A few months ago, Russell Moore penned an excellent piece in Touchstone on how Christians should begin to reconsider their position on cremation (a piece, I should point out, that spawned some excellent conversation here at Mere-O).  As a practice, it is so common that most people–Christians or otherwise–approach it pragmatically and unreflectively.  It is simply one of a set of possible options, no one being better than any of the others.
Such unreflective approaches to a topic are indicative of a lack of understanding regarding that topic.  Most people have never stopped to consider what cremation is, nor how it emerged in American society.
For the interested reader, Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire fills void exceptionally well.

My familiarity with Prothero’s work began with Moore’s essay, where he made this claim:

Stephen Prothero’s landmark study, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America, demonstrates that cremation flourished before Christianity and withered away when the Church spread through Europe and beyond. Prothero argues that cremation was virtually unknown in early America, its proponents limited to anti-Christian “freethinkers” who saw in the act of cremation a defiant rejection of the resurrection of the body.

Prothero’s work, however, hardly does any of those things. For one, while he asserts in the introduction that Christianity virtually ended cremation in the West, it is hardly a demonstration. What’s more, Prothero goes to great pains to point out that, in fact, the bulk of the proponents were not necessarily “anti-Christian ‘freethinkers,'” but rather those who were “liberal Christians.” He writes:

Although the cremation movement attracted religious radicals, most cremationists appear to have been committed Christians, and the rest adhered to alternative religious traditions, such as Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Buddhims, and/or Theosophy.”

In Russell’s defense, such adherents were hardly interested in preserving “traditional Christianity” (of the sort that we fight for here at Mere-O). Historically, however, the question of cremation was not a debate over secularism, but a question of which religion and rites would prevail.

That said, early cremation proponents appealed to two grounds: the scientific and the spiritual.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, a movement fighting for sanitation arose within American culture. Driven largely by the “genteel elites,” it was an effort to raise the lower classes to “refinement” by means of cleanliness. Built largely on the grounds of science, this movement viewed the decaying body as a potential source of disease, and hence understood cremation to be a matter of public safety, rather than private preference. In this sense, “purification by fire” suggests a purification of the body politic of the unclean elements within it. In its worst forms, this aristocratic impulse allowed the white, male, liberal Protestants in the cremation movement to “sneer at those who stubbornly resisted their largesse,” namely Blacks, immigrants, women, and Roman Catholics.
At the same time, the liberal Christians and adherents to alternative religions that composed the cremation movement argued strenuously against the traditional Christian notion of the human person as a body-soul unity. Rather than doing so at the expense of religion, however, they took a more effective route: they sought to replace traditional Christianity with a “more attractive” version. Writes Prothero:

In summary, cremationists took up three discernible positions on the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Radicals said no to the resrurrection and, in rare cases, to spirituality itself; more traditional Christians in the liberal ranks affirmed the bodily resurrection; while most liberals hoped only for the immortality of the soul. The cremationists clearly attempted to demythologize traditional Christian responses to death. If they had stopped there, they might rightly have been labeled secularizers. But they did not. Accompanying their demythologization of Christian stories and images was a new portfolio of myths, symbols, and rites. The slowly unfolding drama of the sleeping corpse awaiting its resurrection was roundly rejected by most. But in its place came the fast-paced drama of the fiery separation of pure soul from impure body and the freeing of that soul from earthly restraints. Cremation, wrote one theologically minded doctor, represented nothing less than the “spiritualization of the body.”

While the cremation movement began (roughly) in 1876 with the opening of the first crematory, it would not reach cultural saturation as a practice until the 1960s. In the interim, the “industry” had to be refined and built. On a practical level, crematories had to be built. Not surprisingly, California led the way. By the 1930s, it housed one third of America’s crematories. During this time, crematories lost their drab scientific style and were aligned with cemeteries, who saw it as an economic threat. Cremation became a “prologue” to burial, rather than a substitution for it. This union satisfied many Christians, who began to accommodate the practice. Funerals gave way to “memorials,” wherein the families decided how they wanted to remember their own. The

But in 1963, cremation solidified its position as an alternative approach to death by Americans. While the movement was initially run by elites, this movement occurred in the counter-culture. The spark that lit the fire was Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, which critiqued the American funeral industry as too lavish and consumption oriented. The Federal Trade Commission focused its spotlight on the funeral industry and began requiring funeral homes to list the price of cremation next to that of burials.

But Prothero points out that it was not economics that drove most people to choose cremation. Rather, it was style. Minimalism ascended, and the funeral rites of the 50s were viewed as extravagant. Prothero contrasts Kennedy’s burial with that of Eisenhowers to make the point. Kennedy was buried in Arlington after a state procession. 50 jets flew over and he was given a 21 gun salute. Eisenhower, who died in 1969, was buried in Abilene, Kansas in an $80 G.I. casket, and people sent charitable donations rather than flowers.

What emerges from Prothero’s account is mildly troubling for those (like myself) who care about Christianity and culture. With the advent of cremation, individuals began to have options for how to bury their dead. Rather than submit to the authority of the Church or that of the funeral director, they now had control over the way they memorialized–rather than buried–the dead. Cremation, then, was a part of the undoing the traditions that hold society together.

Associated with this trend was the privatization of religious practices. As individuals began to exercise their options in this area, the authority over death practices moved away from religious institutions to individuals. But those individuals were not isolated from the world around them–rather, they were shaped by the new consumerism that dominated the post-WWII era. This utilitarian, individualistic approach to death was fostered in large part by the funeral homes who saw it as the only route to replace the lost revenues of caskets and burial plots.

Finally, the cremation movement contributed to the gnosticizing of the body in American culture. The strange blend of science and alternative religions combined to undercut traditional Christian teachings on the nature of humanity. What Christianity has consistently held in a constantly tendentious unity–the body and the soul–the cremation movement worked to rend asunder.

Christians, then, who are concerned about ensuring their practices reflect an orthodox Christian worldview would do well to reconsider cremation. And those who do reconsider their positions would do well to start with Prothero’s excellent history.

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.

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  • al

    I guess I’ll have to quit being a lurker again for just a few moments.

    The thought that cremation could somehow deny the resurrection of the body is still amusing to me. You might as well think that burying the body serves the same purpose. If God holds mastery over all time and space, then the fact that your body exists anywhere at any moment is enough for him to do anything he would like with it anywhere or anytime.

    Attacking cremation because of the beliefs held by those who do not believe in the kind of God Christianity reveals or even any god at all is silly. Those people have bigger problems. As for actual Christians who wish to be cremated, tell me where this is doctrinally unsound.

    It isn’t.

    Yes, the practice is somewhat new to Christianity, and we all know that new stuff is scary. If you want to rest your argument on that fact, then please get off of these computers and go live like the Amish.


    Al

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Al,

    Heh. I was going to email you if you didn’t pop up. Glad to know we haven’t scared you off.

    I actually agree with everything in your comment. It is, in my view, possible to believe in Christianity and still get cremated. After all, the Lord will resurrect the bodies of martyrs who have been burned, so that obviously can’t stop him.

    I think I made a pretty modest claim in the post: given the origins of the practice in the United States, Christians should rethink their uncritical acceptance of it. We both know you are not one who has uncritically accepted it, so I didn’t really have you in mind.

    Cremation, remember, isn’t simply a practice that individuals can choose. It has weaved its way into the fabric of American life, and in doing so, it contributed to the de-Christianization of that corporate life. While it may be licit for individuals to choose, its introduction and acceptance is sad to me because of the way it undercut Christian notions of death, the body, and the afterlife, not to mention putting another nail in the “corporate traditions” coffin (heh). As such, while it may be licit for individuals to get cremated–I am not attacking the practice qua practice–it may be disadvantageous to the gospel for Christians to create a culture that encourages it or views it as “normal.”

    In other words, the situation is a bit more nuanced for me than simply thinking of individual Christians.

    As for going and joining the Amish, I wouldn’t mind that, actually. I’ve got Amish relatives and they’re good fun! That said, my response to new components is, I think, pretty balanced: provisionally accept, reflect on the use and the unintended side effects, and either reject, modify or continue to be guarded in its use. In fact, I think we should take that sort of reflective attitude to old stuff too. My cell phone (which is old) changed the way I view my life in some pretty significant ways (without me realizing it at first). As did email.

    Hope that helps clarify my position. My main purpose above was to review the movement, since if Christians are going to baptize the practice, it would be nice if they went through the trouble of understanding what they are baptizing.

  • al

    Oh no, you can’t scare me off. I just feel weird if I start to monopolize the comments too much, so I try to keep my posts to a minimum.

    Ok, so let’s see if I can pull this off. I’ve pretty deftly set this trap for you, and now my hope is that it’s as good a trap as I envisioned from the outset.

    We agree then that cremation is not necessarily bad, but might have some less than innocuous roots in the past. I can understand how those roots might make some a bit uneasy about the whole thing. I wasn’t being snarky with my Amish comment, that’s the trigger for my argument.

    So neither of us are Amish. We see the lifestyle. We know it has its benefits. From a literal perspective, we know that it is “safer” in that they reject far more uncertain things (like technology) than we do. However, we both have our little blogs, and are trying to use this new medium to do the Lord’s work.

    In a nutshell, we’ve looked at this new thing and have embraced the potential it has.

    What then, is the potential of cremation?

    1) It helps us to not fixate on death and the dead. To me, these are obviously things that we should avoid. If you disagree, I’ll get into that discussion with you, but for now I will assume that we agree on this. Modern burial practices remind me more of ancient Egypt than anything Christianity should have produced. We build monuments that try to stand through the ages. We protect our bodies inside coffins inside metal vaults. In short, we act as though all we have is a body, and we must desperately try to preserve it or else lose something that is intrinsically us. Cremation (for me) does away with all of that. But, if all burials were like Eisenhower’s described above, I probably would have no leg to stand on here. Unfortunately very few are.

    2) You said in your post that Cremation is a sort of minimalism. I agree, but I do not think that is a bad thing at all. In a culture of rampant consumerism, a symbolic reminder that you take nothing with you (not your gold encrusted casket nor your metal vault, nor any of the souvenirs therein) is a welcome reminder.

    At any rate, there is a potential to use cremation in a spiritually unhealthy way. This is a non-argument though, because I cannot think of a single thing, no matter how holy, that cannot be perverted into something that sickens the soul.

    Indeed, typically, the greater the potential a thing has for good, the worse it can be twisted to evil.

    I am not saying that everyone should be cremated or any nonsense like that. I will go as far as to say that extravagant burial practices are immoral, and perhaps a little sinful. Also, I think cremation uniquely targets materialism and for that alone, should not be attacked outright by Christians.


    Al

  • This is a tricky one. I had my son cremated for very religiously meaningful reasons. Much of what Al offers speaks to that.

    But I think Matthew is correct that cremation has participated in the erosion of social structure, like Air Conditioning has.

    My parent’s house is old by California standards. Built in 1903 with a front porch to sit on during the blisteringly hot San Joaquin Valley summers. When AC came in the 60s, they closed in the front porch.

    The social structures of evening walks and neighbors all on their porches reading the newspaper, changed to watching the evening news in their secluded comfortable living rooms.

    Fabric was torn.

    But new fabric is being built all the time. Traditionalism suffers the temptation of the Amish, to glorify a particular period in history and its particular social fabric as the ideal.

    This might be the most challenging issue for the church. Scriptures must be translated. We cannot use the nature of “mystery” as a guise for not passing on the “meaning” of the “mystery” as lazy traditionalists might.

    Each generation must be engaged with its own language, metaphor, and social fabric. Christianity is one truth, that must be translated into a thousand cultures, time periods and millions of persons.

    I think cremation as a part of the modern fabric of society can be sanctified and adorned with great significance, maybe someday its testimony will be greater than the testimony of burial.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Al,

    Trap? Trap? That’s terrible of you! Actually, I find the thought of you laying a trap for me extremely funny–not because you aren’t capable of it, but because no one has ever admitted to setting one for me before. I’m flattered, really.

    “We agree then that cremation is not necessarily bad, but might have some less than innocuous roots in the past. I can understand how those roots might make some a bit uneasy about the whole thing. I wasn’t being snarky with my Amish comment, that’s the trigger for my argument.”

    Agreed. And I commend you for your use of “snarky.” Well done.

    “So neither of us are Amish. We see the lifestyle. We know it has its benefits. From a literal perspective, we know that it is “safer” in that they reject far more uncertain things (like technology) than we do. However, we both have our little blogs, and are trying to use this new medium to do the Lord’s work.

    In a nutshell, we’ve looked at this new thing and have embraced the potential it has.”

    Agreed.

    What then, is the potential of cremation?

    “1) It helps us to not fixate on death and the dead. To me, these are obviously things that we should avoid. If you disagree, I’ll get into that discussion with you, but for now I will assume that we agree on this. Modern burial practices remind me more of ancient Egypt than anything Christianity should have produced. We build monuments that try to stand through the ages. We protect our bodies inside coffins inside metal vaults. In short, we act as though all we have is a body, and we must desperately try to preserve it or else lose something that is intrinsically us. Cremation (for me) does away with all of that. But, if all burials were like Eisenhower’s described above, I probably would have no leg to stand on here. Unfortunately very few are.”

    Here’s where I disagree. While I’m not sure what you mean by “fixate,” I do think that we don’t think about death or the dead nearly enough in our culture. In fact, my sense is we like to avoid it as much as possible. Maybe cremation has the opposite problem of overly lavish ceremonies–it rids us too quickly of the dead. If so, it’s no better a solution than ornate burials. My sense is that the two options–overly lavish burials and minimalist cremations–suffer from the same problem, namely, a misunderstanding of the nature of humanity and the meaning of death.

    “2) You said in your post that Cremation is a sort of minimalism. I agree, but I do not think that is a bad thing at all. In a culture of rampant consumerism, a symbolic reminder that you take nothing with you (not your gold encrusted casket nor your metal vault, nor any of the souvenirs therein) is a welcome reminder.”
    Indeed. But at the same time, God isn’t a minimalist (he said with a grin). There’s nothing minimalist about heaven (crowns, gold, etc) and maybe its good that burials sometimes point to that aspect of reality as well.

    “At any rate, there is a potential to use cremation in a spiritually unhealthy way. This is a non-argument though, because I cannot think of a single thing, no matter how holy, that cannot be perverted into something that sickens the soul.”

    Agreed. That’s why I’m concerned about the *cultural adoption* of the practice.

    “Indeed, typically, the greater the potential a thing has for good, the worse it can be twisted to evil.

    I am not saying that everyone should be cremated or any nonsense like that. I will go as far as to say that extravagant burial practices are immoral, and perhaps a little sinful. Also, I think cremation uniquely targets materialism and for that alone, should not be attacked outright by Christians.”

    Okay, here’s where I agree. There is a weird (and unholy?) alliance between the cremationists and the traditional Christians, when they are pitted against materialism. But the Christian response seems to have gone wrong in denying the body outright (cremation), rather than giving it the dignity it demands.

    That said, there’s lots wrapped up here about society and how to effect cultural change. If materialism is the prevailing social illness, then should we provisionally accept cremation because of it’s historical underpinnings, or should we reject it and hold out for a total victory? I don’t know. And I am still not convinced that cremation isn’t deeply motivated by the nihilism of materialism as well.

    Golly, I think I’ve gone and confused myself! : )

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    DDickens,

    Thanks for joining the conversation. I think I’ve enjoyed discussing this topic here at Mere-O more than any other, so it’s fun for me to hear more opinions.

    Your point about air conditioning is really, really interesting. I’ve never thought about it before, but then again, I haven’t lived in a place that has had a “porch culture” until recently, either.

    While I agree with the tension of “translating” Christianity into different cultures, shouldn’t there be a limit to what we translate the gospel into? For instance, don’t we change the meaning of Scripture a little if we change the “sacrificial lamb” in the Old Testament to the “sacrificial horse”? Are the two objects identical in their capacity to bear the theological significance of Jesus on the cross? For some reason, I don’t think they are.

    I raise the possibility to point out that cremation may be one of those practices that is deeply opposed to the Gospel. That’s the question I am still wrestling with, as I am trying to understand the practice and its meaning (which can’t be separated from its historical development and context, I think). I don’t want to be a “traditionalist” in the sense that you identify.

    I agree with you–there was no “golden period” to which we can return. But some periods may have had more overlap with the gospel than others. The fact that there is no “golden period” does not mean that each period is equally vicious.

    Here’s a problem with this discussion, however. I am trying to understand the meaning of a practice which society has said “each individual can determine the meaning of this practice for himself.” In other words, because there is no “tradition of cremation,” it seems impossible to find a meaning that is inherent in the practice itself (unless one accepts the historical development as the bearer of meaning here).

    But if we grant that the practice of cremation carries meanings only that individuals bestow upon it, then I think we have given up a Christian position on the issue already. Or at least we have given up on seeing the need for traditions to keep the social framework together.

    I’m rambling now, so I’ll stop. Those are my thoughts on this late evening. : )

    But I think Matthew is correct that cremation has participated in the erosion of social structure, like Air Conditioning has.

    My parent’s house is old by California standards. Built in 1903 with a front porch to sit on during the blisteringly hot San Joaquin Valley summers. When AC came in the 60s, they closed in the front porch.

    The social structures of evening walks and neighbors all on their porches reading the newspaper, changed to watching the evening news in their secluded comfortable living rooms.

    Fabric was torn.

    But new fabric is being built all the time. Traditionalism suffers the temptation of the Amish, to glorify a particular period in history and its particular social fabric as the ideal.

    This might be the most challenging issue for the church. Scriptures must be translated. We cannot use the nature of “mystery” as a guise for not passing on the “meaning” of the “mystery” as lazy traditionalists might.

    Each generation must be engaged with its own language, metaphor, and social fabric. Christianity is one truth, that must be translated into a thousand cultures, time periods and millions of persons.

    I think cremation as a part of the modern fabric of society can be sanctified and adorned with great significance, maybe someday its testimony will be greater than the testimony of burial.

  • Burial kind of represents tradition itself. When a person is buried in such a way that their body can decay, it will end up nourishing the surrounding land. In a agricultural society, this would be analogous to tradition, in that a person’s ancestors actively support and influence their current life. This seems to be a very strong natural image, though it is no longer applicable today.

    On the other hand, a deceased relative in an urn is merely decorative, which is how we tend to regard antiquity today. Classics tend to be valued for their aesthetics; thus removing them from their basis in the lives of real people who shared the same human nature we did, and dealt with the same basic problems.

    So, it seems our burial practice is proportional to regard for our past.

  • al

    Well, if you’re going to lay a trap for someone on their own site I think that it’s just common courtesy to announce it.

    I was trying to be a little funny though. I’m trying to get away from a completely dry writing style.

    As for our first disagreement (That our culture doesn’t fixate on the dead), I will stand by my statement. I’ve lived all over the country in my relatively short life, so I do not think that my views are too skewed on this matter as a whole for our nation. Consider the following:

    We have an overabundance of psychics and mediums and all manner of people who will contact the dead for us. These charlatans destroy a lot of lives and make a lot of money off of people who fixate on the dead.

    Consider the vicious fighting over various euthanasia laws around our states. People on both sides are very fixated with death and dying though not quite always on “the dead.”

    You lived in California didn’t you? Surely you could not escape the eastern mysticism that has invaded our west coast regarding death and reincarnation and all sorts of mumbo jumbo.

    I lived in the South for a number of years. That was the worst place I have ever been for superstitions about ghosts and spirits haunting places. Mind you, most of these hauntings were because the bodies were not “put to rest properly.”

    Granted, these problems are worse in some areas than others, but I have never been anywhere that fully escaped any one of these problems, and more than not, at least one problem was easily noticed.

    I also disagree that cremation rids us too quickly of the dead. As far as a funeral goes, what difference does it matter if the body is in a large box or a small one? With cremation there is even the (very unhealthy) option of keeping the urn around. That certainly does not rid us of the dead quickly at all. I’m not condoning that, I am merely pointing out that cremation itself does not change any timetables.

    Except perhaps one. If your body remains buried for long enough, it will likely resemble the ashes and dust produced from any arbitrary cremation.

    As for cremation vs. materialism, I am not suggesting that we should strive for anything less than a total victory. Though I do appreciate your attempt to suggest that I was. I am, however, saying that this is a good tool in a fight where we need every tool available.

    In the end, when the battle is won, what do you think will be thought of our rituals surrounding the dead? I doubt that much thought will be given to it.

    Oh, and “the nihilism of materialism” is a FUNNY phrase. If nothing is important, then how can material things be important?

    I happen to think that we can learn a lot from the nihilists in the same manner as the monks of the middle ages learned from Greek Myth. There is some truth to nihilism. They say that nothing is important while we must say that many things are not important.

    So I am with them on this point. How your body is treated after you have left it is not important. Treating it as if it is important has grave ramifications which apply to both burial and cremation. If you selfishly use up the resources of your family on a lavish burial, that is immoral. If you keep your body or ashes around in some arbitrary (but well thought out) condition in a vain attempt at immortality, that is immoral.


    Al

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Al,

    Your attempt at humor succeeded! Or at least, it did with me. : )

    Re: the fixation on the dead. I agree that there people are intrigued by those who are gone, but I stand by my point as well. I would point to the prevalence of anti-aging cosmetics and studies, which seem to want to overcome death. My review of “Death and Life: An American Theology” touches on this, I think. A quick search reveals this interesting page: http://www.christianity.co.nz/life_death3.htm

    I agree with much of it.

    2) The timetables for disposal may be the same between burial and cremation, but the remains are not. You don’t like the thought of keeping the urn around–I tend to think that if you’re going to cremate, you should keep it around. But most people don’t–they scatter the ashes or box up the urn somewhere. Cremation seems to be motivated by a desire to get rid of the presence of death, whereas a burial doesn’t do that, which is why cemeteries were always next to churches in the past–death is ever present, even for the Christian. Nay, especially for the Christian!

    That said, I think this is a minor point. Prothero points out that cremation took a turn in the sixties to be a sort of “pre-burial.”

    “As for cremation vs. materialism, I am not suggesting that we should strive for anything less than a total victory. Though I do appreciate your attempt to suggest that I was. I am, however, saying that this is a good tool in a fight where we need every tool available.”

    Right–I didn’t mean to suggest you wanted less than a total victory, just that we may end up disagreeing about our route to that victory. You may want to forge an alliance with the cremationists as a matter of pragmatics, and I may view such an alliance as counter-productive (even though I agree with your goal in doing so).

    “In the end, when the battle is won, what do you think will be thought of our rituals surrounding the dead? I doubt that much thought will be given to it.”

    That’s a good point. But I’m here and now, and I care about here and now, so I care about these rituals. It’s a weakness, probably. : )

    “Oh, and “the nihilism of materialism” is a FUNNY phrase. If nothing is important, then how can material things be important?”

    Sorry–I don’t see the humor here. I meant “the nihilism that materialism breeds.” I think they’re closely related ideologies.

    “I happen to think that we can learn a lot from the nihilists in the same manner as the monks of the middle ages learned from Greek Myth. There is some truth to nihilism. They say that nothing is important while we must say that many things are not important.

    So I am with them on this point. How your body is treated after you have left it is not important. Treating it as if it is important has grave ramifications which apply to both burial and cremation. If you selfishly use up the resources of your family on a lavish burial, that is immoral. If you keep your body or ashes around in some arbitrary (but well thought out) condition in a vain attempt at immortality, that is immoral.”

    I agree with you about nihilists. Ecclesiastes, after all, is in the Bible. It can’t get more nihilistic than, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” That said, I agree that it is not important *to me* how my body is treated after I am gone. I don’t think I will have the vindictive rage of the Greeks if my body is left above ground or ignored. But it may be important to everyone else how my body is treated after I am gone. That is, my family should dignify my body because it was my body, even though I’m no longer in it. I hope they do, though I understand if they won’t. It’s almost like preserving “the old homestead.” There’s something unseemly about tearing down the building where your parents lived and played as children, something really sad. It’s *their* home, and as such should be worthy of our honor and respect. How much moreso of the body!

    Hence, I think things like the “BodyWorld” exhibit problematic. Those were human people’s homes that are now being exhibited for everyone to see–that’s a crass view of the human body. Remember, the human body is important enough that Jesus carried one around for a while, and what’s more, kept it with him when he ascended into heaven.

    This is so fun. I really appreciate dialoging with you about this issue–it’s very, very helpful for me.

  • al

    Oh man, there are so many wonderful tangential conversations here that it is hard to resist them all.

    The heart of the issue here is in what we think of our bodies. I take the “Brother Mule” approach, and you seem to have more of an emotional attachment than do I. That’s fine, but I just don’t see the evidence for that being a healthy attitude.

    Your attachment to the body reminds me more or materialism than anything else. I don’t mean to be insulting, but that’s just how I see it. It is holding on to a temporal thing. It is setting up a monument to yourself. Being buried because that’s what your community does is fine, but don’t entertain any fantasies that it is the only valid choice.

    That being said, cremation can still be quite respectful of the body. I find it more so than the embalming techniques we use today. Read over the embalming process one day when you are as far from a meal as possible. I doubt that you disagree with this, your comments about respect above seem to stem more from my comment on the unimportance of the corpse. Nevertheless, I thought that I should say that just in case.

    I still do not understand the attack on the practice that comes from so much of Christendom. Rejecting it because one group or another endorses it just seems so ad hominem. Perhaps, for my benefit, you could restate the issue more clearly.

    Now that I’ve been a good boy and said all of that, can I be rewarded with a tangent? Pretty please?

    Thanks.

    You said:

    Remember, the human body is important enough that Jesus carried one around for a while, and what’s more, kept it with him when he ascended into heaven.

    Granted, I’m not very good at simple math, but I don’t think that I could count all of the fallacies in there.

    Christ did not carry around a body because the body itself was important.

    We are not told that he kept it with him either. We are told that the body was gone from the tomb, and that he could appear in a very different form wherever he pleased. To me, this points to the possibility that existence after the resurrection was a very different thing than existence before it. Honestly, I doubt that the human mind can comprehend just what happened. I wait patiently to be surprised and delighted with the knowledge some day.

    Also, your diction troubles me there. Are you saying that he kept his body because it was important to him? That seems like a bold statement on your part. I had written a few paragraphs on the matter only to delete them after careful rereading of your sentence. Now I am not quite sure what you meant.

    I too am having fun, but don’t be afraid to cut the conversation off it it gets to be a bit much for this format. As I said, I don’t want to monopolize your site.


    Al

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Al,

    Don’t worry about monopolizing the site. Really. There is an open invitation to continue the conversation for as long as you have things to say. It’s a good reminder of why I started blogging–to interact with intelligent, broad-minded people like yourself.

    That said, to the issues! I’m going to not respond to your points in the order that you gave them, but in the order that I think they relate to each other. Hopefully, this will be the clearest statement of my position yet!

    “The heart of the issue here is in what we think of our bodies. I take the “Brother Mule” approach, and you seem to have more of an emotional attachment than do I. That’s fine, but I just don’t see the evidence for that being a healthy attitude.”

    I wouldn’t necessarily describe my attachment to the body as “emotional.” Rather, there is a certain dignity that it has (ontologically) as a result of the Incarnation. If my attachment is emotional, it’s only because my emotions are responding to this reality, which is that God Himself took on human flesh and has not yet given it up. I agree with you that our approach to the body is the central issue in the conversation, which is why I have to include the example of Christ here–it is his life that must undergird all of our understanding.

    You said: “Christ did not carry around a body because the body itself was important.”

    Two questions: Why not? and, What if the fact that Jesus carried it around MAKES it important? Shouldn’t the dwelling of the Lord be treasured as well as the Lord (notice, this theme is all throughout Psalms)? Paul uses the language of dwelling places (if I remember correctly) to describe our relationship to our bodies in Corinthians–it seems like even if the body isn’t the ultimate reality, it is important enough that it needs to be dignified as part of reality.

    “We are not told that he kept it with him either. We are told that the body was gone from the tomb, and that he could appear in a very different form wherever he pleased. To me, this points to the possibility that existence after the resurrection was a very different thing than existence before it. Honestly, I doubt that the human mind can comprehend just what happened. I wait patiently to be surprised and delighted with the knowledge some day.”

    I take the appearance to the Disciples in the room, where Jesus shows them his scars, as evidence that he did actually keep his body.

    “Also, your diction troubles me there. Are you saying that he kept his body because it was important to him?
    I think that Jesus kept his body because the body is an essential aspect of humanity. If Jesus is “fully God, fully man” after the resurrection, then he must remain “fully corporeal” (albeit not the same corporeality as he had before).”

    “Your attachment to the body reminds me more or materialism than anything else. I don’t mean to be insulting, but that’s just how I see it. It is holding on to a temporal thing. It is setting up a monument to yourself. Being buried because that’s what your community does is fine, but don’t entertain any fantasies that it is the only valid choice.”

    This is correct. I am a materialist, but of a certain sort (that is, of the substance dualist variety!). As I wrote in a recent post, the question isn’t “body or no body” for the Christian, but “Which kind of body?” The body seems to link us to other people, tradition, and human culture–hence, I see the way we treat it as significant. That is, when we treat the body with dignity, it’s because we’re pointing to the intrinsic goodness of creation–when we treat it badly, we deny that reality. I think cremation undercuts the goodness of creation on a cultural level, even if individuals still cremate their loved ones and do so fully acknowledging the goodness of creation.

    “I still do not understand the attack on the practice that comes from so much of Christendom. Rejecting it because one group or another endorses it just seems so ad hominem. Perhaps, for my benefit, you could restate the issue more clearly.”

    I don’t think I’m rejecting it because of the groups that endorse it. I think I’m rejecting it because of what I think the practice itself signifies, namely, a disavowal of the goodness of the corporeal world and a denial of the future resurrection of the body and the redemption of the human institutions that are tied to it.

    To (try to) be perfectly clear, that doesn’t mean the groups that endorse it don’t matter. Rather, I think when we see such groups endorsing a practice, that should make us reticent and especially cautious to adopt it ourselves. If I find myself agreeing with, say, neo-Nazis about something, I am going to want to revisit that position and scrutinize it extraordinarily well, especially if that position goes against the dominant tradition of my own religion. It’s a “burden of proof” question–I think the fact that liberal Christians and adherents to eastern philosophy promoted cremation so heavily means the burden of proof is upon the traditional Christian to prove that the practice should be adopted by the rest of us.

    I hope that helps clear up my position, at least. I trust you’ll point out the ways in which I failed. : ) Onward and upward!!!!!

  • al

    1) At least in my world, cremation does not equal a loss of dignity. The process itself, is more like a fast forward of the natural process of decay. If you want to split hairs, I suppose that you could say that the increased speed at which the body makes it to that final destination seems undignified to you, but we’ll just have to disagree if that is your stance.

    Instead, if anything is undignified it is the embalming process. Removing organs, replacing your fluids with synthetic substances. All of this in the name of trying to slow the process of decay. Death has been the way of reality since the fall. Preserving our bodies only gives us the false comfort that this is not the case.

    2) Christ inhabited a body to be with humanity. Your inference that the body is what is important turns things on its head. The body was a tool to get God closer to us. I can see nowhere that it is even implied that the body itself held any other meaning.

    3) All of this talk of the dignity of the body makes me want to issue a strong caveat. I am merely speaking of the body as the corpse. I do indeed draw many of your conclusions (though oddly enough through different means) about souls still living.

    4) Christ having scars after the resurrection does not necessarily imply what you say. It only says for certain that there is some lasting effect of temporal existence on the corporeal. That is something that I think we can all agree upon. Else wise, why would there be a temporal existence at all.

    5) What the practice signifies:

    Honestly, I don’t know how it does all of that which you say. I could easily say the same things about modern burial. Oh look, I already have :)

    But fine, the burden of proof is on me in this matter. Consider the following, much of which I have already said in one way or another.

    A) If you are being cremated to deny the resurrection, then you have bigger problems than being cremated. Indeed, if your motives are anything like what you say cremation symbolizes, then you are not a Christian in the first place.

    B) The book does say “Ashes to ashes…” Cremation only hastens the process. As such, it is a powerful allegory to our eventual fate. It does away with a good many false pretenses that people have about death.

    C) (Warning, cheap shot ahead) “Modern burial” has only been around a little longer than cremation. With its metal vaults and elaborate caskets and embalming practices, it bears only a cursory resemblance to Christian burial from last century and before.

    D) The only leg that I think I have left standing for you is your argument that cremation somehow damages our culture. Not only are you worshiping at the idol of Western Civilization here, but you are denying the main aspect of its arm that is America. We may be the grotesque arm of that idol, but we are its strongest arm. Multiculturalism has served us very well.

    At any rate, I am not sure if our attitudes on death are worth preserving. It seems to me, that this is one area in particular where we could use some upheaval. It is an area in which our culture has failed us. As a human institution we should tear it down rather than pay homage to it as though it were something that it is not.


    Al

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Al,

    Ever onward. Here we go! : )

    “1) At least in my world, cremation does not equal a loss of dignity. The process itself, is more like a fast forward of the natural process of decay. If you want to split hairs, I suppose that you could say that the increased speed at which the body makes it to that final destination seems undignified to you, but we’ll just have to disagree if that is your stance.”

    It’s not the “increased speed,” but the agent that is decomposing the body. It seems “burning a body in a fire” is a different sort of action than “letting a body decompose in the ground, even after embalming.” Cremation is human acted, hence my reason for thinking it doesn’t dignify the body like burial. Burial lets nature take care of the process–it even attempts to slow the process of nature (embalming). While that may be a gross and even disturbing process, it has a different end than cremation. That’s why I think cremation should be evaluated differently, and why it’s problematic in a way that burial isn’t. Thanks for helping me clarify this.

    “2) Christ inhabited a body to be with humanity. Your inference that the body is what is important turns things on its head. The body was a tool to get God closer to us. I can see nowhere that it is even implied that the body itself held any other meaning.”

    Well, I don’t think I’ve got a verse to prove my case. I think of the physical world, though, as more than a tool. As a part of reality, it is an “end-in-itself,” not just a “means to an end.” Is the physical world “good” on its own? Yes, if God created it this way. But then it may “carry” a meaning in it intrinsically, rather than simply being something upon which we ascribe meaning. O’Donovan’s book is certainly lurking in my mind on this point. You may find my upcoming precis on it of interest, particularly the first two or three.

    “3) All of this talk of the dignity of the body makes me want to issue a strong caveat. I am merely speaking of the body as the corpse. I do indeed draw many of your conclusions (though oddly enough through different means) about souls still living.”

    See, this is I think the fundamental philosophical difference between us. I think that because the body is a part of the human person, it is dignified and needs to be treated as such even when the soul flies away. I think Leon Kass makes an argument to this end and sees it as necessary to defeat euthanasia. I’ll try to find it this weekend.

    “4) Christ having scars after the resurrection does not necessarily imply what you say. It only says for certain that there is some lasting effect of temporal existence on the corporeal. That is something that I think we can all agree upon. Else wise, why would there be a temporal existence at all.”

    Granted. But if the only indication that we have is that he has the same body, isn’t that worth *something*? He may or may not still have the scars, but he had the same body when he rose again, and his rising again is the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection, according to Paul. As such, it seems we can look to him for a pattern on what the general resurrection looks like, and if we have the same body upon resurrection, then it seems that contributes to (though doesn’t prove) my case.

    5) What the practice signifies:

    “Honestly, I don’t know how it does all of that which you say. I could easily say the same things about modern burial. Oh look, I already have :)

    But fine, the burden of proof is on me in this matter. Consider the following, much of which I have already said in one way or another.”

    This is progress, from my standpoint. At least you’re acknowledging that the practice itself signifies something. Notice, in that admission we have shifted away from evaluating it in individual cases and are now looking at it as a cultural practice. That’s good progress!

    “A) If you are being cremated to deny the resurrection, then you have bigger problems than being cremated. Indeed, if your motives are anything like what you say cremation symbolizes, then you are not a Christian in the first place.”

    Agreed.

    “B) The book does say “Ashes to ashes…” Cremation only hastens the process. As such, it is a powerful allegory to our eventual fate. It does away with a good many false pretenses that people have about death.”

    Indeed. It does say so, but in the Old Testament. If I remember right, that phrase isn’t in the New. I don’t mean to inappropriately divide the Scripture, but I think it’s an important point–our approach to death is transformed by the resurrection. If cremation reminds us of “ashes to ashes” (as it might), then it is at bottom a “pre-Christian” institution.

    “C) (Warning, cheap shot ahead) “Modern burial” has only been around a little longer than cremation. With its metal vaults and elaborate caskets and embalming practices, it bears only a cursory resemblance to Christian burial from last century and before.”

    This is a good point. So we may need to reform modern burial practices. But that doesn’t mean burial itself is illicit–just that they are being practiced badly.

    “D) The only leg that I think I have left standing for you is your argument that cremation somehow damages our culture. Not only are you worshiping at the idol of Western Civilization here, but you are denying the main aspect of its arm that is America. We may be the grotesque arm of that idol, but we are its strongest arm. Multiculturalism has served us very well.”

    Whew, those are good strong words! Well done! I’m curious why you think I’m “worshipping at the idol of Western Civilization.” Because I’m arguing that a practice isn’t Christian? And because I think if it’s not Christian, Christians shouldn’t do it or promote it culturally? And if you could clarify your line about America, that would help me too.

    “At any rate, I am not sure if our attitudes on death are worth preserving. It seems to me, that this is one area in particular where we could use some upheaval. It is an area in which our culture has failed us. As a human institution we should tear it down rather than pay homage to it as though it were something that it is not.”

    Well, if by “failed us” you mean we’ve departed from an appropriate understanding of death, I agree. But we left that understanding a long time ago and cremation was at the core of replacing an appropriate understanding with a mistaken one. Historically speaking, that’s undeniable. Whether or not you can practice cremation without the historical baggage is debatable (as we’ve amply demonstrated!). What you see as an improvement (cremation), I see as a devolution. It’s too late to tear down our attitudes on death–they are already lying on the floor broken. We must revive them, and questioning cremation is as good a place as any to begin.

    I’m looking forward to your reply. I am thinking of putting together a blog post on what I think is the relationship between institutions like marriage and death and Christianity, or at least how such institutions have been transformed in the last decade and the significance of those transformations. You’ve helped me think through a lot of these issues, and for that I’m profoundly grateful.

  • al

    Matthew,

    You sure are tough to pin down. Lets try this again.

    “Cremation is human acted, hence my reason for thinking it doesn’t dignify the body like burial. Burial lets nature take care of the process–it even attempts to slow the process of nature (embalming). While that may be a gross and even disturbing process, it has a different end than cremation.”

    A couple of things about this. Burial is “human acted” too. Between actually putting the body in the ground, and the various methods of preservation, it is obviously a thing done by man. That is a non-point though. Whatever we do with our dead will have to be done, ultimately, by human work. As for the ends being different, they only barely are. The difference is a mere splitting of hairs to me.

    Next,

    “Well, I don’t think I’ve got a verse to prove my case.”

    Neither of us have a verse to prove our case. The whole fun part of this is that I think the world around us more than proves me right. You seem to think that it does the same for you.

    All of the individualistic arguments we make tend to come back to you thinking that cremation does not dignify the body. That is a silly response for an individualistic stance. You are an individual, make your own choice in the matter.

    I am an individual, and personally, I find the following two things. A) Cremation is in no way shape or form an indignity. B) I absolutely do not care about the dignity of my body after my death.

    As far as I am concerned, that settles that half of the argument.

    Now, I finally relented and started talking about culture in my last response. Unfortunately I am perhaps least suited to talk about culture. At my heart I am a desert ascetic and I don’t feel that my calling is to particularly be a part of our culture here.

    That said, here we go.

    “Ashes to ashes” is actually from the Book of Common Prayer. It is based off of a verse in Genesis. It says something about coming from dust and returning to dust.

    If the resurrection teaches us anything about the dignity of the body it is to not worry about it. While it is possible that Christ gave instructions for the care of his body after the crucification, we are not told that he did.

    He certainly held no concern for dignity in the way that he died.

    We are told several times in the NT that we are not to seek dignity and honor for ourselves. He who will be first shall be last and all that. (OK, I put a quasi-individualistic argument in this section… but it does apply culturally)

    “But we left that understanding a long time ago and cremation was at the core of replacing an appropriate understanding with a mistaken one. Historically speaking, that’s undeniable.”

    Ha! I deny it. Seriously, how is cremation a misunderstanding of death?

    It does not deny the resurrection. Many martyrs have been burned. No one says that they will not be resurrected.

    Secondly, when exactly did our attitudes go wrong on death, and when did cremation rise to prominence? I bet that I have a different answer for the first question than do you.

    Granted, you think that there is a causal relationship there. I don’t think that they even started at the same time. If, by chance they did, be careful not to equate correlation with causation.

    Now, about worshiping Western Civilization:

    Most of the crux of your cultural argument is that Cremation damages our culture. Not to say that Cremation is an expressly Christian thing (though I find it 100% compatible), but most of our faith is incompatible with our culture.

    A thing should not fall or stand based on its compatibility with western culture.

    Monogomy would go by the wayside.

    Frugality is certainly gone.

    Chastity too.

    Arguably, charity.

    If you weigh decisions like these on their compatibility with our culture, and not compatibility with scripture or faith, then you are worshiping the culture.

    What is funny about that, is that in rejecting cremation on cultural grounds is more of an act of devotion to European culture than American.

    Both are part of Western Civilization though, so to combine the two, imagine a mostly homogeneous idol with one arm all deformed and hodge podge. That arm is America. We’re composed of practically every walk of life on earth. So there is a disparity in the idol. Its strongest arm is the one that looks nothing like it.

    The short of what I am saying is that you cannot reject cremation on purely American cultural grounds because we are so diverse there is a place for cremation amongst some of our people.


    Al

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Al,

    Sorry for the delay. I’ve been knee-deep in work the last couple days.

    “You sure are tough to pin down.”

    Me? Never. : )

    “A couple of things about this. Burial is “human acted” too. Between actually putting the body in the ground, and the various methods of preservation, it is obviously a thing done by man. That is a non-point though. Whatever we do with our dead will have to be done, ultimately, by human work. As for the ends being different, they only barely are. The difference is a mere splitting of hairs to me.”

    I think that “splitting of hairs” is more like a splitting of atoms–there is an incredible difference between the two positions. In burial, the bodily decay is resisted (actively) and occurs because of a combination of time and nature. In cremation, the decay is a direct result of human activity–the cremationist puts the body into the fire. That difference in activity is a pretty significant difference. It’s similar to (which isn’t to say it’s the same as) the difference between an elderly person on their deathbed who dies naturally and an elderly person who elects to be euthanized. The difference in agency makes a significant moral difference here, as in the question of cremation.

    “All of the individualistic arguments we make tend to come back to you thinking that cremation does not dignify the body. That is a silly response for an individualistic stance. You are an individual, make your own choice in the matter.”

    In individual cases, I don’t think individuals get to determine which actions dignify the body and which don’t. If I decide that cutting my arms “dignifies the body,” it quite clearly doesn’t. So the question is really a question of whether cremation treats the body appropriately, not whether we as individuals have the power to answer that question for ourselves. This is why I think the meaning of cremation is inherent in the practice itself.

    Hence, to clarify my position on cremation, in individual cases I think the only times it should be practiced are in cases of extreme financial duress. And those who do so should be aware of the meaning of their actions.

    See, in marriage, people under financial duress still get married. They don’t get to determine for themselves the meaning of the institution of marriage. I approach death practices under the same rubric, I think. I don’t see a good reason not to right now, given that death practices are a part of the fabric of culture (as are marital practices).

    “Now, I finally relented and started talking about culture in my last response. Unfortunately I am perhaps least suited to talk about culture. At my heart I am a desert ascetic and I don’t feel that my calling is to particularly be a part of our culture here.”

    I’m glad of it. We need more desert ascetics (I almost wrote a post recently about how they are some of the least understood members of Christendom, but I digress.)

    ““Ashes to ashes” is actually from the Book of Common Prayer. It is based off of a verse in Genesis. It says something about coming from dust and returning to dust.”

    Right, I knew that.

    “If the resurrection teaches us anything about the dignity of the body it is to not worry about it. While it is possible that Christ gave instructions for the care of his body after the crucification, we are not told that he did.”

    No, but they cared for it anyway. That’s important, I think. What would Jesus have burst forth from if they hadn’t placed him in a tomb?

    What’s more, I don’t think “don’t worry about it” is the appropriate attitude toward the body. Think of Paul’s exhortations in Romans 6 to submit the members of the body as instruments of righteousness. Or of Romans 8:11, where our bodies are enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Or Paul’s argument to the Corinthians that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the very dwelling place of God. Notice with the temple analogy, that particular physical space was the most important place for the Jewish people because it was the space where they met God. How are our bodies any different?

    If that’s not dignity, I don’t know what is. It’s been said that the whole enterprise of science depends upon the Incarnation in that it lifts up the dignity of the physical realm, which (and this is a straw-man against them) the Greeks didn’t have. I don’t know how to argue this any more forcefully. What’s significant about the Christian religion as opposed to Platonism or Hinduism or Islam or Judaism is the Incarnation. If that doesn’t pervade our understanding of matter itself, then I don’t think we are being thoroughly Christian.

    “We are told several times in the NT that we are not to seek dignity and honor for ourselves. He who will be first shall be last and all that. (OK, I put a quasi-individualistic argument in this section… but it does apply culturally)”

    I think I addressed this argument in our first round of posts–we’re also not supposed to reject the dignity and honor given to us by our family.

    “Ha! I deny it. Seriously, how is cremation a misunderstanding of death?”

    I think cremation misunderstands death because it destroys the body and as such points to the finality of death.

    “It does not deny the resurrection. Many martyrs have been burned. No one says that they will not be resurrected.”

    I think that making the practices of people who burned Christians normative or acceptable within Christianity is a bad idea. : ) Seriously, there is a difference between the meaning of cremation and the meaning of martyrdom. They are two very different acts.

    “Secondly, when exactly did our attitudes go wrong on death, and when did cremation rise to prominence? I bet that I have a different answer for the first question than do you.

    Granted, you think that there is a causal relationship there. I don’t think that they even started at the same time. If, by chance they did, be careful not to equate correlation with causation.”

    I think the final blow to our attitude toward death happened in the 60s, the same time cremation went mainstream. However, I think that the seeds for the triumph of anti-Christian ideas were laid back in the late 1800s, when cremation was first advocated in American culture.

    Now, about worshiping Western Civilization:

    “Most of the crux of your cultural argument is that Cremation damages our culture. Not to say that Cremation is an expressly Christian thing (though I find it 100% compatible), but most of our faith is incompatible with our culture.”

    I disagree. I think much within our culture is very friendly to the Christian faith.

    “A thing should not fall or stand based on its compatibility with western culture.

    Monogomy would go by the wayside.

    Frugality is certainly gone.

    Chastity too.

    Arguably, charity.”

    Actually, I would argue that all of those things have existed within Western culture. I look at the death of those things in America as the death of Western ideals and values in America.

    “If you weigh decisions like these on their compatibility with our culture, and not compatibility with scripture or faith, then you are worshiping the culture.”

    Ironically, I think I’m arguing the exact opposite and you are in the position you think I am. My argument is that while cremation is widespread within American culture, Christians should resist it because it is incompatible with the Scriptures and the historical Christian tradition (which has shaped Western culture).

    Hence, when you say:

    “The short of what I am saying is that you cannot reject cremation on purely American cultural grounds because we are so diverse there is a place for cremation amongst some of our people.”

    I agree entirely. I am not rejecting cremation on American cultural grounds. If anything, I’m rejecting America’s acceptance of it on what I perceive to be orthodox Christian grounds. You are trying to preserve and defend mainstream American culture, not I.

    This is way too long of a post. But I eagerly look forward to your reply! : )

    Matt

    PS The advantage of blogging is that this conversation is preserved and so is able to be continued over several days and weeks. While it may feel like a long conversation, if we were talking in person, we could have said all of this in an hour. Hence, don’t feel bad and think you are monopolizing the blog–the fact is that this conversation has made me aware of one more shortcoming of the medium, which is that it distorts our understanding of what a “good conversation” should be (namely, short!).

  • Deb

    I don’t mean to interrupt the conversation, but I do have a question concerning the book. Does it delve into the Early Christian practice and understanding of burial and why they rejected cremation?

    Thanks!

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Deb,

    Feel free to interrupt. Al and I are going to keep going back and forth until Jesus returns, I hope! : )

    That said, Prothero doesn’t address the Early Church’s arguments against cremation. He simply asserts at the beginning that where Christianity has prospered, cremation has declined. He does make quite explicit, though, that the debate in the late 1800s was over the resurrection of the body.

    That said, I have been meaning to write a review of Jon Davies’ “Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity.” Davies focuses more on the actual burial practices of the various religions in antiquity as a means of understanding their attitudes toward death, rather than focusing on the particular arguments they gave for their practices and attitudes. He does make clear that Christians co-opted Jewish burial practices, but infused them with new meaning. They also rejected cremation and eventually moved cemeteries inside city walls, which was novel (the catacombs, for instance, were outside the city). Davies argues that the early Christians were intent on keeping the dead “present,” in a sense.

    Long answer to a short question. Sorry. I’m really, really wordy tonight for some reason! : ) This is a good prompt to actually write the review….

  • Deb

    He simply asserts at the beginning that where Christianity has prospered, cremation has declined. Now that is interesting. I had not heard that one before.

    Davies argues that the early Christians were intent on keeping the dead “present,” in a sense. Yes, this is very true – this is why early services were held in the Catacombs. It had less to do with the persecution and more to do with the understanding of Life after Death (the whole “communion of the saints” in the creed). In fact, today in the Ethiopian Orthodox churches they continue to keep the center “aisle” (they don’t have pews) open for the Church Triumphant as they participate in their Sunday Liturgies. I would love to visit one of these churches, but I doubt they have any in America.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Deb,

    I didn’t know that about the Ethiopian Orthodox. That’s really interesting.

    Davies also mentions that Christians were buried with their feet pointing to the east, so that they would see the Lord upon the resurrection from the dead. I think it’s interesting how important the custom was to them–if nothing else, we could stand to learn something from the reverence of our forebearers!

  • al

    Mat,

    Right to it then, you said:

    “If I decide that cutting my arms ‘dignifies the body,’ it quite clearly doesn’t. So the question is really a question of whether cremation treats the body appropriately, not whether we as individuals have the power to answer that question for ourselves.”

    Wow, that’s awful. First, if my right hand offends me, then it is definitely to the dignity of the rest of me to cut it off. Secondly, It is ABSOLUTELY (I would yell that in a conversation) my own prerogative to decide what is a dignity for me and what is not. You are more than welcome to help my understanding, but you only get to decide for yourself. There are no prescriptions for a “Christian” burial in the bible, and all of this is really quite academic. If you find the practice sinful, then be aware that you are well down the road to legislating morality at this point, and we all know that does not work to save souls.

    I was going to ignore the little bit of polemics up there about cremation being along the lines of euthanasia, but on review, I think that I should not.

    If anything, euthanasia is more akin to burial than cremation. Burial and euthanasia both seek to preserve the person as they were (As close to healthy as can be, looking and feeling as good as possible). Cremation and a natural death both submit to the natural order of things post-fall. The body grows frail and fades naturally. The frail body completes its destruction with cremation.

    You Said:

    “Hence, to clarify my position on cremation, in individual cases I think the only times it should be practiced are in cases of extreme financial duress. And those who do so should be aware of the meaning of their actions.”

    Don’t bring money into it. Either it is right or wrong. If it is wrong, then a proper burial should be an outreach ministry of the Church. If it is right (or at least neutral) then money could be the tipping factor in the whole thing. The excess money spent on burial could be put to much better use elsewhere.

    You said:

    “I think cremation misunderstands death because it destroys the body and as such points to the finality of death.”

    I think cremation perfectly captures death in that it signals the passing away of the old, and the perfect reconstruction of the new heaven and new earth.

    You Said:

    “What’s significant about the Christian religion as opposed to Platonism or Hinduism or Islam or Judaism is the Incarnation. If that doesn’t pervade our understanding of matter itself, then I don’t think we are being thoroughly Christian.”

    And a complete understanding of the Incarnation would suggest that the body is not the end all and be all. At best, the body is a third of all. Tell me this, where is Christ’s oh-so-important body now. All we know is that it left. It went up into the clouds not to be seen again for a long time.

    You Said:

    “I think I addressed this argument in our first round of posts–we’re also not supposed to reject the dignity and honor given to us by our family.”

    And I thought I pretty clearly stated the difference between asking for, and accepting an honor. You are asking for it here with burial. That is why I think that little care should be given to the subject. What happens to your body after death is not up to you really. If someone wants to cremate you and has the opportunity… It might just happen. This is not too different from your body while you are alive really.

    You Said:
    “My argument is that while cremation is widespread within American culture, Christians should resist it because it is incompatible with the Scriptures and the historical Christian tradition (which has shaped Western culture).”

    Granted, I seem to have put a few words in your mouth, but I don’t feel too bad about it from the quoted sentence there.

    Where is cremation against scripture?

    How is burial like historical Christian tradition? We don’t exactly go into the catacombs these days, though that would be kind of cool.

    That will have to do it for my response… I am out of time to write here.

    Al

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