Christian Burial

by Andrew J. Harvey on December 24, 2010 · 27 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

cemetary

Western PA (aka birthplace of modern cremation) – Some fires need putting out; some need to be stoked. Two important and definitive works focus on cremation. Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial (1658) lays out the history of cremation according to classical and Christian lore. From the history of time cremation and burial co-existed throughout pre-monotheistic cultures until Christianity stamped out the practice of cremation in the Mediterranean and European world. With help, of course, from Judaism and Islam. One only sees cremation, therefore, outside the influence of monotheism.  That’s Browne.

Then there is Stephen Prothero’s excellent recent history of modern cremation in America, Purified by Fire (2002). Prothero points out that the rhetoric of cremationists dovetailed with progressivism – modern, urban, clean, and sophisticated was their argument. Indoor cremation (now we use ovens!) signified progress (cue the Holocaust): instead of the “primitive” kind as done in India or in ancient Rome and Greece, the new American way would be “scientific” with “none of that horror of roasting human flesh and bursting entrails which makes one shudder at an open-air pyre-burning”.  This all started in 1876 in nearby Washington, Pennsylvania. But the practice of cremation still remained rare over the next 100 years—less than five per cent—because, according to Prothero, of Christianity. So two facts emerge from the history of cremation: Christianity put an end to it, and for a good 100 years it was kept in check by Christian tradition.

My previous essay, therefore, is an attempt to understand how this tradition has been lost. For most of us, whatever flavor of Christianity we prefer, cremation is largely a function of negligence, ignorance, or forgetfulness. Hence the word “apostasy” – we have simply fallen away from tried and true Christian practice. But more insidious than lack of memory is the introduction of innovation by appealing to erroneous ideas such as the body-is-disposable approach. This is actual “heresy.” Historic Christianity insists that Christ’s incarnation was real and forever and that his risen body adumbrates the destiny for the rest of His body, the Church, i.e. every believer body-and-soul. And since St. Paul calls the body itself the “temple of the Holy Ghost” I also used the word “desecration” to describe cremation. None of the comments to my original post, moreover, ever succeeded in suggesting a Christian rationale for cremation. More importantly no such rationale is possible because there’s no getting around the reality of the risen Jesus’ body for traditional Christians.

Our burning discussion keeps returning to the word “tradition.” And most Christian churches, as Prothero notices, had no established doctrine to address the issue of modern cremation. The only fact was convention:  Christians simply had never cremated before. But burial is indisputably the rule throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. God’s people in every covenant prefer interment. Everyone on God’s side gets buried eventually. From Adam to the Beloved Disciple John every saint who falls asleep in the Lord finds a grave as a bed. (Moreover, cremation is reserved in the Old Testament for the wicked and apostate: see Josh. 7:25, 2 Kgs. 23:20, Amos 2:1.) The only time where one of the Lord’s anointed is unfortunately cremated (King Saul, defiled by the Philistines) – it is through burial that his remains finally rest in peace. Additionally this hard and fast “orthopraxy” also correlates to a theology, an “orthodoxia.”

In the Gospels the burials of John the Baptist and Jesus allude to a new meaning for burial—baptism. Christ’s burial and resurrection are the physical, material, corporeal events that reveal the typology of Passover: Christ becomes our Passover because when we are baptized we are buried in his death and rise from the waters in newness of life having been set free from our spiritual Egypt—the bondage of sin and death—and set into our Promised Land of righteousness. I merely wish to emphasize that it is burial and not cremation that accumulates such a rich, sacramental typology. This leads to an obvious question: what sort of typology would cremation suggest? Nothing any Christian has ever imagined. Perhaps annihilation by fire (the opposite of baptism’s water-borne deliverance) could only signify nihilism—because the utter dismissal of the body signifies a similarly dismissive attitude toward matter in general and all of creation.

Explaining their ubiquitous antipathy for cremation, Browne relates how early Christians risked martyrdom over the issue: “Christians abhorred” cremation and would rather be burnt alive than to suffer “that mode after death.” Browne explains further why early Christians chose burial: they were “properly submitting unto the sentence of God, to return not unto ashes but unto dust againe.” And so dust signifies a fidelity to Christian truth that ashes do not.

Fidelity to Christian tradition, to the earth, to the body, to the fellowship of the dead, to the grieving needs of the living—these are the virtues of burial.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Rob G December 24, 2010 at 3:07 pm

The fact that the orthopraxy reflects orthodoxy is very important. This takes burial beyond the realm of mere custom or convention. In light of this the contention that “it really doesn’t matter” just won’t wash. The fact is that up until about 30 years ago almost all Christians believed that it did, and it requires a considerable cache of hubris to gainsay that consensus, regardless of what that gainsaying is based upon.

avatar JustKen December 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm

The increasing number of people opting for cremation may have something to do with the secularization of American culture but don’t overlook what a out right scams funeral businesses have become. No more “simple pine box” & headstone in the church yard down the road. A typical funeral costs $7500. The funeral home directors lobby are very powerful in most state capitols and so the prices they charge for services you have to buy by law are able to be kept quite high. Bottom line: Pay for a cremation ($1k, complete) or stage a funeral ($7-10k). Who benefits? WWJD?

avatar Albert December 24, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Helpful piece. Thanks.

avatar Rob G December 25, 2010 at 4:04 am

“WWJD?”

My guess is that despite the travesty which is modern American funeral system, He still wouldn’t be burning folks.

avatar Andrew December 25, 2010 at 4:11 am

Jesus might just throw over the tables of the money collectors, and maybe so should we. That’s obviously a stretch, since the funeral industry doesn’t claim to be selling salvation, but if their high prices are leading to the subversion of the Christian ideal, and even to apostasy, as Mr. Harvey suggests, then maybe it’s not such a stretch.

avatar Roman Kozak Jr. December 25, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Amen

avatar Romanós December 26, 2010 at 2:40 am

Orthodox Christianity maintains an explicit insistence on burial of human remains, denying a “church burial” to those who opt for cremation, but I am not sure that it is consistent in applying this rule. Personally I do not know anyone who was an Orthodox Christian and who was cremated and yet had memorial services and a funeral performed. My wife’s grandmother, the daughter of an Orthodox priest but not, to my knowledge, an “active” Orthodox Christian while she was alive (she let her children, my wife’s mother and her siblings, be “christianized” in the United Church of Canada), was cremated and her boxed ashes buried on top of her husband’s buried remains, because there was no possibility of burial with his remains any other way. I do not believe the Church was involved in her funeral at all.

In east Asia the Orthodox Church allows cremation, I have been told, because that is the normal procedure for the disposition of the bodies of the dead in those cultures, but I cannot confirm it. Having been to Japan and visited the grave of the mother of a friend of mine, whose ashes are interred in a monument on the grounds of an ancient Buddhist temple, I never got the impression that there was anything disrespectful in that form of “burial.”

I think that the insistence on burial of the whole body rather than cremation or other methods which destroy the corpse goes back to the very strong feelings about the integrity and necessity of the body’s survival that we find in ancient Egypt. I also think that ancient Egypt, as well as ancient China and other similar “primitive” cultures derived their insistence on whole body burial from the possibly universal prehistoric human reverence for and fear of the dead, as we find from the evidence of graves all over the planet. True, some of the prehistorics may have cremated, maybe even a majority, but of this I don’t think we have evidence. How could we?

The attitude prevalent in pop Christian culture in the West of the cocky “belief” that “I won’t be there (in my dead body) so it doesn’t matter what happens to it when I’m gone,” has come from the same shallow veneer “Christianity” that produced the pentecostal movement, bandstand and talk show Christian “worship”, and the prosperity “gospel.” It is essentially a gnostic attitude of “spirit-good, matter-bad” which when taken to its logical conclusion results in spiritualism and other “New Age” philosophies, and denies the incarnation and full manhood of Jesus Christ.

On a practical level, I think that burial versus cremation is ultimately a kind of ceremonial orthopraxy that has been agreed upon because it is an expression of the other truths of Orthodox Christian faith (and here I am not speaking of Orthodox as applying only to the ancient churches with this word in their titles, but all mainstream Christian churches). In other words, cremation of one’s remains, even as a Christian, doesn’t exclude a soul from salvation or the mercy of God. Only rebellion and apostasy does that. For this reason, I think, the Church could change its practice and allow it, as long as there was consensus on the matters of faith of which it is one (and not the only one) of the representations. This is why, I believe, it is allowed in regions of Asia where Orthodoxy exists.

The veneration of ikons in the Orthodox Church is another representation of the same point of faith that is covered by the practice of bodily burial of the dead. Both of them represent our faith in the sanctification of matter. Ikons, relics of the saints (incorrupt bodies or body parts of ancient martyrs and confessors), the blessing of conjugal relationship in the marriage mystery, all these represent the same truth: God enters matter and enlivens it, as He wills, when He wills, and ultimately all the universe will partake of the Divine Nature when His incarnation in and among us has come to its perfection. That is why, for the Orthodox, heaven is not the purely spiritual realm of departed souls, but the restoration of the universe as material/spiritual Paradise, something that hasn’t happened yet, but for which we and all those who have gone before us wait for. When that Day arrives, then heaven will really begin, as will hell.

But that’s another story.

avatar Librmmh December 26, 2010 at 4:16 am

In the “Against Cremation” article, someone mentioned the difference between the indoor urban, “scientific”, almost assembly line cremation vs., say, a Hindu funeral pyre. This is a telling contrast, for me. One really is dehumanized; the other is awful in the root sense of the word. I’m not sure I agree with your suggestion that “annihilation by fire (the opposite of baptism’s water-borne deliverance) could only signify nihilism,” as I think it’s possible to read annihilation/purification in another way. Regarding contemporary burial, however, I do think the absence of the mourners for the actual interment, which is done unceremoniously and with the assistance of a machine to lower the casket, is another dehumanizing factor.

It seems to me that most of the arguments for Christian burial are prudential, but no less strong for being so. Basically, the particular beliefs and circumstances which determined burial as the traditional Christian practice cannot be ignored, despite the possibility in principle of another practice (cremation) allowing for respect, awe, and maybe even the recognition of man as created in the image of God.

avatar Jordan Smith December 26, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I’m not going to wade into these waters again… but “Cue the holocaust”?

Totally inappropriate.

avatar rex December 26, 2010 at 5:18 pm

What is the purpose of this second essay? Did you forget something in the first? Did the numerous comments inspire new thought on your part? Or, are you just insisting that you are right?

avatar Jordan Smith December 26, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Sorry to post again, but I am so disgusted by your non-sensical comparison of genocide to a ritual that many people (some Christians!) choose to honour their deceased loved ones, that I am asking for some sort of explanation or retraction of that aside.

You have every right to argue that you think creation is apostasy, but don’t make a connection to genocide. (Were the mass graves the Nazis bulldozed bodies into more in keeping with Christian tradition?) As a Christian who believes that cremation and spreading someone’s ashes in a sacred place is an acceptable way of honouring our deceased, I am offended by the suggested connection.

avatar Steven F. December 27, 2010 at 9:51 am

Cremation was, at one time, restricted by canon law from practice by Catholics. Why? Because it was, at the time, a final way in which people were voicing their denial of the resurrection of the body at the end of time. It was a way of saying, “Oh, yeah? Resurrect THIS.” One last middle finger to God, metaphorically speaking. This restriction has been lifted in canon law, as people generally no longer choose cremation for this reason but for economic ones instead. However, I as a practicing Catholic would not willingly choose cremation for myself or any of my family. I just wouldn’t feel I was acting in respect of God’s creation, or of the dignity inherent in the human body. It’s not as if God couldn’t resurrect a body because of it’s state. My God is not so small!

avatar Dave Chirico December 27, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Hey Neighbor,
Good follow up, i liked the first as well,
Dave Chirico,
DuBois, PA

avatar Matt C. December 27, 2010 at 6:24 pm

The Holocaust comparison was a bit much, mate. Also, I think Steven F. was spot on with his assessment of canon law re: cremation; intentionality plays into the equation in a big way.

avatar pb December 27, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I don’t see any problems with bringing up the Holocaust — the author isn’t comparing the moral gravity of the acts, just the use of cremation for disposing bodies efficiently.

avatar Jordan Smith December 28, 2010 at 5:47 am

Writing “Cue the holocaust” is different than specifically bringing up the burning of bodies during the Holocaust–which would be acceptable. Otherwise it’s academically lazy and inappropriately suggestive. That is why I think an explanation is warranted.

avatar Jordan Smith December 28, 2010 at 5:49 am

“Writing” about the burning of bodies during the Holocaust would be acceptable is what I meant to say… not that the actual burning of bodies would be acceptable.

avatar Kevin Faulkner December 28, 2010 at 10:29 am

But of course Browne’s discourse is on much more than just burial customs, on beliefs of the after-life, the unknowingness of the human condition, the vanity of monuments to the dead and the oblivion of time and memory spring to mind as other themes Browne philosophizes upon. As the opening sentence states, ‘In the deep discovery of the subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfy some enquirers’. ‘Urn-Burial’ is also only one half of Browne literary diptych, its companion Discourse ‘The Garden of Cyrus’ in complete contradistinction meditates upon life, light, growth and scientific certainty. Browne also one of the very earliest, if not first English writers to employ the word ‘holocaust’ itself.

avatar Zac December 30, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Yes: cremation proponents are arguing that Jesus liked ‘burning folks’. Seriously?

I don’t particularly think he would care. Christ was not particularly reverent of dogmatic religious tradition. I think he’d be discouraged by our inability to see beyond these little doctrinaire hang-ups to what’s more important.

avatar Rob G December 31, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I’ve read that the reason the Orthodox (of which I am one) allow cremation in some areas of the Far East is that in certain places that’s the only legal way to deal with a person’s remains. Hence, the principle of economia allows for a relaxation or dispensation of the norm. The norm, however, remains the norm; cremation per se does not thus become a matter of “choice.”

avatar Rob G December 31, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Hey, well I’m certainly glad we have you around to determine what the “little doctinaire hang-ups” are.

avatar Matt December 31, 2010 at 5:08 pm

And I’m mildly disgusted by your assertion that, just because people (Christians!) choose something, that it must be good. I think the author might arguing a bit too strongly, but at least he isn’t assuming (as you seem to) that the things people do must be good simply because they are in common practice.

Do you realize how many degrading, idiotic, unjust practices are common, and commonly defended?

avatar Anonymous January 1, 2011 at 12:50 am

Thanks for the proof text- it is as weak as I had feared. No Torah, no NT admonition, no effect on soteriology or eschatology, merely a pre and non scriptural belief that was part of the traditions, but not the law. Where is your claim to authority? The Scriptures? apparently not, the Hierarchy? They are against you, Eastern and Western.

And so dust signifies a fidelity to Christian truth that ashes do not.

This seems to be making a claim that salvation is dependent on the will towards burial over cremation. If not, it seems to de-mark a division within the kingdom between the saved and the saved, but not as faithful, and therefore of lower status within the kingdom. What is your warrant for this?

avatar Anonymous January 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Unless you are talking about cremation with no obsequies of any sort, the bill will be higher than 1,000$. My step-mother was cremated (her ashes later buried at her parents’ grave), but we also had a visitation at the funeral home with open casket (which was a rental) and of course the entailed embalming.The service itself was done, gratis, at my step-sister’s church. The bill for this was c. 4,000$.

avatar Anonymous January 1, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Re: This is actual “heresy.”

If someone denies the Resurrection of the body, yes, that is heresy. Cremation in and of itself is not. It’s akin to not fasting on days indicated for fasts and the like: a heterodox practice, but not itself a heresy because it involves only actions, not beliefs.
By the way I am puzzled at this insistence that the ancients practiced cremation. Sometimes they may have (Julius Caeasr I think was cremated, as was Alexander’s lover Hephaistion), but entombment was far more common, at least in the Roman Empire. Any Roman city of size had an accompanying necropolis where the wealthy built elaborate tombs for themselves and their families; while lesser folks were laid to rest in the catacombs where Christians later came to meet, afforming life in the house of death.

Re: Christians simply had never cremated before.

Well, except during severe epidemics, notably the Black Death.

avatar Bo Grimes January 8, 2011 at 2:13 am

“Historic Christianity insists that Christ’s incarnation was real and forever and that his risen body adumbrates the destiny for the rest of His body, the Church, i.e. every believer body-and-soul.”

So do you believe that had Jesus been cremated He would not have been resurrected?

Further, if I am burned to death in a fire, will I not be resurrected? And yes, my remains in a typical house fire might well be intact enough to bury, but what about ground zero in a nuclear blast, or something short of that which basically leaves nothing to bury? Are those lost at sea considered buried since they are under water and not under ground?

avatar Carolyn Blake January 9, 2011 at 1:10 am

I too have been wondering something along these lines. There are a lot of gray areas sticking to the burial and resurrection format. (Especially since the argument makes God sound like he has trouble tying His shoes in the morning.)

How does the removal of a body part during the life stage of a Christian play out? Is some sort of burial storage unit required to keep the “wholeness” of the body in tact? What happens if a Christian gets eaten, or partly eaten? Not to mention the fact that the body decomposes (eaten) after burial. Since the bones remain intact long after flesh, is a whole set required (considering you were born with one)? Or maybe just a single strand of DNA would be enough – may sound a little sci-fi but faced with the reality of decomposing matter not much is left. At what point does our bodily remains become too small, scarce, incomplete or dispersed to be resurrected?

It’s pretty hilarious (no offense to you personally) to hear debate about whether ashes would be resurrect-able by the Great I AM. The same I AM who, out of nothingness, sang all of existence into being, manifested incarnate born of a virgin, preformed any number of miracles, walked on water, rose from the dead and wrapped up His 30 or so years on Earth by ascending to Heaven. Riiiight… I’m sure homeboy lost his game since then.

Do you really think God would have a hard time piecing together some ashes?! Not likely. God does sub-atomic physics in His sleep (purely metaphorical – don’t start)! He’s infinite and vast – our barely functioning human brains cannot even begin to grasp that which is God. If He wanted too, he could bend space/time and pluck us out of the fabric of eternity at any point in our lives he liked. God is waaaaaay more than 3D. Please do us all a favor and stop selling God short.

God bless! <3 :-)

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