Extreme Care: Human Remains

I was minding my own business looking out the window of my Delta jet sitting and waiting at Hartsfield Airport for our flight back to Lexington when the captain came on the loudspeaker and said— “I need to tell you that we are awaiting some human remains to be placed on the plane before we can push back, and fly to Lexington, so it will be a few minutes.” About ten minutes later a small tow truck with two baggage wagons pulled up to the plane and placed a 380 pound coffin protected inside a wooden container on the conveyor belt. The container read EXTREME CARE. The dead, it would appear, get far more care and respect in some cases than the living.

But for me, this moment in time led to a completely unexpected flashback which caught me off guard. You see, this is how our sweetpea Christy finally got home from Durham— on a Delta flight, through Atlanta in exactly that sort of box on about January 15th of last year. Nobody wants their child to come home to them in box marked Extreme Care. Frankly, it’s too late for extreme care. Now there is only time for extreme prayer. Nor did I need to hear the usual joke that in order to get to heaven in the South, if you fly Delta, you will have to go through Atlanta. But I heard it.

And what an odd phrase ‘human remains’ is. The fact is, nothing remains behind of the living person herself, just bodily remains. A body by itself is not the human being, just the mortal coil that is left behind to rot. Christy had left the building. So, truth be tolled, she wasn’t on that flight in that box. Opening that box at the viewing hours here in Lexington was rather like opening a Whitman’s sampler after someone had already absconded with all the chocolates. Only the wrappers are left behind.

I tell you all this because almost anything can trigger your memory of your departed loved one. And sometimes there is no way to prepare for this unexpected visitation of another dose, another wave of grief, another round of tears. Even the littlest things can prompt it, and even years later. It turns out, human beings are not merely frail and mortal, they are also infinitely sensitive to the vicissitudes of loss, long after the ‘human remains’ are in the ground.

So what does grief for a dead daughter look like over a year later? Well I tell people it’s rather like having your arm, the one you write with, amputated. In the year after the amputation the initial shock and pain goes away, and the spot where your arm once was heals up. But every single day when you wake up, you know something essential is missing, and she is not coming back, not, at least, before Jesus and the resurrection does. What I look forward to now is not so much dying and going to heaven, though I am sure that will be grand. What I look forward to is the resurrection when I can finally give my Christy a hug again, and tell her how much I missed her and love her. Until then, we live in hope.

The plane was now pushing back and we were heading down the runway finally to go to Lexington one more time. Some world weariness set in, and I closed my eyes and simply said, thanks again Lord for 32 great years with my sweetpea. And then I tried to sleep.

Forward Thinking on Reading Backwards’– Part Six
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part One
  • anton

    Yes the pain will eventually go away although I have never lost a daughter. I often wonder why people go to cemeteries to, I suppose, be close to their loved ones. but their loved one is not there. only the earthly bones and flesh which soon is gone. your daughter lives in heaven and you will see her once again. in the meantime remember her every day and be glad for all the happy memories.

  • DDF

    Life is short. Humans are incredibly fragile. Every day is a gift. Our Lord was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. He prays for us, and the world in which we live, asking the Father for mercy. May God give you/us hope and the faith to believe that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  • LEF

    This sums up my own spark of memories that capture me at times with the loss of mom. Though I miss her everyday, there are those overwhelming moments that squeeze your heart and take your breath.

  • Mary

    Thanks Ben for being the person you are…so appreciated this post.

  • Mike

    What makes Christianity so great is that we’re not just promised consolation. Resurrection is transformation. Somehow, everything bad will not only be set right, but will add to the goodness we receive. Somehow all the pain while transform into greater glory and pleasure. I always struggle to draw metaphors for this or to work out what it might actually look like in a way that isn’t a gross caricature, but I take great comfort in knowing, albeit abstractly, that it will happen. Hopefully you can rejoice in that you have this hope. So many people do not, and even more don’t fully realize or understand the hope that they have. I honestly have no idea how they get through life.

  • David Martinez


    Thank you for sharing your process of grief with us. I am honestly dreading the day when my 82-year old grandmother passes away, though I can imagine the death of a child being far different. I’ve asked you before about what I am “supposed” to do when my grandmother — who is the human I love the most in this world — goes home to be with the Lord she loves so much, and you’re responses have been helpful. Thank you.

    I come from an abusive childhood and a very broken home. My grandma’ is my hero and the one who introduced me to Christ when I was a kid. It is through her that God kept mylife from falling apart. I have a weird situation and I’m wondering what your opinion is.

    My grandma has stated that she doesn’t want a funeral the day she dies. She just wants to be burried in the cheapest possible place. I understand that but one thing she told me threw me off guard: she wants me to keep preaching (I’m a preacher) and not cancell my preaching engagements when she dies. However, wouldn’t that be an offense to her legacy if I kept preaching as if nothing happened?

    I’ve tried to explain to her that her death will devestate me but she starts joking around and making me laugh. I am wondering what my ‘duties” are when she passes away. I don’t have a clue what people are supposed to do when a loved one passes away (I once asked you if I’m supposed to stay in bed when she passes away and you advised for me not to do so). Basically, I’m worried about not being “ready” for my when my grandma’ finally leaves me.

    What do you think you would do in my shoes? Would you have a funeral even though she doesn’t want one? Would you keep preaching as she asked?

    David Martinez

  • Nancy

    Thank you for writing this. It is a beautiful reminder that when we lose a loved one, their memory stays forever with us in that delicate border between genuine, raw emotion & the duties of daily life. I don’t think the pain ever goes away when a sensitive memory like your anecdote is triggered unexpectedly… especially if the death involved trauma or was unexpected. I cannot imagine what it feels like to lose a daughter, and I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Sariah

    Dr. Witherington,

    Christy was such a lucky girl to have you, a great father, who loves her so much.


  • Ben Witherington

    Just a word of thanks to all who wrote notes or sent me notes about this and other posts. It does help. When a loved one leaves the party early, you often feel abandoned, alone, humanly speaking of course. It’s nice to know someone cares. So… thanks so much. BW3

  • Gene


    Still praying for you.


  • http://Tailormadefs@yahoo.com Mlkehoe

    I was blessed to have my Mother with me for 60 years. She has been gone 13 years. God gave me a dear soul frIend who has moved on in his job and my heart burns with two losses. I still have the arms of Jesus with me daily. Some days he is so palatable in my workplace that I get goosebumps. Today was one of his days, and the student and parent saw the evidence of Him also!