Friday, November 5, 2010

Earth to earth, dust to dust

I’ve decided that when I die, I want to be buried in the ground. Perhaps it’s just the frustrated poet in me. The notion of my body being returned to the earth is a melancholy but oddly comforting thought. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, to borrow a phrase from the Book of Common Prayer. The idea of being burned up by fire, on the other hand, I find unsettling.

In choosing burial, I’ll be bucking the cultural tide in a place like Corvallis, where about 60% of those who die are cremated. I learned this yesterday during a conversation with a funeral director about my funeral arrangements. Nationwide, about 30% to 35% of the dead are cremated. Largely unmoored from religious traditions, people in the West like to do their own thing, which apparently includes having one’s ashes flung into a favorite fishing stream or, I’ve seen it written, poured bit by bit into the gas tank of a Harley-Davidson. There seems to be no end to the creative ways in which we can—metaphorically speaking—make ourselves one with the universe.

That approach strikes me as classically New Age, which I’m decidedly not. I suppose that makes me Old Age, at least when it comes to the disposition of my remains. There's no biblical injunction against cremation, and many who choose cremation have their ashes buried in a cemetery or interred in a columbarium. I can't see that there's anything wrong with that. I asked a few people I know if they have a preference, and most said they didn’t, but that they really hadn’t thought much about it. I’m hoping I’m well ahead of the game in making my funeral arrangements, but there’s no guarantee about that. Having come this far, I wouldn’t mind going all the way and throwing my own funeral party while I’m still alive, like the crazy hermit played by Robert Duvall in the movie, “Get Low.” I might even script out my own eulogy.

Let me warn anyone who’s interested in these matters that dying ain’t cheap. My exit will likely run about $6000, which is roughly the national average. And that calls for not much more than a pine box for a casket. By opting for cremation, I could cut that cost just about in half. For no other reason than saving a wad of cash, I understand why some people go that route. Let me attempt here to explain why I won't be.

I’ve written in this blog before about my confidence in a physical resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns to complete his redemptive plan for creation. I’ll skip the eschatological details; suffice to say that as a Christian, I believe in his second coming. This future life involves a new embodiment for all believers. When I die, I don’t simply “go to heaven” and float around a nebulous spiritual ether. What actually happens is that upon Jesus’ return, I get to participate in God’s new creation in a place more concretely real than the one in which we live now, with a new, imperishable body that is more “me” than me. There is continuity between my body now and my body then. I can’t do justice here to the promise we’ve been given, but my point is that life in the hereafter is not the insipid, disembodied spirit world that’s been popularized. It’s much, much more, and way more exciting.

Everything I believe about death and resurrection gives shape and color to my life in this world. My environmental ethic, for example, is based on the belief that the physical world that God created is precious, and that it too is part of His design for eternity. It must be cared for because God declared it good. I want my memorial service to testify to my hope for the future: for a physical resurrection in a new heaven on earth. This will be my last chance to declare to the world who I am and what I believe. I don’t want to be ambiguous about the confidence that animates me. Human life, and the bodies that God gives us to inhabit, are of incalculable value. In death, as in life, they should be treated with honor and respect.

The growing popularity of cremation represents what I perceive as a subtle but far-reaching shift in attitude towards death and to whatever hope one has for what lies beyond. I believe that the current practice of many Catholics and Protestants to accommodate cremation is misguided. They’ve gone along with it because unlike the Eastern Orthodox, most Jews, and Muslims, they haven’t given it due consideration. Those religions all forbid cremation. Christians, I believe, should provide a faithful witness to their evenual physical resurrection and to life-everlasting. The belief that cremation and "ash scattering" fosters—that our souls will somehow unite with nature or with the universe in general--is not a Christian idea. It’s pantheistic. The church may not hold the script for what we do with our dead, but faith sure does. My preference is for a faith that offers hope in the life of the world to come.


Anonymous said...

Not sure about this one, Peter. One can be a Christian and decide that, precisely because Scripture is silent on the issue, the method of disposition of the body is, well, immaterial. It seems you choose not to be seen to side with pantheists or others who have adopted cremation because it best suits their philosophical ends. There is nothing wrong with such a choice, of course, but another demonstration of Christian faith might read, "Though others are choosing cremation as a symbol of their unity with All Nature, yet will I also choose cremation because my belief in the resurrection of the body--as one tenet of my faith--is, with all due respect to them, incomparable to anything that they could imagine in the reunion of their ashes with Earth's molecules." --Joe

Peter Ogle said...

Bottom line: I suspect it doesn't matter to God whether we're buried, cremated or torn apart by lions in the Roman Coliseum. There is power in the symbols we adopt, however; e.g. the sacrament of communion. We shouldn't underestimate the power of what they communicate. That said, we have the opportunity while we live and upon our death to make explicit what we believe about physical resurrection--or not, as the case may be. That matters most. God will take care of whatever state in which he finds our disassembled molecules.