Cremation: an alternative to burial or an alternative to bother?

Charles Cowling

There’s a fine new essay by Thomas Lynch in the The Christian Century. It’s as wonderfully well written as you’d expect – seductively so. Much of what he says about the modern funeral he has said before: that it “too often replaces theology with therapy, conviction with convenience.”

Here are some extracts to whet your appetite:

“When I’m gone just cremate me,” Hughey MacSwiggan told his third and final wife as she stood at his bedside while the hospice nurse fiddled with the morphine drip that hadn’t kept his pain at bay. The operative word in his directive was just.

And Hughey was just cremated, which is to say his body was placed on a plywood pallet, covered with a cardboard carapace and, after the paperwork and permits were secured, loaded into the hearse and driven to a site toward the back of an industrial park where a company that makes burial vaults operates a crematory on the side.

Of course, the problem is not with cremation, which is an ancient and honorable, efficient and effective means of disposing of our dead. Nor is the fire to burn our dead any less an elemental gift of God than is the ground to bury them in. The problem is not that we cremate our dead, but how ritually denatured, spiritually vacant, religiously timid and impoverished we have allowed the practice to become. It is not that we do it, but how we do it that must be reconsidered.

In cultures where cremation is practiced in public, among Hindus and Buddhists in India and Japan, its powerful metaphoric values—purification, release, elemental beauty and unity—add to the religious narratives the bereaved embrace. The public pyres of Bali and Calcutta, where the first-born brings fire from the home fire to kindle the fire that will consume a parent’s body, are surrounded by liturgical and civic traditions. Elsewhere, however, cremation is practiced in private, the fire kept purposefully behind closed doors. Whereas the traditional funeral transports the corpse and mourners from parlor to altar, then to place of disposition, cremation, as it is practiced in the U.S., often routes around, not through, such stations in the pilgrimage. We miss most if not all of the journey, the drama and metaphor.

There’s a good, clear-eyed critique of Lynch’s essay at Fr Jonathan’s blog here.

One thought on “Cremation: an alternative to burial or an alternative to bother?

  1. Charles Cowling
    Perpetua's Garden

    Charles, apologies for saying it again but Lynch's article reflects what Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World more than 50 years ago about merely-practical cremation. He gets to the point more succinctly than Lynch and he goes a step further – it is not "just" cremate me, but "please" cremate me so I can proudly contribute to society in the form of the fertilizer recovered from my body. Human beings reduced to the value of fertilizer – the bottom of the pit of nihilism.

    In this, Huxley foreshadowed a certain nihilistic strain of green burial which understands its only benefit in the fertilizing and/or protecting of the earth – at the expense, or at least in ignorance of archetypal human needs.

    Naturally burial today must integrate the needs of the earth – we can't afford to do her more damage – but the environment should not be the only or even primary goal.

    Human needs are primary in burial. Those who would argue otherwise have evidently lost sight of what "humanity" always means in all times: aspiring to more than what is visible to the eye, to being more than a clever species of animal.

    Lynch may be correct in his analysis but he doesn't point to any solution. This is honest – for without "beliefs that are believed in" we can't go beyond only rational considerations, we can't expect people to take to rituals which are meaningless for them.

    So the real problem is spiritual – but solutions on that level can't be faked. These will probably materialize when the need is great enough, but in the meantime, patience and let us at least point out when the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

    Thomas Friese


    Charles Cowling

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