Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cremation or burial?

John Piper has a potentially controversial post on cremation:

This isn't the first time he's discussed the issue. Indeed, a pastor can't avoid the issue. 

Whatever side you take on this issue will be controversial. It's an emotional issue. I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. There are things we should be emotional about. If we didn't get emotional about some things, we'd be sociopaths. At the same time, I think his feelings cloud his judgment on this issue. He isn't consist. He's lodging nearsighted objections that boomerang on his own position. And he's confounding theology with custom.

My proposal in this article is that Christian churches be willing to help families financially with simple Christ-exalting funerals and burials, so that no Christian is drawn to cremation because it’s cheaper…At the same time, I do believe that pastors should discourage expensive funerals.

I don't have any objection to that. 

There has been a skyrocketing preference for cremation over the past decades in the United States (1960—3.5%; 1999—24.8%; 2014—46.7%; in some states it is over 75%).

That creates a potential dilemma for his position. Won't many private cemeteries and mausoleums become insolvent? Then what? 

Fewer people test the practice with biblical criteria, and more people want the cheapest solution.

I don't think there are biblical criteria that disfavor cremation.

Piper then has a section on the value of the body in Biblical theology. Everything he says is true, but irrelevant to the issue of cremation. In context, these theological truths have reference to embodied persons, not corpses. Living people in living bodies. So his argument is vitiated by a systematic equivocation. 

That doesn't mean I think human corpses should be treated as refuse. But I'd use a different argument than Piper. 

...the last symbol we want to use, in connection with death, is fire! Hell (gehenna) is a place of fire (Matthew 5:22; James 3:6). This fire is meant to be felt by the body.

i) If you accept the premise, then that would be a good argument for cremating the wicked! 

ii) An obvious oversight in Piper's argument is that while fire is, among other things, a symbol of eschatological judgment, so are maggots (e.g. Mk 9:48). Yet if the body is buried rather than cremated, it will often be consumed by maggots. 

Here, Piper expands on a part of his argument:

We're talking about the symbolic significance of a body stretched out in a coffin, looked at, and lovingly kissed and buried, rather than what is to me the horrible prospect of my wife or child or dad being burned, incinerated.

Several problems:

i) He's equivocating. It's not as if they are burned alive. As far symbolism goes, is better to be buried alive or eaten alive than burned alive? These symbols rise or fall together. If one is bad, all are bad. 

ii) What about the horrible prospect of your wife or child or father or mother being eaten by maggots? Piper is artificially selective here.

iii) Piper is confounding a fairly modern funeral service with Biblical burial customs. To my knowledge, ancient Jews didn't use coffins. How the body was disposed of depended on natural resources and financial resources. The rich could use a decorated marble sarcophagus or family mausoleum. For the poor, the body might be deposited directly in a shallow grave. 

iv) In a traditional Christian funeral service, with an open-casket ceremony, the coffin is like a bed. The body is embalmed to retard putrefaction, making it more presentable. The decedent is attired in a nice suit or dress. Hair nicely arranged. Makeup applied. Everything to create the visual illusion that the decedent isn't dead, but just taking a nap. Yet that prettifies death. Conceals the horror of death. It's a euphemistic presentation.

I'm not saying that's wrong. But it's certainly not something we should equate with the Biblical view of death. If anything, the open-casket ceremony romanticizes death. 

My own position is that, ideally, it's good for Christians to bury their loved ones in a cemetery, or inter them in a mausoleum on cemetery grounds. A place where they can visit the grave on a regular basis. Our society tries to hard to hide the fact of death. A cemetery is a public reminder of what we all face.

That said, there are limitations on that ideal:

i) Some people can't visit the cemetery on a regular basis. They had to take a new job out of state. Or the decedent had several kids who live in different places. There's no cemetery within the vicinity of all concerned parties.

ii) It's my impression that only the second or third generation visits a grave. When we die, we're quickly forgotten. Cemeteries are filled with graves whom no one visits. 

iii) As ever fewer people use them, I don't see how private cemeteries will be able to pay for the overhead. If private cemeteries go out of business, what will happen to the site? Will it be abandoned? What about mausoleums?

Will it be sold to a developer? If so, what happens to the graves? What happens to the bodies? What happens if you bury your loved one or inter them in a mausoleum in case the cemetery goes bankrupt five or ten years later?  


  1. Just a thought: an embalmed body is kind of like a brick -- not likely to be consumed by maggots.

    But you make a good point about cemeteries going out of business.

    I visit my wife's grave every chance I get. There is a sense of connection there. On the other hand, my kids avoid going there. Yes, it is painful, but I have been told that the tears are therapeutic.

  2. Years ago you couldn't get buried in a Catholic cemetery unless you were Catholic and didn't die in mortal sin. However, as I understand it Catholic cemeteries (at least in most/all of America) are required to permit non-Catholics (even if they're non-Christian?) to get buried there. If i recall, Catholic cemeteries and the land are owned by the Catholic Church. Often, by some kind of legal basis they may have decades or more years of ownership (or whatever its called) before it can be up for sale. I buried a loved one in a Catholic cemetery and they assured me that the cemetery will remain in the Catholic Church for at least another 100 (120?) years.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. typo correction: "However, as I understand it [nowadays] "

      Also, presumably, Catholics cemeteries renew or re-affirm their ownership of their cemeteries whenever they can. I think they may consider it holy ground and so would want to keep ownership. I'm guessing the policy of allowing non-Catholics to be buried there is a legal requirement by the U.S. government rather than a policy change from the Catholic Church itself.

    3. I finished paying the installments for my burial plot a few years ago and it's strange to be able to stand on top of the ground where I'll (hopefully) be buried 6 feet under after I die (assuming the Lord doesn't return before I die, which I suspect).