By Calvin Lane
Over the past generation American Christians, including and perhaps especially Episcopalians, have increasingly favored cremation over casket burial. This shift has happened for a variety of reasons: cost, concerns about the sustainability of burial space, the ability to have a funeral at a much later date for the sake of family traveling (yet another societal shift, families spread out across the nation).
Certainly the God who raised Jesus from the dead can and will restore us bodily on that last and great day whether we are cremated or buried in a casket. Regarding this promise, Christians should not worry or have reservations. In other words, cremation is an option for believers. But there are other issues that lay beneath the surface, as well as some unexamined and frankly bad practices that have emerged along with the shift, and these warrant some exploration.
Let’s take a step back first. In the late ancient Greco-Roman world, Christians were considered bizarre for lots of reasons: they cared for the weak, like abandoned children, instead of letting them die; they eschewed abortion; they had a different sexual ethic; and they didn’t seem to value the socio-religious buffet that was part of the fabric of Roman society. But Christians also had a very different attitude toward the body, both pre- and post-mortem. The ancient Romans understood their destiny as an apotheosis, a spiritual elevation to a higher state of being, leaving behind the base material world. In this late ancient Pagan thinking, most dead bodies, therefore, should be outside the city of the living. This often entailed cremation or at the very least putting cemeteries beyond the borders of urban life. Cemeteries were deemed unsanitary and only great heroes got memorials within the cities.
Christians, however, changed the urban landscape, to the horror of Pagan Romans. Christians wanted to keep their dead close: these bodies, made in the image and likeness of God, would one day be raised up in the same way that Christ, the first fruits of them that slept, was raised incorruptible (1 Cor. 15). Early Christians likewise felt that one of the best places to celebrate the Eucharist was on top of martyria, the hallowed graves of the martyrs. On both sides of the sixteenth-century reformations, Christians buried their dead close to their places of worship whether in crypts or in church-yards (and latterly today interment gardens).
For centuries, our dead sisters and brothers were wrapped in winding sheets and buried in the ground, sometimes in a simple wooden box, often with no coffin not at all. The words spoken by the minister, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” at this point in the prayer book service were quite literally about decomposition, an inevitability none of us can escape. Mourners recognized their own impending mortality and took to heart the hope of the resurrection. Likewise, there was (and in many places remains) a real geographical connection highlighting the communion of the saints, both living and dead, the church militant and the church expectant and triumphant. In my own parish, the outdoor games portion of our VBS is held in the memorial garden lawn. And this is no dishonor, but rather is exactly what those interred brothers and sisters would want on their graves: children laughing, playing, and learning about Jesus who will one day raise us all from the dead.
I’m reminded here of a sermon by Bishop Matthew Wren (1585-1667), uncle of St. Paul’s Cathedral architect Christopher Wren: he preached that Christ’s church exists as a community and therefore the bodies of church members, women and men who had lived together, ought to be buried together; and when Christ returns in glory, Wren continued, they will rise together. This is certainly not to say that if one is buried elsewhere (e.g., a city cemetery) and not in your church’s memorial garden or columbarium or churchyard, that God’s work will be stymied, but rather to praise a beautiful practice in those churches where it is available.
Eliminating the Body
Cremation, to repeat, cannot hinder the work of the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Even so there are some aspects circling around cremation about which Christians should be careful if not wary. I suspect that the appearance of the elimination of the body may be allowing (or perhaps adding to) a recovery of Pagan escapism, that aforementioned apotheosis that simply isn’t interested in the central Christian hope for bodily resurrection and a renewed material creation. Is the desire for cremation because we don’t want to see the body anymore, because we’d rather “it” be gone, out of sight and mind (note that when we speak of “it” we are no longer talking about a person who has been baptized, nourished with the Eucharist, and expecting the resurrection). We need to reckon with our discomfort with bodies and our Christian hope for resurrection. Those cremains are what is left of our late sister or brother; and God promises resurrection.
Does the increase in cremation stem from a fear of decomposition? Not to be salacious, but one wonders if such a person motivated by the fear of decomposition has considered what happens at a crematorium. The truth is there is no really great way to be buried from a healthy Christian perspective because death itself is something God overcomes in Christ. Granted there are better ways of burial, yet, on the whole, Christians believe that death is an intermediate state and certainly not part of God’s ultimate design. We do not weep as those without hope, but we still weep. It is both psychologically unhealthy and un-Christian to forego mourning (1 Thess. 4:13). We not only can mourn, we should mourn. Let’s not be stoic about death, but rather have a Christian hope in the promise of resurrection.
On Dividing Cremains and the rise of Keepsakes
The inability to see the body has also given rise to an increasingly common yet problematic practice — dividing up the cremains or, even more troubling, retaining a portion of the cremains as a keepsake. There are even companies who will turn your cremains into jewelry. While surely God will raise us up if our cremains are divided, this keepsake practice dishonors the body and marginalizes that central promise of resurrection. Again, this is directly related to the issue of not recognizing cremains as a body. Who in the world, before closing the casket, would cut off one of mom’s fingers for a keepsake? But that’s pretty much exactly what dividing cremains is (notice how I use the word cremains instead of ashes to make the point). To our more Catholic readers who may be thinking about relics here, I would caution that such a practice really cannot be the norm even for our most beloved and holy sisters and brothers. Further, as regards the practice of dividing and then keeping some of the cremains, there is also the very practical question of what will happen to all these keepsake vials when the survivors themselves die? Will a portion of human remains — bound for resurrection — be one more meaningless family heirloom after a couple of generations, something to be pitched by a great-grandchild trying to sort through junk?
At what point do we need simply to lay people to rest. This keepsake phenomenon will not help but only hinder the mourning process. To be direct, if one is to be cremated, burying the cremains is best — not dividing them up and certainly not keeping some.
There are ugly parts to the Modern Practice of Casket Burial
Yes, we have to accept that cremation has its ugly parts. But there are some pretty ugly parts to the current practice of casket burial too. And we should observe here that most of the procedures around casket burial today are a major rupture from close to two thousand years of Christian practice; cremation is not the only novelty on the burial menu. Contemporary practices around casket burial are only about a century old. These include embalming the body with formaldehyde or other chemicals, an expensive coffin, and a concrete vault the size of a small Volvo. None of our great, great grandparents were buried this way. And think forward too: just a few generations beyond the time of burial — when everyone that person knew will also be dead and gone and the body inside decomposed — that concrete vault will still be there. So not only is this a major rupture from roughly 1900 years of Christian practice, it is also unsustainable for the future.
A Third Option
There is a third option: natural burial, a return to burying the body the way Christians were buried for centuries. This option is not only environmentally-friendly, thus honoring creation, but it also affirms the hope of new creation, the confident hope in resurrection. A Roman Catholic cemetery in my community even has a space for natural burial named after St. Kateri, the first Native American Roman Catholic saint. Some readers may be filled with horror at the notion of decomposition in the ground and all that it entails. But, really, is it worse than cremation and all that goes into that process? Is it worse than all the novel and unsustainable practices that go into modern casket burial? Again, I return to my earlier claim: there really is no great way to be buried because death itself is something God overcomes. Again, we do not weep as those without hope, but we still weep.
Make a careful, specific plan
To offer something of a practical conclusion, the best way of addressing this issue is for our clergy to be diligent in making the resurrection central to what we both believe and do as Christians and, likewise, diligent in guiding people to make plans ahead of time. And such plans should be easily accessible to survivors at home and on file at your church’s office. While there are many factors in making decisions, let me commend the central motif of resurrection hope: this is what makes us Christians, and without that hope we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). Other factors include sustainability, costs, and also helping your family mourn and move forward. Keep-sake vials of some your cremains will only prolong and complicate that process of healthy Christian mourning. Be clear about what you desire and why you desire it. And trust in a living and loving God, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead (Heb. 13:20-21).
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane has been blessed to officiate funerals and to shepherd families through burying loved ones as a priest for a decade. He is currently associate rector at St. George’s Church, Dayton, Ohio. His teaching appointments have included Nashotah House, United Theological Seminary, and Wright State University.