dirt landed on the grave.
The sister was devastated. She had wanted to see Essie’s face one more time. In her distress, she insisted that the gravedigger exhume the body and open the coffin.
He did as the sister asked. And as he raised the coffin’s lid, Essie sat up and smiled at everybody. She went on to live another 47 years.
Fears of being buried alive have been around for a long time. In the days before we relied upon precise medical technologies to pronounce death, some people arranged to have a bell or a window built into their burial site just in case they woke up six feet under.
These days we face being buried alive in a different sense. As Mary Oliver put it, “Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” (“Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches”) Are we really living, or are we just surviving?
Sometimes we confuse living with surviving. We all have a survival instinct. We are driven to find food and shelter, for instance. It’s as automatic as breathing. Provided that we avoid a terminal illness or a catastrophic accident, we continue to survive until the wear and tear of advanced age finally takes us.
But we yearn for more. We need to have something worth living for, a “why” that gives us a reason to persevere through heartache and disappointment, to overcome obstacles, and to endure suffering.
Nobody else can give us a why. We have to choose it for ourselves. Jesus teaches us that we make the choice to live when we choose to love. Loving makes life worth living because in loving we connect with God. (See Looking for God in Messy Places, pp. 11-12)
Loving is a tall order. At least, the kind of love that Jesus models is. I’m reminded of the infinitely high standard that Jesus sets for love every time I recite the confession at church:
“We have not loved you with our whole heart;/ we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
I mean really. Whole heart? Every single neighbor every time?
Now, pair those words of the confession with what Sirach says: “Before each person are life and death,/ and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:17). When we don’t love, we choose a sort of death. To be buried alive.
Here and now, we crawl into a tomb that passes for real human existence. And the terrible thing about tombs is that we can’t get ourselves out of them.
Paradoxically, it’s in the tomb that we discover a puzzling truth about ourselves. We yearn to love and yet we struggle to love. We want to live. We are most alive when we love. When we love what God loves how God loves it.
And we recognize that we’re in the tomb precisely because we can’t muster that sort of love up all by ourselves. We have to receive that love from a power greater than ourselves in order to give it away.
You could call this our Lazarus moment. I’m thinking of when the four-days-dead Lazarus hears Jesus say, “Come out!” That’s the voice of life-giving love. (John 11:32-44)
Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way, “God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.” (Pastrix, p. 174)
Again and again Jesus calls us out of our grave into life. Into a broader life. A life centered more fully, more consistently on love. Until one day that life has broken free of death once and for all.