Tuesday, September 15, 2015

To bury or to burn? The decline of Christian burial and the rise of cremation (Part 2)

My latest article for CHARIS is up. Here's a taste:
Is there anything cautionary about the practice of cremation that should be considered by people of the Christian faith? This was the question I asked in my previous post. With the projected incidence of cremation in the United States to reach 70.6 percent by 2030 (according to the National Funeral Director’s Association and the Cremation Association of North America) it is a question with some weight behind it. Consider whether you have ever heard a dialogue on this issue in your local Christian community and you’ll likely conclude, as I have, that the topic (cremation vs. burial) is virtually ignored in most American churches.

Though the death of a human being raises a host of questions (Do I get an inheritance? Why didn’t he eat better? Is there really a heaven?) the simplest is: what to do with a dead body? Cremation is one answer.

Cremation is referred to in the Old Testament by the phrase “burning the bones of” (1 Kings 13:2; 2 Kings 23:16, 20; Amos 2:1). In ancient Israel, death by burning was often reserved as a punishment for criminals (Gen 38:24; Josh 7:15, 25; Lev 20:14; 21:9). Death by burning and cremation were both stigmatized as abhorrent by the Israelites. Because burning human bones was considered to be the ultimate desecration of the dead (1 Kings 13:2; 2 Kings 23:16, 20), it was subject to punishment by God (Amos 2:1).

Only three notable ancient civilizations did not practice cremation: Egypt, China, and Judea. The ancient Greeks cremated bodies after a plague or battle for sanitary reasons or to prevent their enemies from mutilating the dead. A similar attitude was found among the Israelites and perhaps explains why the dead bodies of Saul and his sons were burned (1 Sam 31:12; 2 Sam 21:11–14). It is possible that Saul’s cremation also reflected God’s rejection of his ignominious reign. When Amos (6:9–10) described the burning of bodies after battle, evidently for sanitary reasons, he intended to depict the horrors faced by victims of war.

Jews of the Second Temple period buried their dead promptly, as soon as possible after death and almost always on the same day. Preparations began at the moment of death: the eyes of the deceased were closed, the corpse was washed with perfumes and ointments (Acts 9:37), its bodily orifices were stopped and strips of cloth were wound tightly around the body—binding the jaw closed, the feet together and the hands to the sides of the body (Jn 11:44). The corpse was then placed on a bier and carried in a procession to the family tomb (Lk 7:12). Eulogies were spoken, and the corpse was placed inside the tomb, along with items of jewelry or other personal effects. The funeral was thus conducted without delay, and most bodies were interred by sunset on the day of death. But Jewish burial rituals did not conclude with this first, or primary, burial. A year after the death, members of the immediate family returned to the tomb for a private ceremony in which the bones were reburied after the body had decayed.

By far the most common Jewish burial technique in Palestine during the Second Temple period was secondary burial in limestone chests known as ossuaries, the reburial of human bones after the flesh had decayed. It was a practice inherited from ancient Israel. The New Testament texts reflect the Jewish belief that corpses were unclean and impure, thus to be avoided and not be touched (e.g., Mt 23:27–28; Lk 10:31–32; 11:44). Many Jews during the Second Temple period expected that the dead would be raised bodily on the last day. Secondary burial in ossuaries, a burial technique that preserved the individual identity of the deceased, may have been at least partially motivated by this belief.

Early Christians were hesitant to practice cremation because of their understanding that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) yet recognized that cremation has no effect on the integrity of one’s eternal state (Rev 20:13). Nonetheless, belief in the resurrection of the body made cremation often repugnant to the early Christians, whose use of burial is attested by, for example, the evidence of the catacombs at Rome..
Read the rest of the story over at CHARIS.