I have gradually come to understand that our funeral practices reveal a great deal about our actual beliefs. I grew up deeply aware of death and experienced a variety of approaches to death. Personally, I believed that cremation was best and, looking back, I can see the influences that led to that belief.
From a scientific, secular perspective cremation makes a great deal of sense. It’s economical. Modern cremation is sterile. It avoids the problem of crowded cemeteries. And whatever you think does or doesn’t happen after death, the remnant of a lifeless body has no value and nothing to offer.
Cremation is also the funeral practice of the Hinduism of my youth. (I understand that burial is a common practice in some strands of Hinduism.) The soul quickly proceeds on its karmic journey after death and the remains should be purified by fire to break any remaining ties and then scattered on a sacred river. (All rivers are sacred in Hinduism, I believe.) The real you, however that may be conceived, has moved on and the rites aid that journey.
I was Christian for many years before I even began to understand that burial is the normative Christian funeral practice. In large part that’s because the strands of Christianity within which I move have lost their connection to the historic faith and burial or cremation are largely seen as a matter of personal preference with no intrinsic significance or meaning. I eventually came to understand, though, that burial was the normative practice specifically because of our Christian belief in resurrection. The body is treated reverentially and not deliberately destroyed because it is not a discarded shell. Rather, that body is our beloved and it is that body which will be resurrected.
Of course, resurrection is not a zombie-like resuscitation of a corpse. It is intrinsically an act of new creation. However, this act of recreation uses up the matter of our bodies and is continuous with them. Two of the key features of Jesus’ resurrected body are that the tomb was empty and that, though strangely different, he was still recognizably the same person. We are our bodies, though we are not merely our bodies. It is ultimately this body which will be resurrected and it should be treated accordingly.
That does not mean that God’s power of resurrection is limited in any way by the treatment of our bodies. It was not uncommon for pagans in the ancient world to threaten saints with the complete destruction of their bodies because they thought that would shake their confidence in resurrection. God can and will raise us regardless. Nevertheless, the way we treat the bodies of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord speaks volumes about what we actually believe about resurrection.
Christians also confess that the bodies of those among us who have reposed have been the temple of the Holy Spirit. They have been the abode of God. As such, they are no less holy ground than the ground before the burning bush or the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple. If we believe that is true, then we must treat the body as a holy object.
Funeral practices matter and I think much of the confusion in practice in modern Christianity flows from our confusion about God and about what it means to be a human being. As Christians, we have forgotten who we are.
I believe this post concludes my reflections on resurrection for now. I didn’t delve into the reasons a belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (which is the foundation for our own belief) is historically reasonable. For those interested in such things, N.T. Wright gave a lecture at Roanoke College summarizing his big book on the topic, Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? I recommend it. It’s very well done.