Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Not just the disposal of a thing

Russell Moore, who is Dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,  has written before about his view "...that burial, not cremation, best pictures the imagery of death as a sleep from which one is awakened at the last trumpet" and that two millennia of Christian practice is being abandoned without serious consideration of the implications. A new history of the faith supports his opinion:
“As hellfire receded, there advanced the literal fires of the crematorium.
So writes Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch in the concluding chapter of his massive Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. ....

Increasing rates of cremation in the West, MacCulloch writes, are surprising because cremation “is the abandonment of a key aspect of Christian practice since its early days.” .... He shows how “universally archaeologists are able to detect the spread of Christian culture through the ancient and early medieval world by the excavation of corpse burials oriented east-west.” ....

MacCulloch, no conservative, establishes that the unanimous voice of the church, in every sector, was for burial over against cremation, and concludes the traditionalist case (that cremation is a pagan practice inconsistent with historic Christianity) is “unanswerable.”

For MacCulloch, there are several implications of the skyrocketing cremation rates. The first is that the theological and doxological claims against it, once held with unanimity, are not even discussed by cremation proponents. Arguments instead focus on public health, cost (and I would add the American evangelical response: “why not?”). .... [more]
In a 2007 article for Touchstone, "Grave Signs," Moore advocated Christian burial rather than cremation. That article was inspired by the cremation of his grandfather and the discomfort he felt about it. He included references to biblical precedent for burial from both testaments. Burial, he argues, has not only the support of scripture, but theological significance, and respect for the person who has died.
.... Of course God can resurrect a cremated Christian. He can also resurrect a Christian burned at the stake, or a Christian torn to pieces by lions in a Roman coliseum, or a Christian digested by a great white shark off the coast of Florida.

But are funerals simply the way in which we dispose of remains? If so, graveyards are unnecessary, too. Why not simply toss the corpses of our loved ones into the local waste landfill?

For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing. It is caring for a person. In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the “real” person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day. ....

Burial is a fitting earthly end to the life of a faithful Christian, a Christian who has been “buried with Christ in baptism” and is waiting to be raised with him in glory (Rom. 6:4). A Christian burial does not mean that we are “in denial” about the decomposition of bodies—that is part of the Edenic curse (Gen. 3:19). It does mean that this decomposition is not what, in this act of worship, we proclaim as the ultimate truth about the one to whom we’ve said goodbye.

Burial conveys the image of sleep, the metaphor Jesus and his apostles used repeatedly for the believing dead (John 11:11; 1 Cor. 15:51; 1 Thess. 4:13–14). It conveys a message, a message quite different from that of a body already speed-decayed, a body consumed by fire. .... [more]
Cremation and a New Kind of Christianity, Touchstone Archives: Grave Signs