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A Case Against Cremation

When we look at how Jesus' body was treated, we might find a lesson about the importance of burial.

Easter focuses a lot on a grave. Last weekend, we heard from Matthew that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were going to Christ’s grave when the tomb was opened; the guards almost died of fright; and an angel told the women, “He is not here for he has been raised from the dead!” We also heard John telling us that Simon Peter and he (who was apparently more zealous or in better physical shape, because he got there first) ran to the grave to discover it empty.

When Jesus was taken down from the cross, he received a grave as a gift. Joseph of Arimathea laid him in his own tomb. He embodies the corporal work of mercy, somewhat forgotten in our day, “to bury the dead.”

Protestant author James Fraser once wrote about Genesis 23, the account of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah to be the grave of Sarah, his wife, who predeceased him. Abraham was a nomad. His life and faith brought him from “Ur of the Chaldees” (not too far from what we today call Kuwait) to Israel.

He could have dug a hole anywhere to bury Sarah. But he felt a sacred obligation that was his and nobody else’s to lay his wife in a grave. When the Hittites offered him a burial place gratis, he turned them down. He insisted on buying the place and spent 400 silver shekels doing it, because it was to be his people’s resting place forever.

The widespread popularity of cremation, even among Catholics, differs from the case of Jesus and Sarah in one vital respect: there is no grave.

Yes, the Church insists that it “earnestly recommends” earth burial over cremation (CIC 1176) (as it “especially commends” that Catholics abstain from meat on non-Lenten Fridays). The 2016 Vatican instruction Ad Resurgendum cum Christoinsistently recommends” (3) that if one does cremate, ashes must be buried, not scattered. A U.S. Bishops’ committee reaffirmed that last month.

In some ways, though, that horse has left the barn. Newer methods of corpse disposal being pushed in states like California, Washington, and New York deliberately destroy the body, leaving behind either fluid or “compost” for your rose bed. Jesus got a tomb in a garden (John 19:41); some people today want to be the garden without a tomb.

The dirty little secret connecting cremation, alkaline hydrolysis, and recomposting is that none presupposes a grave. You can put human ashes in a grave, but you don’t have to. You can scatter them on the beach, in the ocean, or over the Grand Canyon. You can stick them on the back closet shelf. You can crystallize them into jewelry. Or you can flush them. But there is no imperative to bury them.

I have repeatedly written that the Church erred in 1963 when it gave a grudging green light to cremation, because cremation is inherently at odds with the Catholic vision of personal embodiment and resurrection. The sages of ’63 thought the prohibition could be relaxed because its main nineteenth-century drivers—Freemasons and secularists bent on denying the “resurrection of the body”—were no longer its primary advocates in the modern day.

No, cremation’s proponents justify it today for a much more banal reason: it’s cheap.

The usual riposte from Catholics to my attack on cremation is “do you know how expensive a funeral is?” I know of cases where multiple relatives’ ashes are sitting in the corner of a bedroom because it is cheaper than the $500 “opening” fee the parish cemetery charges. How can we fix that?

Once upon a time, it was commonplace for people to have small insurance policies for their “burial expenses.” Immigrant parishes in the last century had “burial societies” designed to help immigrants defer funeral expenses. And, frankly, given the asset liquidations accompanying parish consolidations and closures, it would not be unfair to expect dioceses to subsidize certain cemetery operations so that people don’t cremate relatives because “it’s cheaper” than burial.

Catholics today may recall that the Church opposed cremation because it could represent an outlook on man’s future at odds with what the Church taught about the Resurrection. That view was correct. And there is more: cremation represents an antithetical viewpoint not just on the Resurrection, but also on the meaning and significance of the human body and embodiment, intergenerational bonds, ecclesiological solidarity with the Churches Suffering and Triumphant (graveyards are part of a parish . . . and often the one part that’s growing), and the very basic and—until our day uncontested—notion that a person deserves a “final resting place.”

For many pragmatic Americans, all that “nice theoretical stuff” yields to “cremation is cheaper.” All those other considerations don’t have price tags, but they do have value. As the old adage goes, “Some people know the cost of everything but the value of nothing.”

Jesus benefited from Joseph of Arimathea’s charity because, as a Jew, Joseph recognized that a body should be buried. That was not generally the case with victims of crucifixion, which, at least in other parts of the Roman Empire, did not end with death. Bodies stayed on crosses until a cross was needed for somebody else, the corpses rotted off, or they became cibus corvi (“food for the crows”). Given the emphasis some modern methods of bodily destruction put on the body as “part of nature” and “rejoining the circle of life,” one might suggest that—but for its intended degradation—this was ancient recycling.

Sarah benefited because Abraham did not consider spending money on a grave extravagant, even though he could have gotten it for nothing, and 400 silver shekels certainly represented no mean sum. Coming by that kind of money in his day took the labors of his clan, but a tomb was worth it. Are American Catholics, in this prosperous land, worse off than Jesus and Abraham?

Among Leo Tolstoy’s short stories is “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It is about a Russian peasant who gets a thirst for land and progressively acquires ever more of it. He hears that, out near Mongolia, the local people will give you as much land as you can encircle with a furrow in one day, provided you return to your point of departure. Pahom feverishly furrows out acres and acres, only to fear that his land greed will prevent him from reaching his starting point. At the last minute, he makes a mad rush up the hill, reaches his beginning, and dies of a heart attack. Tolstoy laconically observes, “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

One hundred thirty-seven years after the publication of that story, some today might call Pahom’s servant a wastrel. Pahom wanted too much, true, but nevertheless, he and we deserve a little.

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