Thursday, April 28, 2016

Burning a Dead Body


If I die, I'm going to be cremated.

Now obviously, the likelihood is that I'm going to die at some point.  However, as their pediatrician once told my brother and sister-in-law regarding the gender of their pre-born children, "there is a God factor."

When it comes to death and dying, the "God factor" involves something many secularists don't believe.  But I'll spell it out here anyway, before moving on.  The only reason I wouldn't die would be that Jesus Christ, as I believe He will, returns to Earth to claim His living followers in an event Christians call the "Rapture."

Otherwise, if Christ does not return to Earth during my lifetime, I will die.  Eventually.  And if/when I do, I've already given instructions for my cremation.

When Dad died from Alzheimer's last fall, Mom and I arranged to have him cremated.  It's what he wanted.  Mom is planning on being cremated, too.  The three of us believe that our mortal bodies aren't what's eternal - it's our soul that is eternal.  The Bible does not forbid cremation; in fact, no mention of cremation is made anywhere in Scripture.  We get a restored, healthy body when we're in Heaven, so to us, what difference does it make what happens to our body when we're done with it down here?

According to some theologians, however, it does make a difference whether we burn our corpses or not.  Their line of logic is pretty thin, and depends on a lot of tradition, theory, and symbolism, but it basically rests on the respect we humans need to display towards the mortal vessel God created to house our soul, in which His Holy Spirit dwells while His followers are alive.

For the conservative Presbyterian ministry, Ligonier, R.C. Sproul Jr. opines that "burial... affirms not only that the human body has dignity, but also that it has a future.  It affirms that death is not the end of the body."

Conservative Baptist preacher John Piper goes quite a bit further, but just as unconvincingly.  He talks about Christ having a human body, so (somehow) cremation dishonors Christ's body.  Piper also describes how fire in historic cultural practice is considered negatively, especially when it comes to its destructive force.

So maybe if we didn't burn our corpses, but disposed of them in some way other than burial, Piper would be satisfied?

He says he's particularly concerned that evangelicals these days seem preoccupied with the cost of burying a corpse, and are opting for cremation simply because it's cheaper.  Piper even goes so far as to suggest that churches should establish burial funds so less-affluent congregants can avoid the unsaintly tinge of cremation for their loved one.

Now, so far, nobody is actually saying that cremation is sinful.  And to a certain extent, these opinions from professional Christians serve as unsolicited guidance for people who are wondering what various perspectives might be out there regarding cremation versus burial.  And in terms of offering philosophical reasons for why somebody might stick with burial over cremation, these perspectives aren't wrong.

But they're not exactly helpful, are they?

After all, Piper has a point:  There remains a huge cost differential between conventional burial and much less expensive forms of cremation.  And while some larger churches might have expendable resources to help families make up the difference, is spending money on saving a corpse from an incinerator a smart ministry investment?

In places like New York City, or Boston, or other large cities where land is scarce and exceptionally pricey, purchasing burial property is a challenge for even wealthy families.  Should a corpse be hauled off to the middle of nowhere so "affordable" burial plots can be purchased, even if the family will rarely be able to travel out to visit their dearly-departed loved one's gravesite?

Anyway, besides the money, what's so sacrosanct about a corpse?  Okay, so burning the human body is not a pleasant or even natural thought in the best of circumstances.  But if the preservation of the human corpse is so important, what about people who've had limbs amputated?  Should those amputated parts be enshrined someplace, or kept on ice to be placed in the coffin with the rest of its original body when the time comes?  What about organ transplants, or the surgical removal of diseased organs?  Should Christians avoid those?  What about organ donation, when the still-viable organs of a deceased person are harvested to provide sight for a blind person, or a new heart or kidney to a desperately ill person?

And what about 2 Corinthians 5, which directly talks about the difference between our earthly and heavenly bodies:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee...  We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord..."  - 2 Corinthians 5:1-6

There are some who interpret this passage as meaning that God will give all of His followers an utterly new, perfect body in Heaven.  Others interpret this passage as meaning that God will essentially "fix" what was "wrong" with our earthly bodies so they're perfectly functional in Heaven.

What we all can appreciate from this passage, however, is that the poetic and allegorical language used by the Apostle Paul in writing it does not actually specify whether God patches up our original body, or gives us a brand-new body that might not look a whole lot like our earthly body.  Why this lack of specificity?  Probably because it doesn't really matter to us now, right?  If God wanted us to know explicitly what we'll look like in Heaven, He'd have put it someplace in the Bible.  But He doesn't, so what does that tell us?

That tells us that all the saints who've gone before us, centuries and millennia ago - whose corpses are now mere dust within their rotted caskets and fetid crypts, will receive a body by God.  New, revised, repaired, whatever!  This passage acknowledges that our earthly bodies will likely be destroyed by something - fire, or time, or plastic surgery, or illness, or maggots - but it doesn't really matter, because God's already arranged for us to have something "new" and "perfect."

So why fuss about how wrong cremation might be?

What should matter is whether the person within the body is going to spend eternity in the proverbial "Lake of Fire" or not, right?


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