Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly. Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were one hundred forty-seven years. When the time of Israel’s death drew near, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favour with you, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal loyally and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my ancestors, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” He answered, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me”; and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself on the head of his bed.
Death talk in my family was usually my grandmother’s preserve. She was good at it and took a bit of an unseemly interest in the machinations and manoeuvrings that might accompany someone’s demise. Very often at the heart of it all would be a discussion around who held the ‘title deeds to the lair’- a Scottish phrase meaning who owned the plot in the cemetery. This individual was able to determine who went in and who was left out.
Abraham had the title deeds for the lair in the field of Machpelah. He bought it to bury Sarah, thus laying claim to it for him and his descendants. He was buried there and Isaac, Rebekhah and Leah and it is to this burial place, far from Egypt, that Jacob wants to be carried. His wish is about getting back to the land that he believed God had promised to him and his descendants and he makes Joseph pledge to deal truly with him and carry out his bidding. A touch ironic for the man who cheated his own father, Isaac, and received the blessing meant for his brother Esau.
It is important to take time to think about what we want to leave behind when we die; to make sure that we don’t leave behind a mess for other people to clear up; that family and friends aren’t left carrying the dead bones of our wishes for the rest of their lives. More, that our final wishes are not too demanding or divisive but life enhancing for those who come after. My grandmother’s observations about the family intrigues and unpleasantness following the death of loved ones were not based on fantasy; the stories of the patriarchs are testimony to household strife. Even the closest families can struggle.
The greatest legacy, of course, is how we live and share love now. How we walk the way of Jesus today, can make it easier for those we leave behind tomorrow.
God who holds us fast in life and death, help me to cherish your gift of life and live it to the full. And when I die, by the mystery of your grace, may my life have been a blessing to others. Amen
The Rev’d Ros Lyle is a retired minister and a member of Muswell Hill URC