Monday, December 20, 2010
I have spent a fair amount of my life poking around cemeteries. I find them endlessly fascinating, whether they have any connection to my family or not. Cemeteries have stories to tell, if you know how to listen to them. It took a while for my wife to get used to all this. When we would travel, she was prone to quickly drifting off to sleep while riding. She would invariably awake to find herself not at our destination, but parked at some remote cemetery, whether it be Mississippi or Connecticut.
And I'm a bit of purist when it comes to graveyards. I am disturbed by modern cemeteries, with their twisting roads like subdivisions, and graves facing any which way. Don't they know the graves should all be facing East, towards the Resurrection? Last summer, the wife, her best friend and I visited Nottoway, the most over-the-top plantation home along the Mississippi. In a recent "restoration" the corporation that owns the enterprise, retrieved the family remains and monuments from a ill-kempt little Catholic cemetery a few miles away, and re-interred them on a corner of the mansion grounds--to complete the tableaux, you might say. While it was otherwise well-done, the graves were facing the house--south rather than east. I found it ironic that the highly paid consultants they engaged for this restoration did not even have the cultural insight to know how these graves would have surely been laid-out. Or perhaps they did, and just calculated (rightly) that the modern visitors herded through the site would not be any the wiser.
Along these lines, I have always been repulsed by cremation, finding the practice incomprehensible, at least for those who make any claims to being Christian. This has nothing to do with my being Orthodox, for I have held this opinion all my adult life. Orthodoxy just confirmed and validated that which I innately knew to be wrong. Burial makes a statement about the person--the life they lived and the place in which they lived it and the love they shared and most importantly, of the Life to come. Cremation says nothing at all, or at least nothing good.
About 15 years ago, a cousin died under tragic circumstances. The Fort Worth police found my name and phone number in his wallet and contacted me. I managed to locate one of his sisters and pass the information on to her. I expected to hear back from about the funeral and about which of the vacant spaces in the family plot they wanted to use. I never heard a word from them. Only this summer, in visiting with his son, did I learn that they had cremated his body, and his ashes had been scattered in the woods behind a sisters' house. Hearing this, it just compounded the sadness of it all.
Last year, out of the blue, my wife informed me that she wanted to be cremated. In a somewhat animated discussion, I explained why I would not consider doing it, and why our son (also Orthodox) would not or could not do it, and more importantly, why it was wrong for her to consider it. She grew up among extended family, many of whom viewed funeral home visitations as something of an entertainment venue. One great aunt in particular, on the rare occasions when she could not make the viewing herself, would inquire of family members who did--"did they lay a good corpse?" My wife is a very private person and I think that she just wanted to be no part of any such gawking--even from the other side! I understand that. But this is another case where her cure is worse than the disease. Cremation is no solution. Anyway, I have heard of no such foolishness since.
Last May, I made my yearly visit to my aunt in Arkansas. She is a real sweetheart, and at age 87, my last living link with that fast-fading world. Many years ago, she converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses. This came as something of a shock to her husband and children, who were Episcopalian. My cousin (now Catholic) said that whoever had knocked on her door that particular day would have gotten her. It just happened to be the Witnesses. She remains quite committed to all that. And while I relish my visits, it sometimes gets a little crowded with that elephant in the room. Anyway, while sitting at her kitchen table this year, drinking coffee and eating her homemade nut bread, she casually mentioned that she intended to be cremated. I found it hard to suppress my incredulity, as this is the side of my family which should know better. This should not be surprising, however, given this sect's particular heretical theories about Christ and His Ascension. I should have said something. But I said nothing.
I suppose I am to the point where I think we should be calling it out for what it is. Andrew J. Harvey, in this excellent article, agrees. He has some good things to say. A few excerpts, as follows:
Cremation is an increasingly popular option but it is neither a Christian nor an agrarian option. That more and more Christians opt to incinerate themselves does not necessarily make that option Christian. A Christian who defends cremation more than likely appeals to utility or to what the poet Scott Cairns calls “gnostic bullshit.” As if upon death we are done with our bodies. Christianity has a long tradition regarding the dead, and cremation has no part in it. Cremation is a sign of our time, and it is ultimately a sign of our culture of death—the post-Christian regress of western civilization.
We no longer kill for our suppers, know where are food comes from, tend to our elderly, or bury our kin....“this evasion of the dead and dying is manifest in the extradition of the dead to a position at the margins of the city during the Industrial era, the removal of the dying to the functional space of hospitals, in the discreet elimination of corpses, and in the domestication and beautification of death”.....
It is the ultimate mystery of our redemption that He will call us back from the grave. Burial, therefore, is the final way in which we can live into our baptism. It completes the typological imagery in our own mystical Passover. It is the culmination of our faith. By sowing this seed of a natural body into the soil we will bear fruit in fields of glory. By commending this image of God to the earth we will be raised up in heaven. This is the sacrament of death and burial.
In case I have not made my point bluntly enough: cremation in terms of the advancement of Christian truth is a step backwards. A desecration. A form of apostasy. I do not think that Christians today who are considering cremation choose it as the fiery means to release the immortal soul from the body as ancient pagans saw it. Nor on the other hand is cremation preferred in the light of any precisely Christian theology or tradition. Rather they are motivated by a heterodox view of the body or of death, a kind of latent Gnosticism that assumes the immortal soul will have no more to do this body. Such heterodoxy is more in line with our Progressive Age’s own heady mix of necrophobia, necrophilia, and the myth of an end of suffering through advancement of medical science. But the cult of this life is precisely what our Lord chastises as the path of nihilism: he who seeks his life shall lose it, and he who loses it for my sake shall find it. Rather if we are to reject this culture of death and the cult of this life, we must cultivate life, an abundant life that transcends the fear of our own mortality. One way to celebrate this proper culture of life, counter-intuitively, is to cultivate our bodies in death.