I encountered my first corpse in middle school. My cousin Tammy, one of the most beautiful members of our family, died of complications from AIDS at the age of 28. The last time I saw her alive, lesions covered the portions of her frail frame not draped in hospital blankets and IVs.
At the funeral, I struggled to reconcile the body that lay in the coffin with the vibrant person I once knew. I sat there shocked into silence by the sights of aunties collapsing under the weight of grief.
Someone said, “She is in a better place.” I remember thinking, “Her dead body is lying right here in front us.” Her spirit was with Jesus, but we are more than spirits. What about the body that laughed and cried with me? Surely this too was part of my cousin. That part of her was not in a better place. It was beginning the inevitable process of decay.
It’s common, even in Christian circles, to think of the afterlife as a disembodied bliss in a paradise filled with naked baby angels tickling the strings of harps as our souls bounce from cloud to cloud. But Christianity has never taught a disembodied future in heaven. Our beliefs are more radical.
We believe that one day the entire created world will be transformed to become what God always intended it to be: free of pain, death and sorrow. It will be an earth that still contains some of the things of this life: food, art, mountains, lakes, beaches and culture. There will be hip-hop, spirituals, soul music and grits (with cheese, salt and pepper — not sugar) in the renewed creation.
Christians believe that our bodies will be resurrected from the dead to live in this transformed earth. Like the earth itself, these bodies will be transfigured or perfected, but they will still be our bodies.
All of this — the painful, unjust reality of bodily suffering and death in this world and the glorious embodied future that will come in the next — is on my mind as I prepare to observe Good Friday and celebrate Easter. The last few years have borne witness to an overflow of Black suffering. I wish that I had never seen the videos of Anjanette Young or Ahmaud Arbery, but I have. I could long for a world in which African Americans do not die at a higher rate from Covid-19, but that world does not yet exist. We are hurtling toward an Easter celebration, but for many Black bodies, the last few years have felt like an extended Good Friday. Bodily suffering has been a constant feature of the African American experience. We know well the persistent disregard of our bodies from the auction block to the lynching tree to the knee upon the neck of George Floyd.
Part of my birthright as a Black child of the South was grainy footage of Emmett Till’s family fainting at the sight of his disfigured body His mother wanted an open coffin to show the world what anti-Black racism had done to her child. She hoped that seeing such malice would bring repentance, but we humans are frighteningly capable of ignoring the harm we do one another. We refuse to see. I was also entrusted with images of Coretta Scott King veiled, dignified and caring for her children as the world mourned the death of her husband.
These funerals, these images of lynched, maimed and martyred Black bodies are a stewardship, a reminder of the high cost of Black freedom.
My cousin wasn’t murdered, but as a poor African American woman on Medicaid in the 1980s, she struggled to find doctors who would see her and accept her insurance. In a time when society and the government downplayed the seriousness of AIDS by linking it primarily to the gay community or illicit drug use, her diagnosis was slow in coming. All of these factors contributed to death.
Physical suffering like the kind Tammy experienced is also at the core of the Christian story. Good Friday, the day when Christians remember Jesus’ crucifixion, highlights what happened to his body. It was mutilated and put on display. Crucifixion was a tool of Roman imperial terror, a practice largely reserved for slaves, non-citizens or those convicted of high crimes such as treason. It was intended to remind the disinherited about the power that the state had over the bodies of all under its dominion.