Burial or Cremation?

A fascinating discussion over at Mere Comments
over whether Christians should bury or cremate their dead. I’ve been rather instinctually against cremation, but mostly, I suspect, because it seems so fashionable.

A couple of things of note: some of the commenters seem unable to distinguish that there is some space between what is forbidden and what is prescribed. That is, there are things, in St. Paul’s words, that are “beneficial” though not necessary. It’s as if Christians can’t say we ought to do anything except what is required for salvation. Second – and Russell Moore alludes to this but doesn’t spell it out fully enough – when we are thinking about what we should and should not be doing, it’s not enough just to say how an action (or omission) will affect us directly. We also have to reckon with how an action will affect the shape of the lives we all live together. Moore’s claim is that in burying our dead sans the funeral pyre, Christians show and shape themselves to be the sorts of people who expect the resurrection. In burning the dead, we aren’t denying the resurrection, but we are creating the conditions in which its expectation seems a bit less “real.”

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19 thoughts on “Burial or Cremation?

  1. I think George Carlin had it exactly right:

    “Bury them! We need that valuable nitrogen for our soil and plants!”

  2. “Bury them! We need that valuable nitrogen for our soil and plants!”

    Not to mention adding to our hydrocarbon reserves a few million years down the line!

  3. A former (Lutheran) Pastor of mine once said that cremation used to be the means that unbelievers chose as a final act of defiance, a final way of shaking their fist at “God” challenging “Him” to resurrect/reconstitute their ashes into a body again since their ashes would have been scattered.

    Although I would like to “stiff” the undertaking robber barons of their outrageous fees, I would not want anyone to misconstrue my action for anything other than being tightfisted.

  4. Burial shows forth the Gospel of Christ in that we die, are buried, and are resurrected in the eschaton, just as baptism, in the same manner, shows forth the Gospel. Cremation is not a “sin,” but why not proclaim the Gospel even in our deaths?

  5. All nice thoughts, and nice to see some new faces here in the comments.

    Moore’s claim is that in burying our dead sans the funeral pyre, Christians show and shape themselves to be the sorts of people who expect the resurrection. In burning the dead, we aren’t denying the resurrection, but we are creating the conditions in which its expectation seems a bit less “real.”

    Yes, Moore sounds right about the resurrection of the body. Certainly it need not be literal: I’d think anyone who died in a Bessemer converter accident is not denied resurrection.

    Aquinas’ related concept of man as man and his body as part of him, not a disconnected shell, has given me much pause for thought.

  6. I agree with Moore’s instincts in preferring burial over cremation. But. But. My mother died without having made any final decisions or arrangements even though she knew she was mortally ill, so I got to make them all. In two days. Sleepless and bereaved and driven half-nuts by the whole-nuts mental collapse of my father, I burned through about $20,000 and was left with such utter contempt for members of the National Association of Funeral Vampyres that practically any alternative looks attractive in comparison. Right now I favor burial at sea, particularly if I could get someone like Russell Crowe to intone those somber lines from Master and Commander:

    We therefore commit
    their bodies to the deep,
    to be turned into corruption; looking for the resurrection of the body, when the sea shall give up her dead. And the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

    Or someone could just sing the Pogues song:

    Bury me at sea,
    Where no murdered ghost can haunt me.
    If I rock upon the waves,
    Then no corpse can lie upon me.

    It’s coming up three, boys,
    Keeps coming up three, boys.
    Let them go down in the mud,
    Where the rivers all run dry.

  7. Not to make light of death, but I am so going out in a Viking ship sent out to sea with all my worldly possessions about me and then set alight by a burning arrow. Preferably with the bodies of my slain enemies about me to serve me in the afterlife.

    Yeah, Valhalla rocks.

  8. Just a point for clarification’s sake:

    “Yes, Moore sounds right about the resurrection of the body. Certainly it need not be literal: I’d think anyone who died in a Bessemer converter accident is not denied resurrection.”

    From the Biblical account of Christ’s resurrection from the dead on and after Easter (after which he was touched by several people and he ate food) Christians have believed and taught (see 1 Corinthians 15) that the souls of both believers and unbelievers will one day be reunited with their physical bodies.

    That this spiritual AND physical resurrection has been part and parcel to Christian Theology since early on is also evidenced by the ancient creeds of the Church: the Nicene Creed (written 325 A.D.) and the Apostles Creed (written between the 2nd and 9th centuries A.D.).

    Regardless of whether one chooses to be cremated as a final act of defiance or it occurs as a result of a tragic accident, the omnicient and all-powerful God will be able to reconstitute your physical body from sundry atoms- just as He did when He created you inside your mother’s womb in the first place.

    “Moore’s claim is that in burying our dead sans the funeral pyre, Christians show and shape themselves to be the sorts of people who expect the resurrection.”

    Christians not only “expect” the resurrection, it is their daily source of joy and hope that they will thus be united one day with Christ their Savior.

  9. Always seemed sort of selfish to me to tell people what to do with my body after I’m dead.

    I mean I’d be dead. They wouldn’t. Let them partake of whatever goodbye ritual makes them happy.

    Being dead I couldn’t say it would matter to me in the slightest.

  10. Theologically, James Elliott and I are in different worlds, but I’m with him in digging the viking funeral. I particularly like the idea of floating out into the waves and nigh-miraculously being successfully hit with the flaming arrow that sets the apparatus ablaze. What a way to go.

    Of course, on the field of battle slaying infidels and secular humanists doesn’t sound that . . .WHOOPS.

  11. Oh, man, Kathy, that was awesome!

    Frankly, Hunter, I don’t think we do enough physical combat in this country anymore. I want angry people smacking each other about the head and shoulders with axes and swords in the name of their righteous cause. I love the fact that the British Parliament has its aisles “two sword-lengths apart.” We need a return to that kind of political debate.

  12. The make-up of Congress might look a little different. Or maybe each caucus would have some goons on the team, like in hockey.

  13. I just think Americans need to go back to carrying swords and guns. An armed populace is a polite populace.

  14. I’m all for it. James is correct to point out that politeness is strongly dependent on the proximity of swords and clubs. People being what they are, that’s pretty much always going to be true.

  15. I, for one, merely think that I would look dashing with a sword.

    Of course, with my Conan-esque build, I should fall back on my Scottish roots and use a claymore like the one my ancestor used to kill King James’s cousin. The ancient Elliotts were badasses. Too bad our tartan looks crap.

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