Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and many fell on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. The battle pressed hard upon Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by them. Then Saul said to his armour-bearer, ‘Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.’ But his armour-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. When his armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armour-bearer and all his men died together on the same day. When the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook their towns and fled; and the Philistines came and occupied them. The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head, stripped off his armour, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the houses of their idols and to the people. They put his armour in the temple of Astarte; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men set out, travelled all night long, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan. They came to Jabesh and burned them there. Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted for seven days.
I have taken hundreds of funerals over the years: celebrations after a life well lived; gut wrenchingly sad following the death of a child or a life wasted through drugs or alcohol; others where the only response was to commend the deceased to God’s mercy and care after a truly awful life. In some the family were, frankly, indifferent; in others the family was more interested in the feud (or the will) than the deceased.
In all the funerals I have taken, however, I have always been struck by the respect and professionalism of undertakers. In my previous ministry I was very involved with one firm, in particular, and was amazed at the care they showed to the body of the deceased; the care of the embalmer, a hairdresser who would come and give women who had died a final hair do, so they looked good – for no charge, and the general sense of gentleness the undertakers always took – mindful the person had been loved and had loved throughout life.
A common aspect of almost all human cultures is the respect we give to the bodies of the dead. Today’s reading, then, is shocking. Saul’s understandable fear about how his body would be desecrated by his enemies, and the fearlessness of the “valiant” men who went to reclaim it and give it a decent burial, reminds me of the women who went to tend to Jesus’ body after his bloody death.
We have followed Saul’s story over the last few weeks, seen his instability, jealousy, cunning and scheming facing a son-in-law determined to usurp him, a relentless enemy and, at the same time, seeking to consolidate his hold on the throne. We may not have been very impressed with him but feel he deserved better than this end.
Pray today for those who die, unloved and unlamented, and for those who undertake their final journeys ensuring dignity and grace.
Lord Jesus, you had no grave of your own, your body was brutalised before death, and no arrangements could be made for your funeral, give grace to those who wash corpses, tend to the dead and ensure dignity to the deceased, that as they await resurrection, we, and they, may sing your glory. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in the Synod of Scotland’s Southside Cluster.