It’s an odd topic, but one that I find fascinating.  Like all matters of practical wisdom, the question of cremation highlights the presuppositions we have and how those shape our intuitions.

The latest Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society has a piece on the topic by David Jones, which JT calls “a model of careful Christian ethical analysis and application.”  That praise is a bit too strong for my blood.  Jones’ piece is good, but weak at crucial points.

I mention two such points here.

First, when turning to the theological implications of the Resurrection, Jones writes:

“After reviewing some of the key historical, biblical, and theological considerations that have been a part of the moral discussion of cremation within the Judeo-Christian tradition, ultimately the practice must be viewed as an adiaphora [i.e. Scripture is indifferent] issue.”

Here Jones is a little too careful.  Immediately after he says that Scripture’s indifferent on the matter, he suggests the trajectory is “pro-burial” and that we ought to way the “act and imagery” of burial practices carefully because of Scripture’s high view of the body.

But how is it that the anthropology of Scripture can work to undercut a particular practice, while simultaneously being indifferent toward it?  In this case, it seems like a great example of an overreliance on a clear command in Scripture in order to make normative claims.

But my real worry is the second:

“Certainly not all deaths will afford loved ones an opportunity to choose the method of interment. Indeed, factors such as the location and manner of death, nation-specific legal parameters, as well as the resources of the surviving family will bear upon funerary practices and decisions.Yet, if given a choice, those left behind ought to consider carefully what is being communicated in their handling of the body of a decedent.”

Again, true enough.  But notice where responsibility for the dead lies?  On the family, not upon the church.  The church lives together, but apparently leaves its dead alone.  I get financial hardship.  But I don’t understand families having to take sole responsibility for the care of those members of the church who die.

Additionally, there’s a presumption here that because Scripture doesn’t offer a definitive word on the morality of burial practices that they are, in fact, indifferent.  Hence, we have the responsibility to think about burial only if we have the funds for it.  The notion, though, that burial is a witness only for those who are financially able to pursue it undercuts any notion that it is a witness to the Christian gospel. Leaving individuals out to bear witness to the Christian gospel if they can afford it undercuts the whole premise that we live, die, and bear witness within the community of the church.

There may be some reason to cremate folks that is consistent with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, and that takes into account the role of the community, but I can’t for the life of me think what it is.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19)

    In the absence of a biblical prescription to bury or cremate, I propose that disposal of the dead qualifies as a “non-essential” issue where liberty of conscience should be extended. That said, I think burial is preferable to cremation for the reasons that John Piper says here and Norman Geisler and Douglas Potter say here. Bottom line: “[Cremation] doesn’t matter ultimately. It’s just not a custom I think the New Testament would naturally lead us to” (Piper).

  • Christopher,

    Yes, I’m aware of both pieces. However, the question posed to Piper is a terribly framed question. “Matter” for what? And what does Piper mean that it doesn’t “ultimately” matter? There’s an ambiguity there that drives his answer.

    Also, the conclusion of the second article is a bit stronger than yours. “It does not follow from this, however, that cremation is an acceptable general practice. Whereas burial is an important practice and symbol in Scripture, cremation is a poor symbol of scriptural truth. While cremation is not an intrinsic evil, it nonetheless symbolically vitiates some important biblical truths. In this sense, cremation is a hindrance to the promotion of resurrection truth and should not be a regular practice of Christians. We thus conclude that all Christians should practice Christian burial unless extraordinary circumstances do not permit it.”

    Also, I don’t think we have “consciences” that are independent faculties that offer moral guidance on these sorts of things. And what do you mean by a “non-essential” issue? Non-essential to whom, for what, etc? My claim was that it’s a moral issue, which is different than making it “essential” in some sort of hierarchy or moral structure.

    matt

    • MATT: What you call ambiguity in Piper’s answer to the question––”Does it matter whether we’re cremated or buried?”––I call liberty, otherwise a non-essential issue becomes vulnerable to legalism: “You’re a bad Christian if you cremate.” I’m following the maxim on Christian belief and practice that’s often attributed to Augustine: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity. Unity on disposal of the dead is not necessary, although it’s preferable to bury for the reasons Piper said.

  • Tim

    I wish my family had had a chance to wrestle with this question before my father passed, very suddenly, a couple years ago. We decided to cremate. I’m at peace with that right now, though I don’t have a strong position right now on one approach or the other.

    One thought, though: could cremation not testify all the more radically to our confidence in God’s power to resurrect and glorify our bodies?

  • Indeed we do “live, die, and bear witness [to the Gospel] within the community of the church.” Well said. Therefore, this is a very important question, in fact a vital question for our time. We live in an age which has rejected the hope of the resurrection of the dead and the promise of eternal life. We also live in a time when the church has rather easily and unquestioningly adopted many of the cultural norms of rational secularism without much critical debate. If our lives and deaths bear witness, we need to make darned sure they are witnessing to the Truth, and not to the existential meaninglessness of life that is the predominate secular theory of man in this age.

  • Christopher,

    “What you call ambiguity in Piper’s answer to the question––”Does it matter whether we’re cremated or buried?”––I call liberty, otherwise a non-essential issues become vulnerable to legalism.”

    What you call liberty, I call libertinism, otherwise we lose sight that there’s an objective order of goods to which we must respond and act within. Which is to say, I don’t think Augustine’s maxim applies in quite the way you’re suggesting.

    Tim,

    “One thought, though: could cremation not testify all the more radically to our confidence in God’s power to resurrect and glorify our bodies?”

    Yes, it clearly might. But God’s power isn’t the only aspect at work in our understanding of the Resurrection. There’s also the fact that it reestablishes and reaffirms the old order, which it’s hard to say we agree with if we’re burning those who have passed from it.

    And full disclosure, my grandfather was cremated (though I clearly didn’t have authority over the decision), so I understand that this is a difficult issue that many folks are personally invested in.

    Best,

    matt

    • Matt: Extending liberty on the disposal of the dead is libertinism? Wow! With all due respect, I’m glad that you’re not my pastor. Where your position seems legalistic, implying “You’re a bad Christian if you cremate,” Piper’s position is gracious, expressing firm conviction about his preference for burial while conceding that disposal of the dead is “not ultimately an issue that matters.” We’ll have to agree to disagree here.

  • Joseph

    This is such a powerful topic that I think needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way within the Christian church. My struggle with cremation relates more to whether it really matters in terms of my salvation. There has been mention of the scriptural preference for burial. What are those scriptures? Does a preference automatically assume a prohibition and therefore is cremation considered a sin?

    • Joseph: For scriptures that pertain to burial, see what Norman Geisler and Douglas Potter say here. I agree with the authors here: “Whereas burial is an important practice and symbol in Scripture, cremation is a poor symbol of scriptural truth. While cremation is not an intrinsic evil, it nonetheless symbolically vitiates some important biblical truths. In this sense, cremation is a hindrance to the promotion of resurrection truth and should not be a regular practice of Christians. We thus conclude that all Christians should practice Christian burial unless extraordinary circumstances do not permit it.”

      Because cremation is not an “intrinsic evil,” I propose that disposal of the dead qualifies as a prudential or sapiential issue rather than a moral issue. If a Christian chooses cremation over burial, he isn’t immoral so much as imprudent and unwise.

  • “Where your position seems legalistic, implying “You’re a bad Christian if you cremate,” Piper’s position is gracious, expressing firm conviction about his preference for burial while conceding that disposal of the dead is “not ultimately an issue that matters.” We’ll have to agree to disagree here.”

    Well, I’m fine disagreeing. But I don’t much like being called “legalistic,” as I think your characterization of my position is quite uncharitable. I’m not suggesting that it’s a matter of salvation, or that people who cremate are “bad Christians.” Those are your implications, not mine. Frankly, it seems like that’s precisely the sort of language that a myopic focus on the categories of law/grace for determining ethical issues leads to. I can think cremation is wrong, that Christians shouldn’t do it, etc. without being legalistic about it (which is to make it a matter of salvation) or thinking that those who do it are “bad Christians.”

    • Matt: If you don’t like your position being characterized as “legalistic,” do you think I like having mine characterized as “libertine” because I’ve maintained that burial is the most prudent and wise choice but not the only choice?

  • Joseph,

    “My struggle with cremation relates more to whether it really matters in terms of my salvation.”

    Well, I take it that in one important sense, it doesn’t. Your salvation is in Christ, and we might all get this wrong and still go to heaven. However, contra just about everyone, I don’t think that entails that there isn’t a right and wrong on the matter and that we can simply trust ourselves to “conscience” (whatever that is).

    “There has been mention of the scriptural preference for burial. What are those scriptures?”

    I would encourage you to read the article I linked to. He does a great job of walking through the Scriptural referents.

    “Does a preference automatically assume a prohibition and therefore is cremation considered a sin?”

    No, I don’t think preference entails a prohibition. At least not obviously. I don’t know about sin, but I’m willing to say it’s wrong.

  • Let’s be clear about the grounds of the argument: Scripture has a trajectory against something, but doesn’t outright repudiate. Ergo, most people want to say it’s a matter for liberty, and that Christians can do it if they want (though they should think hard about not doing it). They claim this because it’s not explicitly repudiated in Scripture.

    Now, I’m not going to equate the two acts, but it’s worth pointing out that if you accept that as one line of argument, then you undercut a pretty significant case against slavery, which is that the anthropology implied by Scripture undercuts it as a practice, even if Scripture doesn’t repudiate it directly and openly (which it does not).

    Best,

    matt

  • “If you don’t much like being called “legalistic,” do you think I like being called “libertine” because I’ve maintained that burial is the most prudent and wise choice but not the only choice?”

    No, I don’t suspect you do. My point was written with same structure as the comment it responded to (a comment that seems to imply that I was legalistic)and was intended to highlight the fact that simply asserting something is “liberty” does not make it so. You suggested that it was “liberty,” as though that would be the defeater for my position, which I think is a nice rhetorical move, but one that stacks the deck in favor of your position. So I responded with a bit of rhetorical flourish of my own (since we’re playing that game, it seems).

    Best,

    matt

  • Matt: I edited my last response because the exchange was becoming too personal (see the change above). I wasn’t evaluating your person but your position. If ‘asserting something is ‘liberty’ does not make it so,” nor does asserting “there’s an objective order of goods to which we must respond and act within.” I don’t really have anything more to add other than to reinforce my comment to Joseph:

    Because cremation is not an “intrinsic evil,” I propose that disposal of the dead qualifies as a prudential or sapiential issue rather than a moral issue. If a Christian chooses cremation over burial, he isn’t immoral so much as imprudent and unwise.

  • Joseph

    Matt,

    I am devouring Geisler and Potter’s article now. Thank you for suggesting it. I am sure I will have more questions and additional comments, rather than solid conclusions just given my initial read of the article. Looking forward to sharing those thoughts with you.

  • “I edited my last response because the exchange was becoming too personal (see the change above).”

    I actually think it’s just best to leave things the way they are, if only for posterity’s sake. I don’t mind a little dust-up with folks now and then.

    “I wasn’t evaluating your person but your position. If ‘asserting something is ‘liberty’ does not make it so,” nor does asserting “there’s an objective order of goods to which we must respond and act within.””

    Oh, I completely agree. The problem is that if you reject an objective order of goods that guide actions, then all your left with is our will and God’s. If that’s where you go with your ethics, then great. But you probably won’t enjoy most of what I have to say around Mere-O.

    Best,

    matt

  • Joseph,

    I look forward to hearing them. It really is a fun issue to consider, and quite important as well.

    Best,

    matt

  • Matt: My ethics are primarily guided by scripture and secondarily guided by tradition, reason, and experience. I’m glad you wrote a post on this important issue because my grandmother is in the process of dying. Is my grandmother wrong for wanting her body to be disposed in this way? Are her daughters wrong for obliging the request? Or, are they being obedient to the explicit commandment, “Honor your father and your mother”?

    I’m trying to get a handle on what kind of issue we’re dealing with here. Is it essential or non-essential? Is it moral or immoral? I’m persuaded, based on the aforementioned sources of my ethics, that disposal of the dead qualifies as a prudential or sapiential issue rather than a moral issue. If a Christian chooses cremation over burial, he isn’t immoral so much as imprudent and unwise.

  • This is a good discussion, and I think quite an important one. You said “we live, die, and bear witness within the community of the church.” I think that is a crucial point.

    We bear witness in life, and perhaps even more so in death, to the Truth of our hope in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. We bear this witness to a secular world that increasingly doubts there is anything more to life than a purely physical and temporal set of experiences that are extinguished and utterly lost at death. So before the church embraces a cultural practice such as cremation, it needs to understand what worldly baggage accompanies that practice, and how the world interprets the practice in the context of its existential despair.

    If cremation is popular in the wider secular culture because it resonates with the idea that our lives are meaningless and human life is but a brief, flickering candle that is forever lost at death, the Christian church must think very hard about the unspoken message it is sending by adopting or approving such a practice for Christians. Because, in life and in death, we bear witness to a very radical perspective — that Jesus rose, and we will, too.

  • Joseph

    I must say that after reading Geisler and Potter’s commentary on cremation vs. burial, I am not any closer to solidifying my position on either. However, I am still partial to burial, simply because of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. It does not appear that Paul is devaluing the physical body at all. If anything he is speaking to the spiritual truth of what happens to us outside of our mortal bodies. That is to say, he is not “deemphasizing the body” as much as he is celebrating the renewed and transformed body that comes with the resurrection. What makes all of that possible? It is not whether the dead was buried or cremated. It is the salvation and power found in Christ that makes it possible.

    All that being said, do I think it cremation is contrary to traditional practice? I would say yes. But I am not driven by any cultural norm, concern for land use, or economic thrust. I simply see no point in burying my body. The witness to the world that has been mentioned it best found in the former life of the dead and the lessons learned by those who remain.

    I don’t think cremation makes one an bad or even “unwise” Christian. However, I am still open to other thoughts to the contrary. Does that make sense?

    At any rate, this is an amazing discussion that I am enjoying a great deal. This just may be one of God’s ways to get us to delve deeper into his Word. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

  • Christopher,

    My condolences to you and your family for your grandmother. I know this affects everyone, which makes it enormously difficult to answer.

    “Is my grandmother wrong for wanting her body to be disposed in this way? Are her daughters wrong for obliging the request? Or, are they being obedient to the explicit commandment, “Honor your father and your mother”?”

    I’ll deal with the middle question here, and the first question below. Presume for a second that she was requesting to be euthanized rather than cremated. The question about the relationship between the morality of her action and the explicit command to “honor father and mother” would be even more pressing than it currently is. I only raise that scenario to say that an explicit command to do something doesn’t have bearing on whether the action it is in conflict with is moral or not. It simply means that in the particular circumstances, we have to discern what obligations are upon us and what goods we are seeking, and make a moral judgment from that.

    “I’m trying to get a handle on what kind of issue we’re dealing with here. Is it essential or non-essential? Is it moral or immoral? I’m persuaded, based on the aforementioned sources of my ethics, that disposal of the dead qualifies as a prudential or sapiential issue rather than a moral issue. If a Christian chooses cremation over burial, he isn’t immoral so much as imprudent and unwise.”

    I actually think that because this is an issue involving the treatment of human bodies, it is a moral issue. But then, I can’t think of a decision that isn’t moral–at least not in reality. (Ethics really can’t be done in abstract, like we’re doing it here). Additionally, I don’t know why we should distinguish between wisdom and morality. I have a more robust view of “morality,” one that is oriented toward human goods and human flourishing, though. Perhaps if you don’t that’s an easier distinction to make.

    Best,

    matt

  • Joseph,

    Thanks for the comment. This is, I think, the crucial part of what you wrote: “I simply see no point in burying my body. The witness to the world that has been mentioned it best found in the former life of the dead and the lessons learned by those who remain.”

    Part of what I think is at stake in this conversation is the idea of “witness.” In one sense, you’re right. The meaning of our lives is constituted by our living in the world, not what happens to us after our death.

    However, burial points to a communal witness, I think, that the church has to the world (and I think Charlie’s point above is precisely the right way to frame it). These are, for instance, decisions that we should not make independently of that community, because our bodies are not “ours” to do with as we want. They are Christ’s, and our neighbor’s. And so in some sense, the issue of cremation highlights the role the church plays in our understanding of the world.

    Does that move you at all? : )

    And you’re right–this is a great discussion. Man, I love hanging out at Mere-O! : )

    matt

  • Christopher Benson

    Matt:

    Points of agreement:
    1.  The body is sacred and belongs to Christ.

    2.  Disposal of the dead should be framed as a communal (read: ecclesial) practice rather than an individual practice.

    Further thoughts:
    1.  Is cremation an “intrinsic evil”? Absent of any biblical proscription, I say “No.” Therefore, I reject the comparison to euthanasia, which qualifies as an intrinsic evil because it violates the proscription to not kill or murder.

    2. If cremation is not an intrinsic evil, how should we view the practice? Based on the ancient world, in which the Bible was written, cremation was a pagan practice whereas burial was a Jewish and later a Christian practice. Tradition or custom, therefore, provides a compelling reason to make burial the regular practice of the church and cremation an exceptional practice.

    3. As Geisler and Potter say, “cremation is a poor symbol of [resurrection] truth” compared to the rich symbol of burial. Symbolism, therefore, provides a compelling reason to make burial the regular practice of the church and cremation an exceptional practice.

    4. What obligations are upon us with the dead? To honor the individual and to preserve the sanctity of the body. Does cremation intrinsically dishonor the individual and violate the sanctity of the body? I say “No.” From ashes to ashes.

    5. “I can’t think of a decision that isn’t moral.” Hmm… Is my decision to eat a hamburger instead of a mixed salad moral? Is my decision to paint the bedroom in pale yellow rather than ivory moral? Is my decision to read a poem by Dickinson rather than Whitman moral? Is my decision to buy a Honda over a Volkswagon moral? Is my decision to go to sleep at 10 pm instead of midnight moral? Is my decision to volunteer at a soup kitchen rather than write a check to the charity moral? I could go on and on. I don’t think every decision is moral. There are other ways to characterize our decision-making that seem more accurate: dietary decisions, aesthetic decisions, financial decisions, prudential decisions, sapiential decisions.

    In closing, I’ve noticed that you’ve drawn the line in the sand twice with me in order to determine which side I am on. The first time related to whether I affirm or reject “the natural order,” which I prefer to simply call “reality.” The second time related to whether I have “a more robust view of ‘morality,’ one that is oriented toward human goods and human flourishing.” I question whether this rhetorical strategy facilitates constructive dialogue. I have been guilty of using this strategy before, and I don’t think it’s the most prudential (notice I didn’t say “moral”) decision. In addition, this strategy oversimplifies the dialogue. Of course, I affirm the existence of a mind-independent reality. The important question concerns how we can know that reality: through exact correspondence or approximate mediation. And, of course, I care about human goods and human flourishing. So, your morality is not more “robust” than mine. The important question concerns how we identify those goods and how we pursue that flourishing. Finally, this strategy is misleading, suggesting there is greater difference than similarity in our views. I think we share quite a bit of common ground. Shalom, brother.     

  • Christopher,

    1) “Is cremation an “intrinsic evil”? Absent of any biblical proscription, I say “No.” Therefore, I reject the comparison to euthanasia, which qualifies as an intrinsic evil because it violates the proscription to not kill or murder.”

    I don’t think that the biblical proscription is the only grounds on which we know “intrinsic evils.” Otherwise, slavery itself wouldn’t qualify. I don’t think cremation is intrinsically evil. But that doesn’t mean it’s morally permissible. In fact, the obligations to not pursue it have been offered on wholly Christian grounds so far, which is interesting.

    2) “Tradition or custom, therefore, provides a compelling reason to make burial the regular practice of the church and cremation an exceptional practice.”

    If this is true, then most of the reasons offered in its support in practical instances here and now won’t fly. What counts as “exceptional”? I am not sure that I am willing to grant that there are such things as “exceptions” in moral deliberation…but I’m not sure.

    4) “Does cremation intrinsically dishonor the individual and violate the sanctity of the body? I say “No.””

    I say yes. Were we going to offer some reasons for these positions? : ) I don’t think simply quoting a Bible verse which you know the other person disagrees on the interpretation of counts as an argument. : )

    5) “Is my decision to eat a hamburger instead of a mixed salad moral? Is my decision to paint the bedroom in pale yellow rather than ivory moral? Is my decision to read a poem by Dickinson rather than Whitman moral? Is my decision to buy a Honda over a Volkswagon moral? Is my decision to go to sleep at 10 pm instead of midnight moral? Is my decision to volunteer at a soup kitchen rather than write a check to the charity moral?”

    Yes, they all are. I think you missed the point where I said that ethical deliberation couldn’t be done in abstract. As Aquinas says, there may be morally neutral actions in generic, but never in species (which is to say, never in particular situations is there such a think as a neutral decision). In other words, there are other questions that you have to ask for each of those questions in order to make those decisions that tease out that they are, in fact, moral questions. Are you painting the room yellow because you know your roommate hates it? Are you reading Dickinson rather than Whitman because you hate men with beards? Are you buying a Honda because you want to stick it to Germany for their actions in WWII? Those are all motivations questions, but there are a host of other questions for each of those decisions that we could ask in any given situation that would, in fact, reveal that they are inescapably moral decisions.

    As for the rest, let me excerpt the various lines: “In closing, I’ve noticed that you’ve drawn the line in the sand twice with me in order to determine which side I am on.”

    If by this you mean I’ve disagreed with you, so be it. I am not starting teams. I’m trying to argue for particular positions that we happen to disagree about. Nothing more.

    “The first time related to whether I affirm or reject “the natural order,” which I prefer to simply call “reality.””

    Well, see, my point about that was that “reality” and “natural order” might be expressing two different things. For instance, one can affirm the existence and knowability of “reality” without affirming the existence of the “natural order.” I would take it that a philosophical naturalist might do precisely that. I don’t think you are one of those–that’s just an example to say that “reality” might not be the same thing as a “natural order.”

    “But The second time related to whether I have “a more robust view of ‘morality,’ one that is oriented toward human goods and human flourishing.””

    But then, you didn’t really respond to my point here. You’ve separated out morality from wisdom, etc. All I’m saying is that my view of morality includes wisdom, and hence is more “robust” or, even, bigger. That’s not to say that I’m right–just that we’re drawing the moral line in very different places.

    “I question whether this rhetorical strategy facilitates constructive dialogue. I have been guilty of using this strategy before, and I don’t think it’s the most prudential (notice I didn’t say “moral”) decision. In addition, this strategy oversimplifies the dialogue.”

    Again, it really wasn’t a rhetorical tactic. It was a real point, which you haven’t responded to at all. If I’m wrong, then please say so. I’m really happy to hear it.

    “Of course, I affirm the existence of a mind-independent reality.”

    I’ll go on record and say that I never questioned whether you did affirm that. Do you see me questioning that anywhere?

    “The important question concerns how we can know that reality: through exact correspondence or approximate mediation.”

    This is your important question. But it’s not everyone’s. It’s not mine. My question is about the structure of that reality, its contents. That’s the metaphysical question–you’re asking the epistemological. Again, that’s fine. But you have to realize that I think they are distinct, and have to be kept so.

    “And, of course, I care about human goods and human flourishing. So, your morality is not more “robust” than mine.”

    Fantastic!

    “The important question concerns how we identify those goods and how we pursue that flourishing.”

    Hoorah for that question. Yup, it’s tough. But again, there are real differences between us, particularly in your division of the “prudential” from the “moral.” That was my main point there.

    “Finally, this strategy is misleading, suggesting there is greater difference than similarity in our views. I think we share quite a bit of common ground. Shalom, brother.””

    Yay for common ground. I think you’re right about that. But again, I don’t have a “strategy.” I’m making the arguments as they seem to me–nothing more.

    Best,

    matt

    • Matt: I hope this conversation, although mutually frustrating at times, pushes both of us to clarify our thinking. I agree that biblical proscription is not the only ground on which we know whether a belief or practice is morally permissible. So, the question arises: what other grounds help us to know if a belief or practice is morally permissible? Tradition, reason, and experience play a role in decision-making, although they are subordinate to scripture.

      If scripture is silent or indifferent about cremation, how can we decide (A) whether Christians should cremate the dead and, if so, (B) under what circumstances. The tradition, reason, and experience of the early church favor burial. Therefore, contemporary Christians should also favor burial.

      You concede that cremation is not intrinsically evil. But, if I have understood your argument, you think cremation is morally impermissible. First, what is the difference and relationship between “intrinsically evil” and “morally impermissible”? Second, are there no circumstances under which cremation would be (A) permissible or (B) understandable?

      Please tell me if the following is a fair characterization of our difference: I claim that burial should be the general practice of the church while cremation can be an exceptional practice, whereas you claim burial should be the only practice.

      How can the church decide when cremation is permissible? Wisdom, I submit, helps us to adjudicate the shades of gray. In the coming days, I will give more thought to the role of wisdom in the moral life. To be clear, I am not separating wisdom from morality, but nor am I conflating them.

      • Matt: I am intrigued by Aquinas’ notion that “there may be morally neutral actions in generic, but never in species (which is to say, never in particular situations is there such a think as a neutral decision),” although I am not (yet) persuaded.

        Back to the particulars. What if I paint my bedroom yellow simply because I like that color––not because I want to spite my roommate who hates yellow? Besides, what if I don’t even have a roommate? What if I read Dickinson rather than Whitman because I had a teacher in college who inspired my love of her poetry––not because I hate men with beards? What if I buy a Honda because I find the automaker more reliable than Volkswagon––not because I want to stick it to German for their actions in WWII?

        I concede that motivation questions help determine whether a decision is moral or immoral, but I am not convinced that the examples above are “inescapably moral decisions.” The paint color in the bedroom is an aesthetic decision. The reading of Dickinson’s poetry is an intellectual decision. The purchase of a Honda is a financial decision.

        Returning to the question of burial versus cremation, I think that (1) the tradition of the church and (2) the symbolic truth of the resurrection lead us to prefer burial as the general practice. If cremation became a general practice, the church would have forgotten its own tradition and vitiated the symbolic truth of the resurrection. When cremation is an exceptional practice, it is best described as a sapiential (or prudential) issue. Decisions about its permissibility are guided by wisdom (or prudence) in light of the circumstances.

  • If you want a solid exercise in moral deliberation, you couldn’t choose a better issue than cremation: http://bit.ly/dezzE4 #fb

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Pingback: Cremation and the Structure of Biblical Reasoning | Mere Orthodoxy()

  • Pingback: Cremation and the Structure of Biblical Reasoning » Evangel | A First Things Blog()

  • Christopher,

    Thanks for your patience. I had a long conversation with my wife about this (who happens to agree with you), and here’s what I realized:

    The particular decision between yellow and green may not be a moral decision. However, it seems like we can put a moral question to it–“Are you painting it this, rather than that, with good intentions?” That this is a reasonable question to ask (in any circumstance, really) makes it seem like there is a moral dimension to the question. Just because we don’t often ask those questions doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t–or that we’re not making moral decisions unreflectively in painting our walls yellow, rather than green.

    Additionally, let’s presume that it’s an aesthetic question. If we’re a middle Platonist about transcendentals–if Beauty is coterminus with the Good, and if we have an obligation to fulfill the Good, then there might be some obligation to choose the most aesthetically pleasing of the two colors.

    I think that it’s the role of wisdom to see the moral dimension in these questions, and to adjudicate appropriately. What I’m not yet comfortable doing is saying that there are areas of life that are outside the moral field, the field of obligations and goods.

    One other way of saying the same thing: if we ask the moral question about the colors of the wall, it might turn out that they are both goods, and pursued in the proper way. Then we have a decision between two incommensurate goods. But that’s not a morally insignificant action, since what we’re saying is that both actions are good (including morally good, since we’ve reflected on them that way), even though we may not be able to fulfill both of them.

    Best,

    matt

    • Matt: The most important thing I can say in response to your comment is that I hope the Lord gives me a wife who will share in the kind of conversation you had with yours. Charity sounds like a lovely woman, especially because she has the good sense of agreeing with me. ;-)

  • Pingback: Cremation and Burial as Communal Acts « Alcestiseshtemoa's Blog()

  • Well, I should say that she was persuaded by my point that we can pose a moral question to any decision we make. : )

    • Matt: My maternal grandmother died last week. As I have already mentioned, she requested to be cremated. My mom and aunt are going to bury her ashes alongside my grandfather. This afternoon I joined my mom for a visit to the local cemetery in order to see what space was available for her burial. Then it occurred to me: if the contemporary church is really serious about its witness regarding sacred embodiment, shouldn’t the cemetery be located on church property? When I was studying in Great Britain, I often enjoyed visiting Anglican church cemeteries because they testify to human finitude, to “the wisdom of stability” (the lovely title of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book), and to the symbolic truth of the resurrection, where bodies sleep in anticipation of the Second Coming. I would like to see contemporary churches include cemeteries in their building designs.

  • Christopher,

    My condolences to you and your family. It is always hard to lose a loved one.

    I knew we would find points of agreement eventually. “Then it occurred to me: if the contemporary church is really serious about its witness regarding sacred embodiment, shouldn’t the cemetery be located on church property?”

    Yes, yes, yes, yes. I stand with you on this. I also like the continuity between generations of Christians that they express. They truly represent the “democracy of the dead” in a way nothing else can.

    matt