CREMATION has become much more common in recent years, and yet many people have given little thought as to why it was previously rejected in Western society. Here is an excellent and concise post at Tradition in Action on why cremation is a desecration of the human body.
One reason the burning of the dead was favored by pagans was, according to TIA, that they “disliked the sight of sepulchral monuments because they reminded them of death, which disturbs their earthly pleasures.” I think this is true today as well. People seem to find ashes cheerful and reassuring in comparison to graves and embalmed corpses. The latter are a downer and almost an impertinence. Ashes can be kept in an urn on a coffee table or a bookcase or can be scattered somewhere in a vacation spot, as if death is an eternal timeshare. An acquaintance of mine was at a memorial service a few years ago in which the ashes of a friend were thrown into the ocean. This was supposed to be an exciting tribute to the deceased man. However, the wind was blowing toward the shore and the ashes blew into the mourners’ faces.
Ashes, whether in an expensive urn or sprinkled over the sea, are trivial and even laughable remnants of a human being. They command neither respect nor horror.
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I suppose you have never seen the last scene of The Great Lebowski. Perhaps it’s just as well.
The Big Lebowksi? I’ve never seen it.
There must be a movie in which a joke is made of accidental ingestion of human ashes.
Jeanette V. writes:
The Big Lebowski is a silly movie about two losers. But I watch it now and again. Jeff Bridges plays the ne’er do well “The Dude” Lebowski who is mistaken for the millionaire “Lebowski.” Here’s the “ashes scene.”
Warning to reader: the scene includes obscenity.
It is very funny. And is just what I described in the initial entry.
Roger G. writes:
Embalming hits me wrong too. As do expensive caskets; a plain wooden box is sufficient. No disrespect intended.
Once the soul has gone to God, all that’s left is a disorderly mass of chemicals that are best left to recombine with the earth.
Except of course, if there’s something someone else can use. Organ donation is the least we can do for our fellowman; to refuse is incredibly selfish.
Obviously, I do not believe the body is simply a “mass of chemicals” or that the soul is all. I recommend the TIA piece.
Organ donation is good only in rare instances and some serious abuses of the practice have occurred.
Terry Morris writes:
I’m glad you hit on this. Cremation is a good way for a murderous family member to destroy evidence of her crime. But that’s beside the point. What Christian or Jewish culture ever cremated its dead?
Leland Moore writes:
Thank you for giving us that to think about. My family and I aren’t Catholic but all Christians I know give this subject serious thought. The practice of cremation and the acceptance of it has changed in our part of the country since the 1980s. It is now more acceptable.
I wanted to give you a different example from the one in the Lebowski movie posted which strikes me as pretty coarse.
In Kuralt’s book, “Charles Kuralt’s America,” on page 149, is an account of a local beloved Ely business man, Leonard Zupanovich (Zup) who was cremated and made a part of their July 4th celebration. A good story. I hope you will read it.
My thoughts are that our Creator knew us way before we were born and if He can create us from dust it won’t be hard for Him to put me back together in that special time coming.
Thank you for what you do. God bless you in this New Year.
Thank you, and a Happy New Year to you.
Yes, God can do anything, but burial is one way we show respect for what he has created.
Teri Pittman writes:
I could not possibly disagree with you more. Have any of you had to deal with the death of a loved one? Well, I have. My mother died in an accident shortly before my 21st birthday. My husband of 37 years died in 2008. Both were cremated.
If you have never had to deal with a funeral home, it is an interesting experience. My mother’s body was taken to one, as they rotate which funeral homes receive the bodies of accident victims. I had to deal with this, with my grandmother and aunts. The funeral director laid out this service that he probably thought was relatively inexpensive, depending of course on the coffin we chose. It was several thousand dollars. My husband asked our family who was supposed to pay for the funeral. They said “Why, you of course.” Funerals are about money and none of the choices are cheap. We did not have the money for this funeral and talked to a group that counseled people in our situation. We managed to have a service for the relatives, but chose to follow my mother’s wishes and have a cremation. There is a plaque to my mother at the mausoleum where my grandparents rest. Since one really doesn’t get to see the bodies, one would certainly think this would be enough to remind people of death. So many things to have to think about, grave plots, funeral services, embalming or not, all at a time when people are emotionally distraught and finances are uncertain. It’s no wonder that people are taken advantage of in times like these. Yet somehow, you would recommend dealing with these things to somehow remind people of death, as though people routinely visit cemeteries.
I had my husband cremated after his death. He loved the woods. So I took the ashes to the high bridge, over the Wind River, near out last home. It was a river that we’d paddled in our canoe and taken the dogs out for a swim. I released the ashes over the river. They rose in the air, with the light sparkling on them, then sank down to the river. It was very beautiful. I cannot really see why it would be more respectful to have buried his body in the ground. I know what his preference was. Death is an ugly thing and people try and deal with it the best way they can.
If a society values burial as a form of deference to the body, it can find ways to make it affordable for the poor. People don’t need elaborate coffins or to be embalmed or to be buried in expensive plots. Even with the high cost of real estate, it could be relatively inexpensive since we have the ability to create extra space underground. But since our society doesn’t value burial, it leaves people with incentives to choose cremation.
Thank you for your post on the issue of cremation. For as long as I can remember, I have favored burial over cremation. The idea of returning to the earth, of the body having a resting place, seems very natural to me. Burning a body outside of need (pestilence, etc.) seems barbaric.
Who is not given pause for thought when they pass by a cemetery? The tombstones set me to wonder about the lives of those people. Recently, near the “30 Rock” building in New York City, I was amazed to see an ensconced cemetery behind an iron fence, grassy and antiquated looking, a brilliant juxtaposition of personal human history as against the backdrop of modern skyscrapers.
Reverence for those who have passed, in some measure, is a reflection of reverence for life. Cremation is sanitary, convenient disposal. Like the crosses posted at roadside tragedies in Latin America, appropriate reminders of death invite us to reflect on our own mortality and how our loved ones are dear to us.
My thoughts on the culture of death as we have in this country now are only to note how unserious death has become. Worse, it has become pornographic to the degree that it has completely lost its profound dignity.
So we are faced with a culture, mired in watching death as entertainment denying death for themselves, because science can make us live forever, and finally, when we are confronted with the reality of death, we despoil it with the sort of excesses that make a person cringe.
This is what we get in a society that has dethroned God, kicked Him out of the temple (the human body) and denied the existence of the soul.
God have mercy on us.
In the United States, embalming was unheard of until the Civil War. Most people were Christian and they buried their dead swiftly. During the Civil War, the North began embalming the soldier’s bodies that would be sent home for burial (those who were not buried on the spot where they fell.) Embalming became widely practiced only after Lincoln’s body was embalmed and viewed on the stops of his funeral train from Washington, DC, to Illinois. I do not think that cremation was yet practiced by any Christians at the time of Lincoln.
The Eastern Orthodox do not permit cremation. I do not know when they unfortunately began to permit embalming; however, I expect that it was not until the twentieth century. Embalming does not seem consistent with the faith. The Orthodox funeral, with its many prayers of worship, gratitude, and penance, with the casket open during the ceremony and closed after everyone in attendance has passed by for one final prayer and kiss, gives the mourners a sense of continuity from the earthly days of the deceased to his rest in the eternal arms of Christ. A similar continuity from the end of life to the beginning is seen at the end of the Divine Liturgy on many Sundays when memorial prayers (along with a platter of sweet memorial wheat) are offerred for those who had reposed-in-The-Lord forty days previously, and then prayers are said over infants who are brought for their introduction to the church when they are forty days old. In singing and reciting the two services back-to-back, praying the communal prayers for the reposed and then for the newborns, gives all parishioners a feeling of being connected to one another through the generations.
I thank you for the discussion on cremation, because it’s a sad reality that in our post-Christian age most people don’t understand why we traditionally buried people. In fact I was once in an Internet discussion with someone from Southeast Asia who was genuinely curious about why we do it. It was a great opportunity to explain to him the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body.
When my father died, his body was cremated, and I was never comfortable with that, but I was too young to voice any real cohesive objection.
Teri Pittman writes:
The funeral director laid out this service that he probably thought was relatively inexpensive, depending of course on the coffin we chose. It was several thousand dollars. My husband asked our family who was supposed to pay for the funeral. They said “Why, you of course.” Funerals are about money and none of the choices are cheap.
The choices can be relatively inexpensive, if you’re willing to think outside the (padded and satin-lined) box. For example, if anyone in your family has any experience with carpentry or wood working, a box is not a difficult thing to make.
When our grandson died unexpectedly, our daughter lovingly made the blanket she and my son-in-law wrapped him in, out of hand-worked, time-softened linens that had been in my family for several generations, while my husband and son-in-law built his tiny coffin out in our garage. I know it meant a lot to my husband, who does not easily talk about his feelings but who is good at working with his hands, to be able to make something beautiful for his grandson–and for his daughter.
I have a friend whose family builds coffins for it members as they are dying. Her mother died over several days after an auto collision, and her teen-aged nephew died a slow death of cancer. Each time, during the last few days of that person’s earthly life, while some members of the family were in one room with her or with him, others were out in the garage building a simple pine coffin. It was a beautiful expression of love.
You can also legally decline embalming, at least in my state, provided you have the coffin closed during and after the service. (This doesn’t preclude the family seeing the body before the service.)
Our local funeral director was also comfortable letting another friend help wash and dress the bodies of her mother and sister. And their immediate family passed around a shovel and took turns filling in the grave after E.’s graveside service, and again after J.’s.
These are all ways, not just of keeping the cost down, but also of loving and honoring the person who has died, by taking back from the impersonal professional the details of the final care of the body.