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.