Dust to Dust image

Dust to Dust

It’s funny how theological ideas come along like busses. Having not come across anything about the virtues of Christian burial over cremation for years, over Christmas I read Matthew Lee Anderson’s thoughts on the subject, and then this past weekend I was reading Russell Moore’s Onward, in which – lo and behold! – he has this to say:

One of the most controversial topics that I ever address among Christians is not abortion, same-sex marriage, or immigration policies as you might imagine – it’s cremation. Many senior adults in churches I’ve served have wanted to save on costs for burials and funerals and ask about cremation. I don’t bind their consciences, but I point out that Christianity, historically, has rejected cremation as a false picture of the body. Burial signifies a Christian hope, that the deceased is “sleeping” and thus will be “waked” at the coming of the Lord. Cremation signifies a perspective found in Buddhism and other religions, that the body is consumed into nothingness. I find that the first implication people draw from this is that, somehow, I am suggesting that cremated people go to hell. “Can’t I be resurrected from an urn as easily as I can from a casket?” they ask.

Of course. That’s not the point. God can resurrect me if my body is eaten by alligators, but I wouldn’t dispose of Aunt Gladys that way, shrugging and asking, “What does it matter? See her in heaven.” The way we treat the body is a sign of what we believe about the future. The women around Jesus cared for his body, anointing it with spices, because it was him; they knew that the body is important because it will be part of the new creation, whether that resurrection happens in a matter of days or after billions of years of decay. Christians respect the body because we believe our material bodies are part of God’s goal for us and for the universe. At the same time we don’t make the body ultimate. The belly is destroyed along with its contents, Paul told the churches. The body returns to the dust. Those who make the body ultimate, as ancient Egyptians seeking to mummify themselves and carry their bodies into the next life, miss the vision of the kingdom. And those who dismiss the importance of the body misread that what matters ultimately is not just spiritual life but embodied life. That changes the way we live now. The old Christian heresies that spoke of the body as a prison from which we would one day escape didn’t really lead to body-denial but body-obsession. The heretics could fight and fornicate and carouse, because they believed the “real me” was the spiritual person within, communing sweetly with Jesus in a garden somewhere.

Moore is writing from an American perspective where burial is still far more normal than is the case in the UK. Here many people wouldn’t even consider burial simply because it is now so unusual. But Christians are called to think differently: we are to witness to the world, rather than become worldly. Time to buy a graveyard…


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