Last night, Joe Carter argued that we have obligations now to people we will meet in the future, such as our spouses.  I pointed out (in the comments) that this would entail that we have obligations now to people in the past as well, a point that Joe agreed with (raising the inevitable question of whether that man ever sleeps–who responds to blog posts at 1:22 am?).

In the latest issue of Touchstone Magazine, smart guy Russell Moore points out that Christians need a more developed position on burial.  Moore wants to recognize and account for the traditional approach to the dead, which Moore recounts:

 

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.

Moore is evenhanded in his approach, wanting merely to start a conversation about “what it means to grieve as Christians.”  Yet the issues of burial and cremation pose difficult challenges to our notions of life and death.  Moore writes,

For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing. It is caring for a person. In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the “real” person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.

Moore notes several Biblical passages where bodies in the grave are identified as the people: Lazarus is still Lazarus in the grave.  Such a position suggests a close identification between body and soul, and yet an endurance of the person beyond the body’s death: Lazarus is still Lazarus in the grave.  It is then not surprising that a cremation would flourish in a culture that does not acknowledge the existence of persons apart from their physiological makeup.  As Moore writes:

Burial is a fitting earthly end to the life of a faithful Christian, a Christian who has been “buried with Christ in baptism” and is waiting to be raised with him in glory (Rom. 6:4). A Christian burial does not mean that we are “in denial” about the decomposition of bodies—that is part of the Edenic curse (Gen. 3:19). It does mean that this decomposition is not what, in this act of worship, we proclaim as the ultimate truth about the one to whom we’ve said goodbye.

It seems, then, one of our obligations to specific people in the past might be the proper honoring of their bodies.  If nothing else, it is an affirmation of the dignity of the physical aspect of the human existence, without surrendering to the notion that it is the only aspect of human existence.  And it is a reminder of our obligations to the past by reminding those who are gone are still with us, albeit in some limited way.  Death is real, but not final.  It changes our relationship with the world, but it does not end it.  Rather than actively engaging with the world, in death we are put in a position of waiting–we sleep, only to be awaken–for the resurrection of the body.

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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.

  • I agree with the need to honor the dead, and the bodies of the dead, as a Christian acknowledgment that these were men and women in whom God was/is present and through whom God worked to advance His Kingdom. I wrote a post a few weeks back called “Carrying our Bones” that looks at Joseph’s request that his bones be dug up and carried into the Promised Land on that future day when he believed God would fulfill His promise to Israel. I see parallels in that act of honor and respect in our custom of decorating the graves of the dead with flowers, though in this age when families no longer live together in a single community, it becomes harder and harder to maintain these traditions.

    In a very important sense, we know that the living church owes its existence to the church of history. It seems right that we honor those who have died, even as we also understand that they are somehow no longer present in their bodies. Thanks for linking to Moore’s article. I’ll go read what he has to say.

  • al

    Pardon the interruption from an outsider (I’ve been lurking about the site for a few months now, love it by the way), but I find this post to be kind of troubling. First, if there existed such a correlation between soul and body as is put forth here, why should cremation be any more of a problem than decomposition? Is it the bones of a person that are so valuable? Because that is all that is left of a body after enough time in the grave. If the Eternal is powerful enough to resurrect bones, why not ashes? I find this disdain for cremation to be a symptom of attachment to the world, and a rather faithless fear as well. Any thoughts or refutations to that?

  • Moore’s argument that Christians shouldn’t cremate is well made. However, regarding your commentary, I should point out that cremation is as much the child of dualism as materialism–in fact, the oldest-known practice probably goes back to the Hindu belief in reincarnation. It doesn’t just allow, but mandates cremation as the soul seeks out its next embodiment.

  • MatthewLee

    Charlie,

    I saw your post before, but then forgot about it until you mentioned it again. I put it in the sideblog because, as always, it’s immensely well written and insightful.

    Not having experienced much loss in my life, I haven’t yet thought hard about how I am going to communicate my lineage to my family. But after reading your post, I am excited to visit my grandfather’s grave with my children so that they can become aware of the past. It seems important for establishing a sense of identity and rootedness. Thanks for the comment.

    Al,

    Thanks for coming out of the shadows! It’s fun to hear new voices around here. Of course, if you ask questions as difficult as the ones you ask, I might quickly ask you to step back in to the shadows. : )

    My response is simply that cremation is not “more of a problem” than decomposition. The Almighty is powerful to resurrect in both cases. I do not have disdain for cremation–simply a concern that what underscores it is not a Christian notion. The bones of a person are valuable because they are that person’s bones. I like my bones. I want to keep them. Honoring me means, at least in part, honoring my bones. I–along with Moore, I think–are not arguing against cremation as much as asking Christians to reconsider it. After all, if the book Moore cites is right, the practice was not prevalent in Christianity until recently. That suggests–not proves–that something is wrong with it. The real question is whether “cremation” is honoring to the deceased, and if the physical body is an integral part of the deceased’s existence, then it seems that it wouldn’t be. The burial process points to the resurrection of the body–only the body that is resurrected is that person’s body. Which leads me to……

    Jim,

    Good point. I think that Christian dualism is very different than Hinduism on the very point that the body is worthwhile (go easy on someone who is no expert on things Eastern). The soul’s “next embodiment” is in the same body (cue problems of identity now) at the resurrection of the dead. I stand by my remark that cremation is also motivated by materialism–I think that the two ideologies, though diametrically opposed in emphasis, can lead to very similar practices. That’s my sense, at least. Thanks for the comment (yes, even regulars like you get thanks today!).

    Jim,

  • al

    Thanks for the thoughtful response guys. Jim, your comments seem to be a bit of an ad hominem attack. Just because Hinduism practiced cremation does not mean that the practice is wrong. Correct me if I am mistaken, but was not burial a pagan practice long before Christianity or Judaism had interacted with the pagans?

    If I were to die today I would probably wish to be cremated, but not because of any notion of reincarnation. It would be because I would not wish the extra expenses of burial on my already cash strapped family. The thought of burdening them because of any attachment to my physical form just seems wrong.

    As for MatthewLee, I may be out of my league here, but why do think that “the soul’s ‘next embodiment’ is in the same body?”

    I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that the body’s ultimate resting place is of no concern for God. He can deal with it wherever it might be, in whatever condition it might be in. Indeed, we may have no control over these things. Consider Bonhoeffer “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” If we do have control over them, or some illusion of control, the questions are “Is it right to focus on how my body will be treated after death?” Probably not. Consider that the Jews of antiquity were not allowed the notion of an afterlife perhaps because of the unnatural focus on death in Egypt. Next “Should we focus on economic concerns?” See my argument for cremation above. If you are not in that predicament, consider that the money could go to charity instead. Finally “Why would it matter anyway?” Just because you like your bones doesn’t mean a whole lot. You might well like your ashes just as much. Both practices can be taken to realms that are unchristian. Elaborate and exorbitant practices abound in both burial and cremation.

    Thanks again for the comments. Hope I’m not too much of a bother.

    Al

  • Al, my comment has nothing to do with whether cremation is right or wrong. I was merely showing that it can come either from materialist or dualist impulses.

    While burial is certainly older than Christianity, Christianity certainly made it a lot more popular than alternate means, at least within Christendom.

    Why does Steve Martin’s “King Tut” all of a sudden pop into my head?

  • al

    Jim, please forgive the misunderstanding then. It is so dreadfully easy to misread someone in these infernal blogs. I agree wholeheartedly that cremation can be desired for the wrong reasons.

    And yes… I kept thinking of “King Tut” the whole time I was writing my reply.

  • MatthewLee

    Al,

    Good thoughts. Allow me to “steal” from your comments from Jim (in other words, I’m rudely butting in to your conversation). You said, “It would be because I would not wish the extra expenses of burial on my already cash strapped family. The thought of burdening them because of any attachment to my physical form just seems wrong.” I think this is a very salient point for the discussion. Economic concerns are valid concerns in issues of life and death (though not all conservatives think so). That said, your comments are interesting because they highlight the tension between the individual and community with respect to death. While you may not want to “burden” your family with your body beyond your life, but that is exactly what human community demands of us. We “burden” each other with our physical presence, our physical needs, etc. But burial allows the community to express honor through “carrying the burden” of your body for you. It is a courtesy of them to do it, and a courtesy of us to allow it. That said, cremation isn’t a moral issue–I’m just concerned that it’s widespread and uncritical adoption by Christians signals a deeper rejection of Christian values.
    If I were to die today I would probably wish to be cremated, but not because of any notion of reincarnation. It would be because I would not wish the extra expenses of burial on my already cash strapped family. The thought of burdening them because of any attachment to my physical form just seems wrong.

    Now to your question to me:

    As for MatthewLee, I may be out of my league here, but why do think that “the soul’s ‘next embodiment’ is in the same body?”
    Well, because the body I have is my body. It seems like if I’m going to have my body again, then it has to be “the same” (in some sense) as this one. I tend to think that it will have the same form–when they see Jesus after the resurrection, he still looks like Jesus. Only He’s somehow also more than the Jesus he was before the resurrection. That’s why I think the bodies have to be “the same.”

    I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that the body’s ultimate resting place is of no concern for God. He can deal with it wherever it might be, in whatever condition it might be in. Indeed, we may have no control over these things. Consider Bonhoeffer “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” If we do have control over them, or some illusion of control, the questions are “Is it right to focus on how my body will be treated after death?” Probably not. Consider that the Jews of antiquity were not allowed the notion of an afterlife perhaps because of the unnatural focus on death in Egypt. Next “Should we focus on economic concerns?” See my argument for cremation above. If you are not in that predicament, consider that the money could go to charity instead. Finally “Why would it matter anyway?” Just because you like your bones doesn’t mean a whole lot. You might well like your ashes just as much. Both practices can be taken to realms that are unchristian. Elaborate and exorbitant practices abound in both burial and cremation.

    While God can certainly deal with our bodies in any condition they are in, I’m not so sure that their ultimate resting place “is of no concern” to God, especially since the death of holy men is apparently “precious in His sight.” I certainly agree that funerals can be perverted through exorbitant practices. Modesty must reign, even in death.

    I guess my question is whether there is a norm within Christianity for burial practices. If it’s burial, then some Christians (such as those who are unable to afford it) may choose in freedom to cremate their loved ones, but in that case cremation would be an exception. I think Christian notions of community, of honoring those who have gone before us, of the value of the physical world, etc. all point to burial as the appropriate burial ceremony. While economic reasons may inhibit this, and while God is certainly able to overcome cremation, neither of those suggest that we should put God in a situation where He must overcome them. If how we die–and how we mourn–is a part of our Christian witness to the world, then it seems we should do both in ways that are radically different than the culture around us. That is, I think, what I’m trying to argue.

    This is fun! Good thing I don’t have a job so I’ve got some time to play like this! : )

  • When you get “your” body back, does it come with all the gut flora?

  • al

    I hope you genuinely think this is fun. I feel like I’m just being a pest.

    Now, a few things jump out at me from your post. As for your comments on community, that is an excellent point which I may or may not have a trump card for. As a Wesleyan, during this whole conversation I have had the many “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” sermons that I’ve heard over the years at the forefront of my mind. I am probably remiss for not bringing it up until now, but I must say that I haven’t because it makes me feel like a hypocrite to do so. At any rate, here is my thesis. Taking the extra money for burial when it could be given to charity or even passed on to your family is certainly not saving all you can or giving all you can. You are taking your wealth at best, or your family’s wealth at worst and using it to have yourself honored. This does not fit into my view of Christs commands. We are to not seek honor for ourselves.

    If your family decides that they do not want to cremate you and instead wish to give you the honor of burial, then isn’t that just another case of seating yourself at the least honorable spot at the table only to be moved to the head?

    For clarification, there are several conversations going on here.

    First, the matter of personal choice. I think that we have all agreed that a person can choose either burial or cremation with the best of Christian intentions. Those same choices can also be made for selfish or materialistic reasons. It is up to us to soul search for the real reason we are making our decision as they are made.

    Second, the community’s responsibility to a person who has made that decision. I think that we all agree that if someone wishes to be given a “proper burial” that we absolutely must do all we can to carry out those wishes. We owe it to our fallen bretheren in Christ.

    Third, the real and wider issue here is that most people just do not think deeply about their decisions in the context of Christian values. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, however, I think that framing it in the context of burial practices is more than a tad polemic. We are attacking and defending a symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

    With that said, there is still the distinct possibility in my mind that it is wrong to devote too much thought to this topic. Our purpose in life is not to be burried properly, but to live properly. I have to think that if there is a such thing as the Creator’s priority list, that our burial is pretty low on it. Notice, the deat of holy men is prescious (a la my Bonhoeffer comment earlier), not the burial of holy men.

    You said something pretty inspiring up there too:
    “If how we die–and how we mourn–is a part of our Christian witness to the world, then it seems we should do both in ways that are radically different than the culture around us.”

    That is absolutely true. But it can be taken in a number of ways. To me, that speaks more to my “Give all you can” argument. If as Christians, we can use our bodies as a final act of altruism and ministry to the rest of the world, then is that not more in line with what the Creator wants from us? Notice, this may even imply that we are to donate our bodies to science (Something I am quite opposed to doing). It could be that my opposition to that is just another case of cherishing my bones which I have accused you of doing. At any rate, I doubt that I have fully digested what your statement will mean to me, so perhaps I am speaking a bit early.

    Again, I hope I am not being a bother. I am having a gret time myself. Good thing I have a job that lets me spend time posting to blogs :)

  • MatthewLee

    Al,

    Sorry for the delay! I was out of town and then have been “under the weather” the last few days. Plus, the longer these posts get, the longer it takes me to digest them! : ) It is lots of fun–I haven’t enjoyed blogging in a while, but this conversation has really revived my interest in it. Thanks!

    You wrote:

    If your family decides that they do not want to cremate you and instead wish to give you the honor of burial, then isn’t that just another case of seating yourself at the least honorable spot at the table only to be moved to the head?
    Marshalling Wesley against me was just dirty pool. : ) This is a really good point, but it honestly makes me question Wesley’s maxim. Under Wesley’s notion, the cathedrals in Rome never would have been built (nor would the amazingly beautiful Wesleyan church in Oxford where Wesley began). It seems in a culture that values utilitarian principles over everything else, being appropriately lavish on our ceremonies is an important witness. I think may have reached the point of our different presuppositions, however, which is progress!

    Also, the clarification about the conversation(s) was extremely helpful. Thanks.

    First, the matter of personal choice. I think that we have all agreed that a person can choose either burial or cremation with the best of Christian intentions. Those same choices can also be made for selfish or materialistic reasons. It is up to us to soul search for the real reason we are making our decision as they are made.
    Agreed.

    Second, the community’s responsibility to a person who has made that decision. I think that we all agree that if someone wishes to be given a “proper burial” that we absolutely must do all we can to carry out those wishes. We owe it to our fallen bretheren in Christ.
    Agreed.

    Third, the real and wider issue here is that most people just do not think deeply about their decisions in the context of Christian values. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, however, I think that framing it in the context of burial practices is more than a tad polemic. We are attacking and defending a symptom of the problem rather than the cause.
    Agreed. But the polemic is sometimes helpful, as it wakes Christians up to the presuppositions and ideas that go into their actions, and forces them to re-evaluate their lives according to the Gospel. In other words, we can’t always point out the problem: we must sometimes examine the symptoms and point to a vision of what a healthy Christian worldview looks like (this is, I think, where our differing presuppositions about the nature of that Christian worldview have lead us to affirm two different visions of the symptoms).

    With that said, there is still the distinct possibility in my mind that it is wrong to devote too much thought to this topic. Our purpose in life is not to be burried properly, but to live properly. I have to think that if there is a such thing as the Creator’s priority list, that our burial is pretty low on it. Notice, the deat of holy men is prescious (a la my Bonhoeffer comment earlier), not the burial of holy men.
    But if their death is precious in his site, then why not their burials (which, after all, celebrate their lives and the way they died)? On your grounds, would it be appropriate to throw bodies in mass graves? While the ovens were not as reprehensible as the gas chambers, our intuitions still find them revolting.

    The economic arguments are compelling, as is the argument that it should be our last act of altruism. That said, I think in our modern era, “the wasted funds” of a burial is an appropriate display of the “wasted funds” God bestows on sinners. It is a sign and symbol of the lavishness of the Kingdom that is to come, rather than a submission to utility and pragmatism. But then, that calls Wesley’s premise as a universal maxim into question. Further thoughts?

  • al

    Welcome back, no need to worry about the delay, that is just the nature of these discussions. Sorry to hear that you’re under the weather, get well soon.

    Your questioning of Wesley’s maxim seems to imply a dichotomy. You obviously find value in these beautiful cathedrals, yet are you saying that they are not the proper use of those resources? Now there is a chance that Wesley would not have approved of them. The early Wesleyan movement was an open air sort of thing after all. But I think that in reality, they do conform to the maxim. Consider the following. While they are lavish, the lavishness serves a purpose. It gives one the opportunity to be awed in the house of God. Being in such buildings is an obviously spiritual experience, that might not be terribly pragmatic, but is none the less more valuable than the “things” in the building. I believe completely that such things have aided in the salvation of souls, and are therefore more valuable than material charity alone. But that is not really the discussion we came here for.

    I agree that polemics can be helpful. I am, after all, a fellow fan of Chesterton. I still think that this stance is over the line of being helpful. If nothing else, I think that I have demonstrated that you can still be a relatively thoughtful Christian and not be bothered by cremation. There are other positions that our brothers take that are not so easy to defend (abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, etc.). But I know that you guys take on those topics and do a good job, so it may be that I don’t have much of a point there.

    Lastly, and back to the topic at hand, you said:
    But if their death is precious in his site, then why not their burials (which, after all, celebrate their lives and the way they died)? On your grounds, would it be appropriate to throw bodies in mass graves? While the ovens were not as reprehensible as the gas chambers, our intuitions still find them revolting.

    I think it possible for their burials to be prescious, but not in the same way as you imply. If you can make your body’s disposal be a last act of service, then yes it might just be prescious in His sight. But the implication that goes along with the original article, and many of your comments, that our bodies should be preserved, or we should give others the opportunity to serve us in death just does not fit with my ideals.

    You say that:
    I think in our modern era, “the wasted funds” of a burial is an appropriate display of the “wasted funds” God bestows on sinners

    I disagree. Being a sinner and living lifted from the burden of sin is an appropriate display. Living and dying, giving back whatever you can because you know that you’ve been given to abundantly is an appropriate display. Remember that hording, and keeping for yourself is a sign of emptiness. If we tried to make appropriate displays of all that the Eternal has given us out of material things, we would each have pyramids for our tombs, and they would all be inadequate.

  • MatthewLee

    Al,

    I am taking full advantage of the permanent nature of blogging here. Thanks for the patience, and the great comments. Onward, then!

    Your questioning of Wesley’s maxim seems to imply a dichotomy. You obviously find value in these beautiful cathedrals, yet are you saying that they are not the proper use of those resources? Now there is a chance that Wesley would not have approved of them. The early Wesleyan movement was an open air sort of thing after all. But I think that in reality, they do conform to the maxim. Consider the following. While they are lavish, the lavishness serves a purpose. It gives one the opportunity to be awed in the house of God. Being in such buildings is an obviously spiritual experience, that might not be terribly pragmatic, but is none the less more valuable than the “things” in the building. I believe completely that such things have aided in the salvation of souls, and are therefore more valuable than material charity alone. But that is not really the discussion we came here for.

    It’s certainly not the discussion we came for, but when has that stopped me from an interesting conversation? :) I think we are agreed here, as long as the cathedrals can be built on Wesley’s maxim. I’m sorry I gave the impression that I thought the cathedrals wouldn’t be the proper use of funds. I didn’t mean to. I wholeheartedly affirm the goodness and value of such cathedrals, which is why I would be inclined to reject Wesley’s maxim if it won’t permit their creation.

    But then I wonder about the analogy. If cathedrals are testimonies to the living God, why not lavish funerals (and weddings!!!)?

    I agree that polemics can be helpful. I am, after all, a fellow fan of Chesterton. I still think that this stance is over the line of being helpful. If nothing else, I think that I have demonstrated that you can still be a relatively thoughtful Christian and not be bothered by cremation. There are other positions that our brothers take that are not so easy to defend (abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, etc.). But I know that you guys take on those topics and do a good job, so it may be that I don’t have much of a point there.

    You have eminently demonstrated that thoughtful Christians can disagree about cremation. If all Christians thought through the issue as you have, I would hardly complain (though I might a little!:)) if they disagreed with me.

    Finally, the topic. You wrote:

    I think it possible for their burials to be prescious, but not in the same way as you imply. If you can make your body’s disposal be a last act of service, then yes it might just be prescious in His sight. But the implication that goes along with the original article, and many of your comments, that our bodies should be preserved, or we should give others the opportunity to serve us in death just does not fit with my ideals.

    The last act as an act of service to others is really compelling to me. As a last attempt to convince you (man, this is fun!), let me try this: in Sheldon VanAuken’s Severe Mercy, he describes the “cup of water in the night” principle. Namely, it says that it is a courtesy to get your spouse a cup of water in the night, and that it is a courtesy to ask. The latter suggests inter-dependance and a willingness to allow others to honor us by serving us. I see funerals as the same way. But then, I am a young man, and prone to pride more than anything, so I see this as the weakest argument I’ve made yet. :)

    You say that:
    I think in our modern era, “the wasted funds” of a burial is an appropriate display of the “wasted funds” God bestows on sinners

    I disagree. Being a sinner and living lifted from the burden of sin is an appropriate display. Living and dying, giving back whatever you can because you know that you’ve been given to abundantly is an appropriate display. Remember that hording, and keeping for yourself is a sign of emptiness. If we tried to make appropriate displays of all that the Eternal has given us out of material things, we would each have pyramids for our tombs, and they would all be inadequate.
    Okay, your last sentence is just a dagger. It is absolutely true. But I think that if a funeral is the closest that we can get, then we’ll should take it! : )

    That said, I think fundamentally we may just end up disagreeing on this one. I am not sure I have any more arguments to marshal for my position, and as you are still unpersuaded, I think we should count it a fruitful discussion for the clarity gained and then happily move on to new topics and new debates. I am sufficiently persuaded that this is not a matter of two things: (1) the issue of cremation is not a necessity for the Christian, but of freedom and (2) all Christians should be as thoughtful as Al in approaching the issue.

    But as I write, I want to add a further proposition: (3) If all Christians are not as thoughtful as Al, then their default position should be burial, as it is the historical Christian position on the treatment of the dead. Do you think you would affirm (3)?

  • al

    I return very late to the discussion (I quit monitoring this with my rss agregator and checked back on a whim today).

    I guess we will have to agree to disagree, but this was one of the more fun discussions that I’ve had in a while. It reminds me that when I write without outside influences, I cannot come close to my full potential (however low that may be).

    I agree wholeheartedly that (1) this issue is by no means a necessity, and (2) I am the minimum measure by which people might consider the situation.

    But I’m not sure that I can go for 3. With a decent casket, tomb, and burial plot, and marker costing upwards of $20K these days, I’m not sure that I can affirm that burial should be the default choice. Perhaps if it was done like it was a couple centuries ago. If that was the case, I might not have a leg to stand on with my arguments. Which brings me to the thought that I could just be rejecting the grandiosity of modern burial practices.

    Thanks again for the lovely discourse. Let’s do it again next time that I manage to disagree with you.