The slippery slope or solid ground?

Todd Van Beck's picture

I just finished reading a short news clip concerning burying the dead with respect and dignity.  I read nothing new in this short article save for the fact that the author was a clergyperson associated with the Unitarian-Universalist Church.  Having been a Unitarian myself for years I found it interesting that a clergy of this particular denomination would even give the issue of treating the dead with respect and dignity a glance, let alone compose a short epistle on the subject.  Bravo – I personally thought it a breakthrough of sorts to have a leader in an extremely liberal religious movement, where many of the Memorial Societies in the country are located and who historically have promoted cremation and memorial services, to take up the torch that the dead deserve respect and dignity.  This clergyperson focused her outline on an examination of the seven corporal acts of mercy, the seventh being “burial of the dead.”

It would be a miracle if this clergyperson’s thoughts took hold in the mainstream, but hope springs eternal and concerning the care of the dead I have discovered, at times much to my chagrin and at times much to my own humor, that almost anything goes these day.  In fact I had a conversation with a buddy of mine yesterday conceiving the idea that what we could do next with cremated remains is load them up in empty shot gun shells, blast them into the sky, and gather the casings and get them bronzed and engrave the name of the deceased on the outside – and sell them.  I then discovered that once again my imagination is not that sharp, for a farmer in Iowa is already offering this type of service to his community – does death creativity and invention have any limits? 

Will Durant, the great Columbia University philosopher, once remarked that “religion is the last subject the intellectual tackles,” and so right was Mr. Durant.  If you want controversy just start talking religion and surely you will find the controversy you are looking for.  

However let’s tackle religion a bit concerning this haunting 7th Corporal Act of Mercy – burial of the dead.  From the outset let me assure my associates and friends that I am not anti-cremation, and I recognize the foolishness of taking such a position in this period of death care history (but as any student of history knows the popularity of cremation will change over time).

With that disclaimer said let me state a few facts regarding the historical traditions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in regards to this 7th Corporal Act of Mercy.  Historically the Christian church and the Jewish temple have basically been against cremation – it’s true.  Now of course this stance against has changed in a big way, but the history has not changed.

For years I have been told by not just a few people that funerals are “pagan.”  It is abundantly clear that those who pontificate such remarks have no clue as to the relationship of paganism and cremation.  It was the pagans, not the Jews or Christians who embraced cremation.  Throughout the history of Judaism and for most of Christian history cremation has been an extremely rare practice, and the early Christian believed firmly that cremation was not a wise decision, based on the following:

  • Pagan cultures used cremation as a method to deny the reality of the Christian conception of a bodily resurrection and hence used the burning of a dead human being to mock the Christians belief in a bodily resurrection.  We need to remember that the dualism of body and soul is not a Christian concept, but it instead emerged in the Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.  
  • The Bible clearly teaches that the human body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit and cremation was viewed as an extremely destructive process as compared to earth burial.
  • Jesus was not cremated.
  • The early Christian equated fire with hell.
  • Cremation caused practical problems even in the early period of Christianity in determining foul play and the cause of death.
  • Cremation was formally prohibited by Constantine the Great, the first world leader to embrace Christianity.

In time the issue of cremation became so frustrating to the Roman Catholic Church that Pope Leo the XIII issued Canon Law #1203 which reads:  “The bodies of the faithful must be buried; cremation is forbidden.”  Then #1203 goes on to prohibit all Roman Catholics from joining memorial and/or cremation societies whose purpose according to the church is to deny the bodily resurrection.

On May 8, 1963, Pope Paul VI removed Canon Law #1203, and recently I was informed of the cremation of a Monsignor in the Roman Catholic Church.  Things have indeed changed.

However this history, while possibly interesting to some, does not address the 7th Corporal Act of Mercy which was not removed by any council of the church; the concept is alive, but maybe not well.  “Burial of the Dead” continues to impact our culture and life, and when one stops and seriously ponders this act of mercy some sobering thoughts come into mind.

First the 7th Corporal Act of Mercy does not say “Cremation of the Dead.”  It clearly states “Burial of the Dead.”  I think however what this really is saying has not so much to do with the method of final disposition – I mean what you have in a grave over a long time, you have in a crematory chamber in a very short time.  The implications must be of a deeper more thoughtful nature.

I think this 7th Corporal Act of Mercy is a clear call to those of us who decided to devote our lives to the ethical care of the dead – regardless the method of disposition.  It falls, in a big way, to every funeral profession, embalmer, cemeterian, everybody involved with our great profession, to think out, practice, and instill the ethic of Reverence for the Dead in the minds, hearts, and nay souls of everybody involved with this terribly important work.

To be sure the family unit is fractured, and sometimes the very next of kin are not in the least concerned about what happens to Dad’s body – but that does not automatically mean that you and I should abandon our level of care, abandon the 7th Corporal Act of Mercy – just because we are standing in the shadows of a disunited, disgruntled, disharmonious family unit.  No our work, our mission, our calling supersedes the agenda of any wacky family.

I have only to alert my associates and friends to the horrors of necrophilia, to the atrocities of the German concentration camps where millions of dead people were treated in a most repulsive manner, to the anguish that a family and community feels when a dead body cannot be found, to prove that someone has to be charged with the responsibility of maintaining the 7th Corporal Act of Mercy, and my dear friends that charge falls to you and me.  This is a good profession to be involved with.

However one last question lingers in my mind and I will simply poise the question without any attempts at answers or analysis.  The Christian perspective is of a true bodily resurrection; the scripture writers do not separate the body and the soul as the Greeks did.  No one talks much about this, and the last time I taught this stuff in a Sunday School class, people who had chosen cremation for others and also themselves got mighty defensive and did not much like the historical background.

Still, whether it is popular, or even in our contemporary culture, rational, if the bodily resurrection is accurate, if the ancient teaching is true,  then the question can easily be raised: What is going to happen to all the hundreds of thousands of people who have been cremated?  I have found very few people interested in exploring this with me. Anybody in blog land have a thought or two?  I would be mighty interested.

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.