Ashes to Ashes
Over the Christmas holidays I read Matthew Lee Anderson’s excellent book Earthen Vessels: Why our bodies matter to our faith. In part my thinking this is an excellent book stems from the fact that Anderson’s thoughts on the significance of the human body align very closely with my own: it is always gratifying to find someone who agrees with you! This isn’t only vanity though – it comes with a sense of relief, as the way Matthew (good name!) and I think about many things is deeply unfashionable, and I am far more used to being disagreed with; even by other Christians.
One such area of disagreement is to do with how we dispose of our dead. In the UK the vast majority of dead people are cremated, rather than buried. I had never given this much thought until a dozen or so years ago when a member of my church told me he thought cremation was a pagan thing to do. I thought he was weird. But as I considered it more, and my understanding of the significance of the human body expanded, I came to agree with him.
While it is true that the Bible doesn’t give specific instructions about how dead Christians should be disposed of it is clear from the narrative of scripture that the saints are buried, while burning is a sign of judgment – which is why burning became the mode of execution for heretics. As David W. Jones writes in a helpful article (JETS 53/2 (June 2010) 335–47),
While detailed information concerning the funerary practices of all of the cultures that appear in the biblical narrative is not abundant, it is certain that the Greeks and Romans favored cremation, especially among the upper classes. In contrast, however, the Jewish people generally shunned cremation, with the Mishnah stipulating that cremation is an unacceptable heathen practice. In fact, in his Histories the first century writer Tacitus observed that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Jews, as compared to Romans, is that Jews “prefer to bury and not burn their dead.”
However, whenever I try to suggest this to others the response is generally one of scoffing – much as was my response when first confronted with the idea.
The presenting reason for this scoffing is rooted in how we understand resurrection: “If we are going to be raised to new life then what happens to our bodies doesn’t matter at all.” While this might seem solid theological reasoning, it actually reveals a lack of theological reflection. Rather it reveals how we think as consumers. We think our bodies are disposable not really because of a worked through theology of resurrection, but because we think everything is disposable, and we tend to fall into the gnostic trap of thinking the ‘real me’ is liberated when set free from the body. As one pastor said to me, he thought cremation to be preferable to burial because of its utter disregard of the body. This is very different from the worldview of the early Christians. Jones continues,
In spite of the Greco-Roman milieu of the biblical world, with the coming of Christ, general disdain for the act of cremation was carried over from the Jewish to the Christian faith. Indeed, Schaeffer notes that it is possible to trace the spread of the gospel across the Roman Empire by focusing upon cremation, for while “the Romans burned their dead, the Christians buried theirs.” In a similar manner, the last of the non-Christian emperors, Julian the Apostate (ad 332–363), identified “care of the dead” as one of the factors that contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world. The church historian Philip Schaff, too, identified Christians’ display of “decency to the human body” in showing care for the dead as one of the main reasons for the church’s rapid conquest of the ancient world.
It is difficult to imagine any contemporary church adopting as a missional strategy the slogan, “Join us and we’ll bury you, not burn you”!
Clearly, God is able to raise to new life all those who have put their trust in him, regardless of whether their bones are neatly arranged and recoverable, or scattered to the four winds. So a preference for burial over cremation is not simply an overly literalistic approach to guaranteeing resurrection life. However, “care of the dead” does indicate something about the Christian hope of resurrection – that it really is this body that will be raised to new life. Where is the dead Christian - in heaven? Yes, but also on earth, awaiting the day when heaven and earth will unite (Rev. 21:1-4).
Even to begin to address this subject is troublesome though. It would be very difficult for me to do so, say, in a Sunday morning sermon. Over the twenty years I have been in pastoral ministry I cannot remember how many funerals I have conducted, but I do know that only one of them has been a burial. If I were to say to my congregation that we should only bury and not burn our dead would I be at the least implying that we have done wrong to cremate our loved ones? After all, I have presided at the cremation of some very godly saints sent to cremation by other very godly saints. So, if for no other reason than this pastoral consideration, I would want to tread very carefully in this area. Certainly I would not want to compound the grief of bereavement with condemnation over the method of bodily disposal chosen. That said, I am very clear that when my time comes I want to be buried, not cremated, and I do think this is the better option for Christians.
While we do not live in pagan Rome it is not insignificant that much of the drive for cremation in the modern era came from those who wished to oppose the teachings of the Church. Cremation also reflects the industrialization and commercialization of modern life: it is quick, and hygienic, doesn’t take up much space, and leaves little behind. Death was removed from the home and institutionalized in hospitals and ‘funeral homes’. No longer were the bodies of the dead kept on view by their loved ones, to then be buried in a plot at the centre of community life, but hurried away and disposed of in crematoria placed on the outskirts of our towns.
In his wonderful book The Undertaking, Thomas Lynch describes how the removal of the dead from our homes happened at the same time as the toilet moved into the home,
The thing about the new toilet is that it removes the evidence in such a hurry…It is the same with our dead. We are embarrassed by them in the way that we are embarrassed by a toilet that overflows the night that company comes. It is an emergency. We call the plumber.
As Christians we are not ashamed of our dead - or shouldn’t be - so we should not (in Chesterton’s phrase) subject them to the ‘tyranny of the living’. We expect our dead to be raised to glorious new life, which means their bodies continue to be valuable, even when dead. This is why graveyards have a beauty and a hopefulness that the ‘memorial garden’ of a crematorium can never attain. There is something profound about being able to visit the grave of a deceased loved one – a profundity which we should not deny to those who come after us.
In our industrialized, commercialized world we have lost the power of symbols. The early Christians knew that the way in which they treated their dead was powerfully symbolic of the faith they shared with those who were dead, but would be raised to life – just as they knew the power of baptism and breaking bread and marriage; that these things were not merely symbolic, but were deep. In a world that is rapidly becoming as post-Christian as Rome was pre-Christian, the recovery of such symbols might help provide us with the kind of spiritual depth that will help sustain our faith and witness. To do so in this instance would require churches to purchase land for graveyards - to make concrete the symbolism of our hope. This is something I would love my church to do, but as yet I have lacked the leadership courage to make it happen.
Considering the significance of these things is a wise thing to do as we experience the symbolism, and reality, of one year turning to another. It may just be that the way in which we treat our dead could be as significant in Christianity conquering the modern world as it was in the ancient. Life is not only slow dying – in how we treat the dead the living demonstrate our certainty that life is just around the corner. Winter is here, but spring is coming!