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.