Burial Practice and Belief
Commentary: Why Catholics Should Not Cremate
When an Egyptian Pharaoh died, his high priests quickly sprang into action; his burial was their special charge. He had spent his entire life building a massive pyramid (in the Old Kingdom) or a funerary temple (in later years) to house his body for all eternity. But his body had to be carefully prepared. And that was the task of the priests.
First, a metal hook was inserted into the Pharaoh’s nose and swirled around in order to liquify the brain. When sufficiently liquid, they would pour the brain out the nose, discarding it. Internal organs were removed and stored in jars. The body was then rubbed and covered with salt to dry it out, turning the skin into the consistency of old leather before being wrapped in clean linens, and carried to its eternal resting place in the Pyramids.
Those pyramids had been stocked with money, slaves, food, couches, comfort items, even boats–all the things a Pharaoh might need for his eternity.
Why so much care in preparing for the afterlife? After impressing (in some cases horrifying) my students with the care the Egyptians took to prepare the body of the dead Pharaoh, I always ask them why? Why bury the Pharaoh this way? What did their actions suggest about their beliefs in the afterlife?
Of course, such careful physical preparations suggested that the Egyptians believed the afterlife to be a physical one. If there was an afterlife, distinct from the dreary underworld in so many other ancient religions and cultures, one would need all the things for it that one needed in this life, including one’s body. But it also suggested a certain fragility: failure to preserve the body and make continual offerings would leave the Pharaoh’s spirit homeless for all eternity.
This is a great many words to make the point that the burial practice of a people, often reflects the beliefs of that people. The two are not easily separated.
One man who knew that was the Frankish King Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day in 800 AD. Over his long reign, one of Charlemagne’s goals was to convert the peoples he conquered to Christianity, especially the Saxons. His surrender terms offered to the Saxons included things like demanding they respect churches, protect priests, and ban human sacrifice. The terms include one further point that might be considered odd: the death penalty for anyone who cremated a dead person.
Why? Why so much concern for the burial practices of a conquered people? Because Charlemagne understood well the connection between practice and belief. The practice of cremation was connected to pagan beliefs about life after death, including the non-resurrection of the body and the irrelevance of the body in the afterlife. This was directly contradictory to the Christian hope of the Resurrection.
Charlemagne’s threat of death for cremation may have been overly harsh, but he well understood how burial practice was connected with proper beliefs in the afterlife.
This has a great deal of relevance for today with the growing popularity of cremation in the modern world. Traditionally, Christianity forbade cremation in ordinary circumstances (extraordinary ones like plague might permit it) as being contrary to the Christian hope of the Resurrection of the Body. Even the current Code of Canon law (1176) permits cremation, but still strongly recommends burial of the body. Later instruction makes clear that in such a case the ashes must be buried and may neither be scattered nor kept as a gruesome souvenir on one’s mantelpiece.
Cremation is not intrinsically wrong; some extraordinary circumstances might permit it, and yet, given the Christian hope, it is also clearly an inappropriate option for burial. Practice should follow belief.
And so it does. It is hard to see the growing popularity of cremation as anything other than reflecting a diminished belief in Christianity in general and the Christian hope of the Resurrection of the body in particular. When people scatter ashes or ask to have it done for them postmortem, reasons they do it for include:
A symbolic belief that the soul is freed by the action
To become one with nature
So we (who scatter ashes) can “feel deep within ourselves that they are experiencing a rapturous sensation of freedom, vibrant energy and serenity.” (Yes, a website actually said that).
In no case does the practice of cremation here reflect a Christian belief. Indeed, websites promoting cremation openly admit that the practice is actually linked to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs about the irrelevance of the body both before and after life. In contrast, Christians must respect the body even after death. Humans are not a soul alone, but the union of body and soul. Hence, even when the soul is separated from it in death, the body still deserves our respect, for God Himself chose to join that body with a soul to make us human.
This is why the Catholic Church has typically forbidden cremation and still discourages it: practice reflects belief. The growing interest in cremation in the modern world clearly reflects a weakening belief in Christianity. Christians must fight this and hold fast to the true Christian hope, the Resurrection of the Body. And we must make certain that our practice of burial reflects that belief in testimony to ourselves, our families, and a pagan world.
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