Question: “I have wanted to be cremated and have my ashes placed in my church’s columbarium. If you have no body to be resurrected, are your ashes? The burial rite says “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” God said to Adam, “to dust you will return.”
Answer: We were created from the earth and we will return to the earth. Upon death the body begins to decompose quickly. This is caused by the millions of living organisms that live in the intestines breaking down their host by feeding on other organs in the body. The skin changes color, bloating occurs, and gas is emitted, causing odors. This is why in ancient societies without refrigeration the body had to be disposed of as quickly as possible. The ancient Egyptians developed a way of preserving the body by embalming it for more extended funeral rites. This consisted of removing the body fluids and the intestinal organs, which are the sources of corruption, and packing the cavity with gauze. Athanasius of Alexandria, an Egyptian, understood this process when he wrote, “You must know…that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it.” But bacteria will also get to the body in the grave and transform the carbon in the body into carbon dioxide (CO2). The Egyptians compensated for this by entombing the body in layers of protective sheaths.
Cremation simply quickens the whole process of decomposition. The body will still convert from carbon to CO2. Our bodies are a source of CO2 throughout our whole lives. The foods we eat provide the body with matter and energy and what we don’t need is turned into waste gas. Solid and liquid waste is turned into CO2 by bacteria in the soil or by solid waste processing facilities. So alive or dead we contribute CO2 that nourishes plant life on the earth. The question is how we should make our contribution to the ongoing life of the planet when we are no longer alive.
Of course, humans are more than biological machines. We are created in the image of God and are therefore representatives of God on the earth. Our God-created bodies are deserving of honor and respect. This honor and respect has been accorded the body by means of elaborate funeral rites. Burial practices are probably the oldest human or humanoid rituals. There is archaeological evidence of elaborate Neanderthal burials 28,000 years ago! Human beings have lovingly prepared their dead for burial and made provision to keep the body intact as long as possible, unless cremation was practiced. But there were more reasons for cremation than simply the practical disposal of the corpse. Among the Hindus the body was burned to encourage the soul to move on to its next incarnation. The Egyptians, on the other hand, wanted the soul to find its body. So they went through elaborate means to preserve the body. Ritual is seldom just about practicality.
Jews practiced burial and didn’t practice embalming. So burial was usually within the first day of death to avoid corruption. When Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead people said there would be a stink because Lazarus’ body had been in the tomb for four days. Christians followed the Jewish practice of burial, mostly because it was a symbol of the resurrection of the body. Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, practiced cremation. Perhaps as a result of Christian influence burial became more common in the later Roman Empire. Burial has remained the normative Christian practice down through the centuries.
There has been a growing preference in our society for cremation rather than inhumation (burial). This is because cremation is cheaper and environmentally-conscious people have argued that it is more ecologically friendly. Urban areas especially are running out of places for cemeteries. Moreover, cemetery grounds are filled with concrete vaults planted in the earth in which tightly closed caskets are placed. A well-known theologian, Martin J. Heinecken, once said that our bodies are so locked into our coffins that we will need a blow-torch to get out at the sound of the archangel’s trumpet!
Churches and some funeral homes are making available coffin shells in which a wooden casket is placed that will be burned with the body (or buried). Burial can be just as ecologically friendly as cremation, providing that there are no concrete vaults or metal coffins. What’s shameful about a simple pine box, perhaps with a cross carved into the cover, buried in the ground? In such a “green” burial the body is allowed to return to the soil via bacteria and worms and microbes and the soil and plants will be nourished by the decaying corpse. Embalming is needed only if the body is to be preserved for several days for viewing. It’s always good to have the body present at a funeral to help loved ones accept the fact of death.
Of course, we want to remember our dead with some kind of memorial marker. This has usually been a grave stone in a cemetery. But it could be a metal plaque on a wall. Here’s where columbaria are a nice touch. A brick wall in a church yard garden or an inside wall of a church building can be divided into niches and the cremains of the deceased in an urn are placed in the niche. In humid places like New Orleans, whole bodies in wooden caskets can be placed in walled vaults and within two year the body and casket have decayed so that the next family member can be placed in the vault. Whether with burial or interment, the funeral rite’s words are applicable: “We commit (name) to the (ground, sea) earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We Christians do not believe that we have a divine spark within us that gives us immortality. There’s no immortal part of us waiting to be rid of the shell of the body. That’s why we have given so much attention to the deposal of the body after death. Our hope is in the promised resurrection of the body. This hope and expectation grew in the history of ancient Israel. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is a great vision of the resurrection of the body in which the Spirit or Breath of God is breathed into the raised bodies by the prophet to reanimate them (Ezekiel 37). We Christians do not believe that we have a divine spark within us that gives us immortality. We do have a soul (psyche). The soul is who we are as a person—our personality, one might say. (Note that the word “psychology” comes from the Greek word for “soul.”) Who we are as a soul is inseparable from the body—this tangible but ever-changing body that has borne our scars and tears and inevitably affected our souls with its traumas and victories.
Eternal life is a gift of God. It is also an expression of love that God does not want to lose the creatures made in God’s own image. The God who created us in the first place will recreate us in the last place, with a glorified body and a purified soul joined together. The bodies of most people will be gone by the time of that trumpet call, so they will have to be recreated by God.
We have a hope in the resurrection of the body, but no experience of it. The only resurrection we know of so far in human history is Christ’s. People have been resuscitated. Even Jesus’s friend Lazarus was resuscitated. But resuscitation is not the same as resurrection. One of the interesting features of the resurrection stories in the gospels is that Jesus’s friends and disciples did not always immediately recognize him until he did something familiar, like calling Mary Magdalene by name or breaking bread with the two disciples at Emmaus. He showed his wounds to Thomas and ate breakfast with the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. These stories suggest that our resurrection bodies will be in continuity with our present bodies but also in discontinuity. Something about our physical appearance will be familiar to those who knew us, but, as St. Paul says, when the archangel blows the trumpet and the dead are raised, “we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:50). But whatever the change will be for each of us, it will not be incorporeal. We will not enter eternity and inhabit a new earth without a new body.
Pastor Frank Senn
“The Resurrection of the Dead” by Luca Signorelli (1502) Duomo, Orvieto, Italy