Cremation vs. Burial: A Worldview Case Study

I heard a commercial on the radio this morning for The Cremation Society. It said something like only 4% chose cremation back in 1960, increasing slightly to about 8% in 1980. Then they proudly announced that today over 50% are choosing cremation over traditional burial!

So, what? What’s the big deal? Does it matter one way or another? Isn’t it just a matter of personal preference? 

Well, I think there is a deep, significant reason underlying this shift from traditional burial to cremation.  This is a perfect case study in the significance of worldview, and our culture’s continuing slide away from the Bible as our value-shaping story, and our culture’s embrace of a different controlling story (worldview) now shaping our values and decisions.

Most people I run into have never considered this a topic of spiritual reflection or even religious devotion.  It’s more of a matter of practical necessity and economic frugality. What’s the cheapest and most convenient way of handling our loved one’s body? More on this below.

Our lack of deeper reflection on this is strange, since this decision involves discussion about such ultimate matters — eternity, life and death, the sacredness of the body, memorializing a loved one, etc. Of all the decisions we face in life, you would think that our funeral preparations and wishes would be somewhere on the list — well above this week’s laundry or bills we need to pay. Certainly, one factor is that our culture is notoriously in denial about the reality of death, and most of us would rather not spend anytime thinking about it.

This was not so with our ancient ancestors in the Hebrew and Christian tradition. Certainly, larger families and higher mortality rates would have made death a more common occurrence. Many people only made it to 45 years or so in Jesus’ day, and extended families all lived together in one village. Many mothers died in childbirth and many infants never made it either. Death, however tragic, was a quite normal part of life in the ancient world.

Moreover, as we see from the stories of Mary and the other friends of Jesus bringing spices to anoint his dead body, the job of mortician was often handled by one’s own family and friends. We are a long way from modern funeral homes and mortuaries who take care of all of this — out of sight, out of mind.

But all of this is a digression from my main point today. So, why the shift away from traditional burial to the very popular cremation? It’s really a tale of two worldviews, or two controlling stories that shape our values and decisions today.

THE HEBREW/CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW: TRADITIONAL BURIAL

The body is sacred in the Hebrew-Christian tradition. God made human beings and declared, “It is good.” The ancient Greeks believed the body was a shabby, corrupted prison house for the immaterial soul.  They believed the ultimate goal is for our soul/spirit to someday be freed from these bodies, and to float up into some spiritual world of bliss away from the limiting nature of a physical body.

This is a decidedly unbiblical view of the body and soul relationship.

To the contrary, the Bible teaches the unique hope of the resurrection of the body. The Bible upholds the ultimate hope that someday God will renew and restore this fallen creation, and our bodies will be raised (literally) from the grave, and somehow reconstituted and glorified. Currently, when we die our spirit/soul is separated from our body and united with Christ somehow. Paul says, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).  But this is only a temporary arrangement. Our ultimate hope is for the Day when Christ returns, and all the dead are raised — meaning that our soul will someday be reunited with our resurrected and glorified body.

Jesus is the “firstfruits” of this coming general resurrection of all believers. Jesus was bodily raised from the dead; his spirit didn’t just float up “to heaven.” The tomb was empty. Our faith rests on this verifiable, historical fact that the body was gone! And we’re told that in the exact same way, we too will someday be raised — bodily.

So, in light of the strong belief in the resurrection of the body, the practice of all ancient Jews and Christians was a kind of burial method that did it’s best to preserve the body. All kinds of care was taken to anoint the body with precious, sweet smelling perfumes, to wrap the body carefully, and place it in a tomb. Even more strange to us was what happened next. A year or so later, after the bones had dried and decomposed, family members would go back to the tomb and collect the bones and place them in a “bone box”, or ossuary.  The ossuary was then left in the tomb to await the coming resurrection.

Much more could be said, but the main point is this: Behind the practice of burial is an implied desire to preserve the body, and the desire to preserve the body points to our most deeply held belief that God will someday breath life into these dry bones, and raise us from the grave.  Burial is a visible symbol and practice that points others to our hope in the resurrection of the body.

It is noteworthy to mention that many pagan religions in Jesus’ day chose to burn their dead instead. They didn’t place the same value on the body or share the hope in the physical resurrection as Jews and Christians. The immaterial spirit/soul was what mattered most.

CONTEMPORARY PRAGMATIST & ENVIRONMENTALIST VIEW: CREMATION

Now, most people today are completely unaware of all that I’ve just said. When our loved one dies, we tend to make our decisions out of a much different controlling story. Our values are being shaped more powerfully by other ideas and impulses in our culture.

(Note: I’m speaking generally here, and this certainly isn’t true of everyone who chooses cremation. Moreover, I am not passing judgment on those who choose cremation. God can certainly resurrect a body that’s been cremated. My concern is that too many believers today are not having their values shaped by the story of the Bible, but letting the cultural trends shape our values and decisions.)

America is a pragmatic society. We value convenience and frugality.  We’re in denial of death and dead bodies are seen as creepy and gross. In light of this, I believe most people are choosing cremation over traditional burial for the following reasons:

1. It’s cheaper. No expensive casket, burial plot, etc.

2. It’s more environmentally friendly. Enough said.

3. We’re uncomfortable with a dead corpse. Open casket reviewals are becoming much more rare. Reason: We don’t want to think about death, much less stare it (literally) in the face.

4. Ignorance of tradition. The primary reason is that people are just not aware of the religious significance of traditional burial, and how deeply rooted it is in our faith and our ultimate hope! That’s why I’m writing this.

5. New Age Spirituality. Many of us are sprinkling new age or personally invented beliefs into our faith unknowingly. You see this in people who might want their ashes dumped into the Grand Canyon or sent down their favorite brook. Why?  I don’t know.  While it may seem sentimental in some way to the person desiring it, it certainly isn’t a sign post pointing others to our final hope of bodily resurrection.

Again, my point is not to shame people who chose/choose cremation. I don’t even think it’s a matter of right or wrong, and I would hesitate to call it a sin.  My intention is rather to use this as a worldview case study to demonstrate how easily it is for Christians to let the culture’s trends and values shape our decisions, and to lose sight of such a rich heritage and tradition rooted in the Scriptures and the practice of our forebears in the faith.

However we decide on this issue, may we all strive to let both our life and death be a signpost pointing others to our ultimate hope in the resurrection of the body!

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thes. 4).

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