Historically and cross-culturally most human social groups have developed systematic ways of dealing with death. In fact scholars often suggest that communal attempts to deal with the abatement of biological life are as old as religion itself. Some argue for instance that the earliest clues of religiously motivated ritual can be seen in paleolithic burial practices tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Spanning space and time death rituals have varied tremendously between social groups, though usually not within them. In fact given the nearly universal symbolic relationship between death and the dangers of impurity, stricter ritual proscriptions are usually followed when someone dies than at any other time in the human life-cycle. It goes without saying then, that in most places and time periods people have not had much choice in how to handle the dead. That is until now.
In contemporary Western societies most people can choose between a variety of mortuary practices. For instance, a very basic choice is present for anyone who does not belong to a community mandating whether the body has to be buried or cremated, and that includes most Christians. However, the existence of alternatives rarely means that making a choice is a simple matter, and because the end of life is still such a powerful event informal preferences often gain popularity and even sanction from authority figures. It is this process, that creeps out of the uncertainty that exists in the absence of ritual mandates, that interest us here.
A few days ago the Reformed Baptist minister and theologian John Piper, explained why he counsels people towards burial and not cremation:
An old couple had me over a few weeks ago. He’s pushing ninety, and she’s close behind. And the son was there, and the son said that the reason he wanted me to come was to tell his dad what I think about cremation and burial. (He had heard me talk about it.) So that’s a real situation. The couple is just years away from this, months maybe, who knows.
The son wants to bury his dad, while the dad is thinking that cremation is quick, efficient and cheap. Well, it may not be cheaper. Anyways, here’s the essence of what I said: The biblical pattern is that burning your children is pagan and burying your loved ones is a sign that you believe in the resurrection (Piper).
For those who are making a choice like this it needs to be clear that cremation is cheaper than burial. I find Piper’s phrasing, “[w]ell, it may not be cheaper,” to be a bit disingenuous and possibly self-serving. It is true that as with burial, cremation based mortuary practices can entail a variety of additional services that cost extra money. But the average cremation costs thousands less than the average burial. Whether or not one thinks cremation is appropriate or desirable, and/or whether one thinks cost should even be a factor in such a choice is another matter altogether. To be fair to Piper, of course, those latter concerns are what this post of his focuses on mainly.
The basis of Piper’s argument is that while scripture and doctrine do not mandate burial there is a biblical precedent for it. In Piper’s version of the Bible pagans burned their dead while Jews and early Christians buried them. But is that emphatically true or even the overarching “biblical pattern?” As Stephen Prothero points out in Purified by Fire, arguments between American Christians over the true “biblical pattern” of mortuary practice are as old as the cremation movement is. Some liberal and radical Christians of the late 19th century countered views like Piper’s by pointing out that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even Jesus were entombed in some manner, and not buried in the ground. They also pointed to the fact that Saul was cremated and that Paul refers to giving his body to cremation in I Corinthians 13:3. So even the biblical pattern, according to these Christians, was up for debate. But why was the debate happening in the first place, especially considering that even anti-cremationist Christians fully accepted, as Piper does, that there was no scriptural mandate against burning the dead?
Those arguing against cremation a hundred years ago, did so for the same reason Piper does today, because they believed in their eventual bodily resurrection. As Prothero documents, their objections were not usually, however, that cremation would actually prevent resurrection: “It would, after all, be blasphemy to state that an omnipotent God could not resurrect a cremated corpse” (Prothero, 79). Instead they railed against what they considered to be “blasphemous intent.” What concerned them, in other words, was something the practice of cremation implied about those wanting to partake in it or perhaps more alarmingly about society as a whole. Prothero continues:
Opponents were no doubt also concerned that cremation would render less convincing the popular beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and metaphors that created and sustained the credibility of the resurrection of the body–belief in the self as an amalgamation of the body and soul, fear and hellfire, prayers for the dead, cemetery visitation, and metaphors of death as sleep and body as temple” (Prothero, 79).
Here again we find Piper at home with his predecessors, for whom more than the veracity of a particular “biblical pattern” was at stake. As Piper states he wants “to encourage people towards burial because of what it says about the body” (Piper). So what does it say?
The body is precious, and it is going to be raised from the dead. I know it decomposes. I know it’s no more there in a hundred years than if you had burned it. We’re talking about the symbolic significance of a body stretched out in a coffin, looked at, and lovingly kissed and buried, rather than what is to me the horrible prospect of my wife or child or dad being burned, incinerated (Piper).
One of the main arguments coming from Christian cremationists was that the body decomposes anyway and that therefore bodily resurrection was not presaged on an intact corpse in the first place. Furthermore the supposedly unsanitary nature of decomposing bodies sat at the heart of movement’s attempt to reform mortuary practices. Cremationist publications like The Urn tried to drive the point home viscerally by publishing “gruesome photographs of exhumed bodies in varying states of decay” (Prothero, 71). In other words to cremationists concerned with sanitation a new regime was needed in industrial modernity to adequately purify social space of the dangers posed by death. This regime was powered by fire.
Yet, as Piper’s argument exemplifies, many considered burning the body much more gruesome than letting it decay. But do existential reactions to material processes like this form an adequate basis for religious counsel? Piper goes on to point out that cremation is “out of sync with what the body means to God. He created it. He’s going to resurrect it” (Piper). In other words the body is a temple. Early cremation activists had an answer to this argument as well. On the one hand they firmly believed that decomposition was a worse desecration of the “temple of the Holy Ghost” than cremation was, and on the other hand they pointed to Paul saying that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” in any event (I Corinthians 15:50). Prothero argues that underlying the latter claim was the slow progression within Protestant Christianity towards the notion that only the soul was immortal, or even if the body was resurrected that our personhood now and in eternity was not a bodily matter. Indeed just like his predecessors Piper is forced to admit that when it comes to resurrection the physical body is actually immaterial.
What is interesting here is that Piper recognizes the importance of funerary ritual to those living the Christian faith, right now on this earth. Indeed my reading of his essay is that the immanent concerns of ritual symbolism are of the utmost importance, despite the fact that he offers a justification based on what God would supposedly want Christians to do. In fact it really looks like Piper has a sociological understanding of how ritual practice might impact the survival of Christianity, or at least core ideas within his form of Christianity that he wants to protect. He actively understands some of what Prothero reads into the motivations of early cremation opponents, whose fears of an encroaching secular world he seems to share. As Prothero points out, the notion of “blasphemous intent” came along with a certain level of conspiratorial thinking about the true reason for cremation activism–secularization. While I do not see Piper sharing in a notion of active conspiracy, his description of cremation as “quick, efficient and cheap” is quite telling. Those are not qualities of deep, meaningful, religious practices, but of shallow, mechanistic, profane ones. By describing cremation thus he makes it irredeemable from the outset.
To these fears Prothero, as an historian, offers an answer of his own: “It is an ancient strategy to dismiss religious innovators as secularizers–to see in their new theologies not new religious impulses but no religious impulses at all” (Prothero, 99). And in fact, as Prothero points out repeatedly, the new impulses were not just religious but they were based on theological justifications that were most likely an outgrowth of Christianity itself; Protestant Christianity more specifically. While Prothero mentions the increasing importance of the soul in more depth, he also refers to Protestant anti-ritualism, which in my view may be of even greater significance here. By degrading the ritual actions of both the Catholic Church and local folk groups Protestantism actively weakened the power of ritual traditions within their communities. Unlike the Protestant American mainline, the Catholic Church initially reacted to cremation by outlawing it, and strong Biblical precedent was not required. But within Protestantism the door was open for argument.
Openness to ritual innovation is not necessarily a bad thing, and most ritual theorists agree that ritual traditions innovate to some degree as a basic feature of survival. Yet the manner in which such innovation is navigated changes when a community is somewhat ambivalent about ritual in the first place. Piper appears to believe that cremation cannot carry the symbolic weight of Christianity, and by extension that it is a secular threat to the religious community he wishes to protect. Yet while he sees the sociological dilemma he is hamstrung by the fact that there is no doctrinal basis for rejecting the threat altogether. That is not to say that if the Reformed Baptist tradition had a more complex and rigid ritual structure that it would necessarily have to reject cremation and would do so successfully. No the problem is actually that the Reformed Baptist tradition cannot ever fully reject or accept cremation because of its ambivalence to the physicality of mortuary ritual. The boundary between what is and is not acceptable ritual activity is so weak that it is impossible to keep some ideas out, or after accepting them, to keep other ideas in. The threat of the secular body that Piper sees emanating from cremation practices will therefore loom large for some time to come, perhaps even eternally.
Postscript: Thanks to Daniel Silliman for sharing Piper’s article on Twitter.