Monday, December 20, 2010

Against Cremation

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.


intellectualoid said...

I never had a visceral reaction against until some years as Orthodox.
I, too, saw the Harvey article at Front Porch Republic. I find the values there, by and large, pretty compatible with the sobriety of Orthodoxy.

John said...

You may already be aware of this, but:

Milton T. Burton said...

The graves were facing south toward the house because 90% of everything that is done these days is don by imbeciles. OR at least this is so in this country. As Gore Vidal has said, "Faking it is the great American pastime."

Jesse said...

For all of my "adult" life until my discovery of N. T. White (who contributed to my intro to Orthodoxy) I was a big fan of cremation. It makes a lot of sense for anyone who does not believe in a bodily resurrection, which of course is most Americans (christian, atheist, etc.). I personally think that 10% non-imbecile is pretty hopeful for any country. If you do not believe in the resurrection, why in the world would you spend all that money just to prop up your mortal remains? No reason but vanity.

My mother-in-law recently asked me if I was going to be cremated. "No.""I think I will, this is just a shell anyways." What a sad opinion. She is a badly crippled from years of MS. I wanted to shout out (and wish so much that I had) "No - your body will be remade into what it was always meant to be." Very few believe that, if there is an afterlife, we will be anything more than a wispy apparition.

I (half) joke to my wife that I want to be composted.

Milton T. Burton said...

I want to be molded into bullets and shot at right wing liars like Limbaugh and Coulter.

Milton T. Burton said...

Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

Claudius: What dost thou mean by this?

Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

s-p said...

Good stuff, John. I'm an "old cemetery fan" too (as is my wife). My parents have arranged to be cremated and have lalready bought a niche etc. My Father was baptized before his last heart procedure, but I don't think there is any way to reverse their path at this point. At least they don't want to be scattered in the forest and I'll have a place to visit.

James the Thickheaded said...

Ah... and for me, the old James Bond where he's in the coffin on the way to cremation... and quite alive... was enough to give me a healthy fear of cremation: just what happens if you're not quite "done" when you hit the flames? Back in the day, I wasn't allowed to actually SEE JB, so it was all based on what those that did whispered to the rest of us.

I wonder that the sense for cremation really comes from a nomadic culture where bodies left behind might "wander" and not where we were, or worse - be mutilated by enemies... a grisly phenomena that still goes on. A settled people have dealt with this and its ecology in Europe for 2,000 years without difficulty. Ecology shouldn't really be a problem.

Jared said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jared Cramer said...

In the Episcopal Church, at least in parishes where I've been, cremation is what the vast majority choose. I actually only did my first funeral with a full casket a couple of months ago—and it was COMPLETELY different. It changed my views on the whole question. The presence of an actual body for the burial rites (instead of a box of cremated remains) made the burial rites more real, more tangible.

Kontiki said...

sorry :) off topic
just wana say merry xmas and happy new year :)

Becky said...

Nothing from this fellow cemetery hound but a hearty Amen.

Steve Hayes said...

I too enjoy wandering through cemeteries -- see, for example, Tombstone Tuesday: football and vandalism | Hayes & Greene family history. And the "Tombstone Tuesday" thing gathers together quite a lot of posts on the same subject.

Hilarius said...

Interestingly, and sadly perhaps, the movement away from cremation is not being led by Christians but by environmentally conscious folk. I'm sure once it's trendy enough, we'll see big mega-churches jump on it, with all sorts of sound theological justifications.

Green Burial

Having lived in Eastern North Carolina on and off, I have come to have a real affinity for the idea of family burial plots located on family land - although this sometimes creates later conflicts as development occurs, such as this sad story:

HOA damages and removes centuries old family cemetery markers

The Singular Observer said...

Hate to dissapoint you, John, I'm not picky either way. But if my remains could be put on a longboat, set adrift, and then set aflame, it would not be so terrible.. :)

Bill M said...

Hilarius, it's ironic to me that there in an "environmental" movement away from cremation when some of the earlier justifications for the practice were also environmental.

The topic came up at a small group at our church yesterday, with one man asking "What do you all think about cremation? It seems to me that when the Bible says 'the tombs will be opened and the dead will come forth' that implies there are tombs, with dead in them." The answers from the others in the group ranged all over, from emotionally in support of cremation to instinctively opposed. What struck me, though, was that no one could offer an authoritative reason for their position, beyond "this is what I feel."

BTW: Harvey has a follow-up article at Front Porch that revisits and amplifies some of his earlier points.

Follow the Wise said...

Jews and Muslims don't cremate because of the "luz bone" ancient tradition. Early Christians also followed that tradition. What is the "luz bone"? A tiny bone that doesn't decay, located in the spinal column, from which the body will be rebuilt at ressurection. If that bone is destroyed, ressurection will not happen.