Monday, August 17, 2015

To bury or to burn? The decline of Christian burial and the rise of cremation

My latest article for CHARIS is up. Here's a taste:
The Smithsonian article’s headline was eye-catching: Jamestown skeletons identified as colony leaders. I love history and this was clickbait. Four early settlers were uncovered during a 2013 archaeological dig at Virginia’s historic Jamestown colony. Now, those bones have been identified as some of the leaders of that first successful British attempt to forge a new life in the new world across the Atlantic. I read the story with interest.
But it was a picture in the article that captured my imagination (be sure to click through the link to see it). Several forensic anthropologists responsible for the find sat around the exposed skeleton of Reverend Robert Hunt, still ensconced in the ground several feet below where the researchers were seated at the lip of the grave. One researcher in particular caught my eye—Ashley McKeown—who sat with her gaze drawn fixedly down to Rev. Hunt’s remains below. Ms. McKeown seemed mesmerized by the sight of the Jamestown leader’s bones. Who would not be? 
As a minister, I wonder if there will be any bones in the future to be mesmerized by? Evidence suggests there might not be, at least, not as many. The reason?
Perhaps because I was to conduct a memorial service within a few days of reading the article, a service with no body because the deceased woman wished to be cremated, I was reminded of how embodied this Smithsonian picture was and how rapidly disembodied our own funerary culture is becoming.
According to data gathered by the National Funeral Director’s Association and the Cremation Association of North America, the rate of cremation in 1960 was 3.56%. The rate in 2014 was 46.7% and is projected to be 70.6% by 2030. The NFDA does not comment officially about the data, but in a conversation with an NFDA public relations manager, it was confirmed to this writer what many consider to be the reason for the rise of cremation rates in the U.S.—lower cost and convenience, and changing perceptions of the rituals surrounding the handling of the dead. The pattern of these numbers is remarkable given that just 100 years ago, Americans almost universally condemned cremation.
Is there anything cautionary about the practice of cremation that should be considered by people of the Christian faith? Anecdotally, we often tell ourselves that this was not the practice of the early church because cremation was the practice of the “pagans.” For most people, that’s about as far as our knowledge of first-century funerary practices goes. And besides, we live in a different time with different priorities. What’s the big deal? The figures cited above should at least give us pause.
Read the rest of the story over at CHARIS.