Monday, January 11, 2010

Question on cremation practices...

I'm straying a bit from my normal topics, but Jim West has mentioned an article about cremation and burial and I was interested in the question. While cremation is becoming more common in the U.S. (34% of people), rates of cremation amongst Evangelicals and southerners are much lower.

As far as I recall, my family tends to cremate their dead, though I think it's more common on my mother's side than my father's. I remember upsetting my girlfriend in high school with the idea that I'd probably be cremated, and she mentioned the concern about the resurrection of the body (which has always struck me as rather odd). I think my wife would be okay with me being cremated, but I don't think it is normal for her family. In the end I don't much care what happens one way or the other... I won't be dealing with me... it's just that cremation has always seemed more space-efficient.

I didn't even realize that burial procedures were all that controversial until a few of these conversations came up, so I'm somewhat fascinated by the theological import that people place on these questions. I'm also interested in the fact that the article contrasts cremation with burial. I don't know how normal it is, but every cremation that I recall from my own family involved a burial of the ashes as one would bury a coffin. Also interesting to note, the article cites Stephen Prothero as someone who thinks that cremation contradicts traditional Christian doctrine on the body.


  1. I had no idea cremation rates were that low - I just assumed it would have been considerably higher.

    Seriously - what precisely do people suppose happens when you throw a body in a hole in the dirt? It may take a little longer than cremation does, but it breaks down all the same. They're not thinking. If your views of the resurrection are going to inform your burial decisions, then you need to either be cryogenically frozen or you need to broaden your understanding of resurrection to account for organic decay and the incorporation of biological material into OTHER biological material (ie - worms that eat a body or trees that breath in the output of the cremator smoke stack). I fully acknowledge the sentimental and even the "don't desecrate the body" justifications for not cremating - but if concerns about how you're going to be raised up in the end of days is the deciding factor for you, then you need to reacquaint yourself with something I like to call "critical thinking".

  2. NOT TO MENTION what they do to bodies before burying them.

    These critics do realize they get stuffed, sown up, and pumped full of formaldehyde, right? Yup - that's how I plan on meeting Jesus - with CH2O pumping through my veins!!!

  3. This is a great question. My wife is rather adamant about not being cremated. I share your ambivalence.

    I can remember being at the funeral of a friend in High School (he came from a Catholic family) and overhearing two older women in the pew next to me lamenting the fact that they chose to have him cremated. This struck me as both odd and inappropriate. But I think it points to a rather vexing question for a lot of Christians.

    What to do with the body? Melville has a haunting line in Moby Dick about sailors lost at sea (or really anyone who dies without a grave) missing out on the resurrection of the dead. But all this seems more like pop-superstition to me.

    The idea of a God who can resurrect the dead and restore creation to its rightful order but is somehow impeded in this action by atypical deaths/burials and cases of extreme decay would seem somewhat laughable. As Daniel mentioned, don't desecrate the body. But surely (and i don't mean to sound crass here) even the pulverized, burned, dismembered, and desecrated body can still be raised?

  4. My hunch is that, given time, I could (and I'm sure other have done and could do better) develop arguments against cremation that need not even rely on theological premises. If you add theological premises, I can imagine more persuasive arguments. I'm not saying I would endorse these arguments as anything other than valid (I'm not sure what I think about this, but I do have a gut-reaction against cremation).

    Just some preliminary points of consideration that I'll throw out, none of which is intended as an argument for a specific position.

    First, burial practices are not meaningless; even if they have become largely arbitrary in our culture and point in history, the practices emerged from communities that expressed their beliefs and values in their burial rituals. Meaningfulness does not exclude underdetermination in any given instance, especially in our context, but I do think it supports the idea of distinctively Christian death rituals and hence distinctively pagan death rituals.

    Second, the corpse (not body, if you take an Aristotelian/Thomistic view of the human person, which I do, sort of) of a human person can be plausibly argued to exist in a unique relationship to person who animated it prior to death. This relationship is no doubt a strange one, ultimately shrouded in mystery, but that it exists is something I think all cultures have recognized in virtue of their special treatment of the dead. Fromt his point I think one could develop many interesting arguments about respect, and other forms of response uniquely due to corpses. Desecration is, I think, real and meaningful, which implies there are proper responses to corpses. (I could see arguments against cremation emerging from this point alone).

    Third, if one thinks symbols are irreducible and ultimately untranslatable into other forms of communication, and one regards death rituals as having symbolic significance, then, again, a question of appropriate and respectful responses to the dead emerge.

    These are just a few points worth considering.

  5. I'd agree with you on all that, Samuel... I think my (and I imagine John's, too) "ambivalence" is being expressed with regard to strong statements for or against the bare appropriateness of a particular burial method, rather than with the meaningfulness of death rites. Daniel recognizes the importance of appeals to desecration, too.

    ...not that you're saying we've argued otherwise. I'm just clarifying my (our?) position since you've made such a strong case for the meaningfulness of all this, and our ambivalence may come across as being in disagreement with this aspect of your point.

  6. sjloncar -
    I personally have no qualms at all about being cremated, or being treated in any other way after I die. But if I were to construct a heartfelt case for one method I would agree that it would have to be along the lines that you lay out. Symbolically, if these rituals have meaning for us then they have meaning for us. People just need to distinguish ritual meaning from the actual process that dead bodies undergo. There is nothing glamorous or (naturally) recoverable about a dead body no matter what you do with it. Before we lay symbolic values on top of burial rituals we need to come to grips with that reality. Because if we DON'T then we make a mockery of whatever symbolic or ritual value we overlay on top of the burial process.

    Take the resurrection argument against cremation - my whole point is that that sort of justification makes a mockery of the very idea of resurrection. If the imperative of resurrection is meaningful, then one should say "I believe my body will be raised again and in recognition of that belief I want to be buried ritually in a way that emphasizes the actual form of my body, because that body is important to me". Say that, don't say something nonsensical like "I can't be raised if my body is in disrepair", because that just betrays a lack of seriousness about resurrection - a concept one would purportedly be trying honor.

  7. btw - I just asked my wife what she thought too, out of curiosity. I think she was weirded out by the lack of context I provided with my question. She said "I'm going to be cremated, but I'm not planning on it anytime soon". :)


    Food for thought from Dwight Shrute

  9. Evan,

    My uncle is a mortician that does strictly cremations and has now branched into green burials. It's funny, because he comes from a quite conservative, fundamental Baptist background and people from this background often confront him on the fact that he is screwing up God's plan for the resurrection of the dead. He often is criticized for this, even by more nominal Christians. Quite an odd phenomenon.

  10. As I say, Evan (and others), I too am somewhat unsure about all this, and I appreciate the clarifications - that's how I was reading you.

    I think this topic is important, and I'm interested to see what develops. One thing I'll note for now, though, is how extremely individualistic the appeals you and Daniel have made are. I frankly think the last relevant think in this topic is the first-person perspective of the to-be-dead person (naturally, last wishes, etc. are important; I'm talking about the significance of burial, etc.).

    Rituals of marriage and burial, symbolizing and responding to the greatest mysteries we encounter in the natural world (death and sex), seem to me to be fundamentally communal, about who we are as human beings, and how we respond and treat the corpses of those who have passed away. The entire idea of death rituals assumes a community, and the community should, I think, be the locus of reflection and consideration, not the to-be-dead person.

    Finally (a parting shot, I know), I've heard the pop-theology that has been referred to, by I have two thoughts on that. First, did the Fathers make (assuming they made such pop-theology arguments) no more sophisticated arguments for inhumation? Second, shouldn't we be responding to the best forms of arguments against cremation and such, not the most silly (i.e. God cannot raise a cremated person, etc.)?

    I agree, of course, Daniel, how weak the resurrection argument you refer to is - but that's precisely why I'm dubious that that's the best our forebears had to say on the topic (not that you necessarily implied that - I'm just trying to shift things towards more plausible arguments).

  11. sjloncar -
    And I'm certainly not the best qualified to identify what those other arguments are - I don't have a background in theology. I have a hard time believing the mechanics of burial practices have any lasting significance, but I'm willing to hear other perspectives on that.

    I have to push back a little on your "individualistic" point. What I said is as true if it's me thinking about my own relatives that have passed as it is about myself. I think insofar as we focus on the communal element of burial, what is done with the organic matter that is left behind is arguably the least important - unless, of course, some relative has a cultural attachment to the proper treatment of that organic matter. But even if they do have those sorts of cultural attachments, to me that says more about their own cultural background than it does about what they shared with the person who died. As I mentioned earlier, if it's the treatment of the organic material that's really of such primary importance, that seems to be at best a preoccupation with rote ritual and at worst a lack of seriousness about the relationship that exists with the deceased. I fail to see what's "individualistic" about that view.

  12. What more serious argument could there be that isn't some sort of ritualistic/symbolic argument (which I've already conceded - if that stuff is important to you, by all means to each his own)?

    If it's not just about ritual and ceremony and symbols I can't even conceive of what a "serious" argument might be.

  13. You're going to have to explain to me how our appeals are "extremely individualistic". I'm concerned that you're either misunderstanding the intended substance and extent of the appeals that are being made here, or you're leaning on a rather nostalgic sense of communal reflection that damns any sort of personal reflection whatsoever.

    The whole point of this conversation has been to discuss different communal norms in death rites and what our thoughts are about them. How exactly do you propose we abolish (or even minimize) first-person perspectives in such a situation?

    I do take your point about moving on from the weakest arguments, but in the end I was more curious about the range of thoughts on this issue than I was interested in moderating a disputation towards a conclusive resolution. You're welcome to offer better arguments yourself if you'd like, of course. As it stands now, though, Daniel and I have our (allegedly) "extremely individualistic" reasons for being okay with cremation, and you have your (in your own words) "gut-reaction against cremation". I don't know if we've seen any more than that in the way of strong arguments or communal reflection, from anyone. And I sympathize with the fact that this seems inadequate to you, but I don't know where to go with that, as the rest of us appear to be much more comfortable with the thoughts that have been exchanged so far.

  14. Plus I think it's important to note that no commenters so far seem to just openly dismiss the value of symbol or ritual in these sorts of milestone events in life.

    The point we are making, I think, is that ritual is all well and good but don't overburden the real value of ritual with patently false thinking on the dead body itself. Don't rest your ritual on bad biology or chemistry, because that just makes a mockery of the ritual. Be willing to embrace burial wholly on it's symbolic basis, and don't mess around with these corporeal justifications that ultimately are going to come up lacking.

  15. I would have returned to this conversation sooner, but I was completely distracted by all the great Schrute clips on YouTube.

    I don't have anything of great substance to contribute at this point: I think Daniel and Evan have said what I would have wanted to say. But to Samuel's appeal to the Patristic responses on the issue I have a few thoughts:

    (As an aside, the Catholic Catechism calls the burial of the dead a "corporal work of mercy." And allows for both traditional burial and cremation).

    It is likely that the large majority of "middle class" Christians in antiquity would have been temporarily buried and then their bones exhumed later to be placed in ossuaries. This practice was widespread and so culturally embedded that many Christians still placed a coin in the mouth of the deceased. In any event, perhaps a good starting place would be the poems of Prudentius (there is one on a female martyr and one titled "On the Burial of the Dead") which offer a mosaic of basic ancient Christian approaches to burial and funerary rites.

    That being said, the Patristic tradition has far more to offer by way of funerary orations than the rites involved therein. I refer you to Nyssen's Life of Macrina or Volume 22 in CUA Press Fathers of the Church Series which has orations by Nazianzen and Ambrose. Augustine also had much to say about death and the dead (as well as the resurrection of the body), but the most explicitly relevant place would be in his Cura De Pro Mortuis Gerenda (On the Care of the Dead, for short).

    But you will find in that treatise an incredibly generous and empathetic depiction of what is allowed (and what practices should be considered beneficial) within funerary rites; both in terms of the deceased and the community that remains. It is a brief-ish text, so rather than recounting all its points you may just want to peruse it for yourself.

    Hope this addresses (in some small way) what you were asking for.

  16. Evan,

    It's possible I have misunderstood you, and I am always glad to be corrected if that is the case.

    Formally, I take it as individualistic to frame the disucssion in terms of what you want to happen to you own body, when the discussion is about the meaning of burial practices (for example)which are not practices one is going to participcate with respect to one's own death.

    Substantively, I take comments like the following to express an overly individualistic approach to this question: "In the end I don't much care what happens one way or the other... I won't be dealing with me... it's just that cremation has always seemed more space-efficient."

    Linking your not caring about what happens to your not dealing with yourself qua corpse is precisely my point; I think that is flawed reasoning, both in form and substance. If these issues matter in any sense that is not relative to individual subjects own perceptions (and I think they do), then I think it reflects an unhealthy individualism to link the question of meaning with what you feel about it, which, since you'll be dead, leads you not to care much.

    "Extreme" individualism may itself have been extreme; although I think it is, in its own way, rather extreme to let one's own conscious absence or presense determine what one takes to be meaningful with respect to an issue like death rituals.

    If my charges are unwarranted because I've misunderstood you, I apologize in advance.

    I do maintain, however, and would do so quite adamantly in a formal discussion, that starting from what I think about my own corpose is individualistic and not conducive to understanding the meaning, significance, and import of the topic at hand.

    Everything that inhabits space-time is, in an important sense, public, even if only in potentia. Once one ceases to animate one's body and it becomes a corpse, the status of the physical entity that your soul animated ceases to be for-you, ceases to be the proper subject of first-person possessives, and becomes only and inherently for-others. This property of being-for-others without any being-for-itself means that the fate of the corpse is ultimately in the hands of, and will most immediate affect, those who will attend the corpse, people who are usually (at least some of them) in a special relationship to the corpse in virtue of their relationship to the person who formerly animated it (it's worth noting the importance of third-person possessive pronouns and their governance of our speech about corpses; corpses are not just "it"s, they are "his" or "hers," "Dad's" or "Grandma's" and we rightly feel uncomfortable not knowing who to ascribe a corpse to - there is something unfitting such a situation).

    I think, if only for the sake of this immediate group of people who will take care of my corpse, reflection about death rituals, burial, etc. should primarily concern itself with them, the community - the meaning of my corpse is a question for them in a way it is not, cannot, and therefore should not be for me.

  17. P.S. My post somehow reverted to its uncorrected form, so I apologize for the typos.