Faith perspectives on disposal of remains: recent comments by Al Mohler

In a recent podcast of the Briefing, dedicated to examining current issues from a Christian worldview, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, shared the following thoughts:

Why the worldview displayed at life’s most crucial moments is going to be theological in one way or another

The crises and rights of life, particularly at the beginning of life at significant moments such as marriage, and at the end of life, especially thinking of funerals, these particular moments intensify the understanding that basic fundamental issues are at stake issues of life and death, and meaning, of truth, and goodness, and evil, and mercy, and just about every major issue or theme of human moral understanding. What we also see is that at those moments, the worldview that is displayed is going to be theological in one way or another, the only question is, what theology? That’s even true in a secular age, but a secular age does represent some fundamental changes in the way we look at birth at fundamental life passages, at such things as marriage, so fundamental to human existence, and even at death. Perhaps we should say, especially at death.

Yesterday’s edition of USA Today had a major article entitled, “More are opting for cremation as their final wish.” The article is by Svetlana Shkolnikova and she tells us about an elderly couple who had been married for 69 years. They are identified as Fred and Margaret of Clifton, New Jersey. They died one month apart this past winter. Now, according to Shkolnikova the couple, whose last name their children asked not to divulge, met in high school and were married for 69 years and they were inseparable.

Death, we are told was not about to change that. So they made arrangements, arrangements concerning their death. We are told that Margaret, age 87, it was decided would take the last grave in the family’s plot at St. Nicholas Cemetery in Lodi, New Jersey. Fred, who was a year older at 88, a devout Catholic who was born some 30 years before the Vatican lifted its ban on cremation, that was in 1963, decided that his ashes would be buried by her head.

So here you have a couple married for 69 years, who died within 30 days of each other and one is buried in the last plot in the cemetery that belonged to the family and the other is cremated and simply buried as cremains, as the remains are known, by her head. Shkolnikova’s skill is centering in on this couple, who after all were married for so long and are now going to be buried together as a contrast in the situation of the one over against the other. One was buried, bodily in a casket in a grave and the other was cremated. Simply buried close to her.

This is where Christians have to look at a story like this and ask the question. Is there anything of fundamental importance here? Where are the theological dimensions, after all, we’re talking about death, we’re talking about rituals and rites and burial practices that are attached to death. We understand that every single death brings about decisions that are deeply rooted in and will reveal worldview and we also understand that the very issues that are so worldview intensive at death are precisely because of the worldview significance of life.

Where is the theology here? Where is the basic worldview dimension? Well, actually it’s in the subhead of the article right here on the front page of the Money Section of USA Today in yesterday’s edition. Again, the headline was ‘More are opting for cremation as their final wish’. But, the subhead is this ‘Weaker ties to religion and cost cited as factors’. The interesting thing to note here is that USA Today gets to religion and that means a shift in religious belief as the causal factor for the shift from burial to cremation. It deals with the issue of cost and it does so quickly but it leads with the explanatory offering of religion as the reason why there is this shift. The issue of cost does come up pretty quickly. We are told that the average burial in the state of New Jersey cost $4,741. That includes the price for a grave and burial vault and the cemetery fee for opening and closing the grave. Beyond that, we are told a casket can add $10,000 to that price tag.

USA Today reports that in New Jersey, cremation requires an average crematory fee of $306. The average urn is about $200. The fees associated with a niche that is a space in a columbarium that holds urns can cost about $2,000. George Kelder identified as the Executive Director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association said interestingly quote, “The cost of burial continues to increase as the cost of real estate increases.” He went on to say, “Cremation becomes an affordable alternative to that,” end quote.

If you’ve gone this far in the article let’s just skip the subhead on the article for a moment. If you go this far in the article, the explanation for this massive shift from burial to cremation in the United States is primarily financial. Now that’s an interesting angle if this is where the story ended. It is also interesting to look at the fact that if you go on and total the average cost for cremation, it’s actually a good deal more than the separate listings might indicate. The distinction between burial and cremation, the wheel is not in every case so massive as many might think.

It’s also interesting to remember that this article appeared on the front page of the Money Section of USA Today so clearly the financial aspect is very close to the surface. That’s for another reason that isn’t reflected in the article. The funeral business in America, either way whether it’s cremation or burial is a very big business. One of the interesting financial developments in recent years is even foreign capital coming to the United States to invest in the burial and funeral business. But, what’s even more important in this article is just how quickly the issue shift from money to religious faith. Quote, “Weakening ties to religion and place have also chipped away at the number of burials. The days, a week long religious funeral services with large gathering of friends and family are over. That according to Judy Welshons who’s Executive Director of the New Jersey Cemetery Association,” USA Today explains, “People are more transient. They’re less tethered to their hometowns, communities, and religious institutions,” end quote.

But, before going even further in the article, all of that could have a great deal or on the other hand very little to do with the issues at stake. The size of the funerals are far less interesting question in this respect than is the mode of either burial or cremations. That’s the basic distinction here, not the number of people who might participate in a funeral, not the length of a funeral observance or a mourning process. That’s not uninteresting. It’s just somewhat distracting from the major issue here in the story.

Looking at this shift from a financial perspective, USA Today notes that cremation is more conducive to a nomadic lifestyle, to the transients we see in much of American life and to the fact that many extended families are separated by time and space to such a degree that big funerals and big family funerals are now less common.

But, then the article in the longest section of the article gets to the issue of the religious shift, the theological shift, the worldview shift, that alone can explain this massive shift in burial and cremation practices. The USA Today article continues quote, “Catholics are prohibited from keeping urns at home or scattering ashes but even they are increasingly turning to cremation. The Vatican’s reaffirmation we are told in the year 2016 that Catholics can be cremated as long as their remains are laid to rest in a consecrated place such as a Catholic cemetery boosted interest. That according to Andrew Schafer identified as Executive Director of Cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. The cremation rate at the eight cemeteries that the Catholic Archdiocese oversees jumped from 5.8% in the year 2000 to a projected nearly 19% this year. Schafer went on to explain quote, “The Catholic population has been a little slower to embrace cremation. You have a part of the population that now because it’s been such a conversation out in the media is exploring,” end quote.

Now why would there be an immediate turn to asking what Catholics are doing here? Well, one reason will be geographic. We’re talking about New Jersey, which has a very large population of Roman Catholics. We need to keep in mind that until 1963 the Roman Catholic Church had an absolute prohibition on Roman Catholics being cremated even though that absolute prohibition was lifted in 1963. The stipulations on the practice were so strict that there were not that many Catholic cremations and even as the policy was redefined in 2016, you’ll note that as this Catholic authority indicates, Catholic cremations in the state of New Jersey even now represent less than one out of five but that’s almost 20% as compared to 5.8% in 2000. That means that in 18 years there has been a multiplication factor involved in the number and percentage of Catholics looking to cremation.

What could explain this and is this just a Catholic issue? No, the bigger picture, a bigger picture that USA Today could have considered is the fact that the more fundamental issue here isn’t Catholic although we can understand the relevance of that question especially in New Jersey. The bigger question is theism over against secularism and furthermore, it is the influence of the entire Christian tradition going back to the first century and behind that Judaism and the Old Testament as opposed to polytheism and other forms of religious belief.

USA Today could have put all of this in the context that the sole explanation for this shift from burial to cremation that sole explanation that’s most fundamental can’t be financial, it has to be rooted in the secularization of death and behind that the secularization of life and put together, the secularization of meaning. But, here’s where we also need to understand that Christianity has steadfastly for 2000 years either forbidden or strongly frowned upon cremation and in almost every case extremely so. Why?

Well this is deeply rooted in both the Old and the New Testaments. In the Old Testament the burning of a body was openly associated with idolatry and paganism. The children of Israel were to have nothing to do with such a practice. Furthermore, the biblical doctrine of creation makes clear that the human body is itself a part of the goodness of God’s creation and thus, the human body is to be treated with respect but beyond that the biblical worldview establishes that human beings every single human being is an individual made in the image of God. This means that we treat human bodies in a way that is categorically different from the way we would deal with the bodies or the carcasses of animals. This same pattern prevails in the New Testament where the assumption explicitly is burial. The most important example of this of course is the fact that Jesus was laid in a grave and he was in that grave for three days before the Father raised him from the dead.

But, then we also have to understand the New Testament theme of the importance of the body in our discipleship not only in our theology and in our biblical worldview but in our discipleship. We are to remember at all times that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Christianity in all of its forms wherever it has been found consistently for almost 2000 years held that burial is the only rightful voluntary disposition and treatment of a human body.

As you might expect behind this there is even more as we’re thinking from a biblical worldview. One of the perennial heresies that is in the background to the entire New Testament but comes to the foreground for example in first, second and third John is the fact that Gnosticism has held that the human soul or spirit is trapped in a body. This is an understanding that creates a dualism. The body is bad. The spirit, the soul is good. The body has to be overcome and escaped. The spirit’s effort is to escape the body. The Gnostics, the very Greek word means knowledge, represented an intellectualization of the entire worldview. All that really mattered was spirit and thought. Thus, the effort was to liberate the spirit from the body and of course you see this confronted directly in the prologue to John’s gospel wherein the most stunning refutation of Gnosticism in the most stunning declaration against that background of the Christian gospel, we are told that the word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Then as we remarked previously on The Briefing you fast forward throughout human history and come to understand the worldview of the east and as one example Hinduism and other forms of eastern religion as well and you understand that there are two. There has often been a dualism of body and mind or body and spirit such as what’s indicated not too long ago in the death of the king of Thailand and a $70 million cremation, the cremation public and ceremonial in order to have a ceremony for the liberation of the king’s spirit from his body. In the case of the Thai king the idea of liberation was not merely to free the spirit from the body but to free the king to be deified.

When Christians look at a headline like this on the front page of the Money Section of yesterday’s edition of USA Today, we understand that at least USA Today in offering the first causal explanation for why there is this shift to cremation from burial what suggested is quote, “Weaker ties to religion,” end quote. Indeed, that is true but the bigger picture is not just weaker ties to religion, the bigger issue is a massive religious shift as we think about the worldview of the American people.