Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cremation vs. traditional burial

A recent article in The New York Times addresses the issue of cremation. There are two important points for Christians to consider with regard to this article and the issues it raises, neither of which has to do with the relative merits of cremation vs. traditional burial. This Rumination takes no position on that (after all, no one has suggested that a body consumed by fire cannot be raised by God--e.g. Joan of Arc).

Point number one:

The article states that a traditional funeral and burial costs from $10,000 to $16,000. No doubt that is true if the undertakers are allowed to have their way. But a family who has prepared for a funeral ahead of time can cut that cost by three-quarters:

--As long as the coffin remains closed, embalming is not necessary, nor is it required by law.
--A really inexpensive coffin can be purchased from any number of suppliers, including Jewish ones. There are dozens of sites on line.
--The coffin can be brought to the church and covered with the church pall until time for the service.
--If there is to be a time of visitation and the home is too small, most churches can arrange for it to be in the church parish house or fellowship hall.
--Family and friends can serve as pallbearers.

There are various other ways to save money on funerals, and many organizations that can help. Most clergy will have good relationships with the local undertakers and can run interference. The crucial thing is to think ahead and to have someone prepared to deal with pressure from the funeral home.

Point number two:

Whether there is a cremation or a burial, the crucial factor is the teaching of the Bible and the church regarding the resurrection of the dead. The Times article quotes Prof. Stephen Prothero, with whom we have had occasion to take issue previously in these Ruminations. Here's what he says:

“America is becoming Hinduized in this way,” said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. “We’re increasingly seeing the human as essentially spiritual and gradually giving up on the Judeo-Christian idea of the person in the afterlife.”

Well...let's give Prothero the benefit of the doubt and assume he does not agree with this "Hinduization" of America. The real issue is this: Do Christians believe in a body/soul split, or do we inherit the Hebrew view of the person as a psychosomatic (psyche--spirit; soma--body) unity? The New Testament proclamation of the resurrection of the dead depends on the Hebrew conception. Even more, the entire anthropology of the New Testament assumes that of the Old: without a body, the person is a mere shade of a human being in Sheol, where God is not praised. To be sure, the resurrection body is "changed" (I Corinthians 15:52)--but it is still a body recognizable as one's own, or, even more, as the body of one who has fully become Christ's own.

So the real issue is not whether to be cremated or not. The important factor is understanding what the Christian faith promises about the importance of the resurrection and its relation to bodily life. If bodies were not important, we would not still be trying to find and identify the remains of the lost from the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Link to the article: