The Dignity of Death

Lutheran pastor friends of mine have often spoken against cremation.  I’m not in favor of it myself, and think it should at least be discouraged.

But a point is raised over at First Things that I have often pondered, but never in exactly this way.  I think it is worthy of more discussion.  Peter Lawler asks

Also creepy, of course, are 20th century funeral practices–embalming, open caskets and all that. Surely it somehow also shows a lack of faith in God’s particular providence to chemically fend off biological decay.

Embalming has its origins in customs every bit as pagan as cremation.  Yet for some reason, these customs have been adopted almost uncritically by Christians, while cremation is still seen as a problem.

Is embalming bad?  I suppose the one advantage is that, if you aren’t dead before, you are certainly dead after – no chance of being buried alive.  But the idea of draining the blood, filling the body with chemicals designed to interfere with the word of God itself (to dust you shall return), along with viewing a dead body made up to look alive – you don’t want to know the things they have to sew in place for that to happen – is all quite goulish when you think about it.

Which is, of course, why the Christian tradition is that the casket be closed.  No one really needs to see the dead body “for closure”. (Whatever that means)  That’s pop-psychobabble foolishness.   We may as well say it is to help our self-esteem.  It makes just as much sense and has just as much scientific evidence behind it.

So, should the church fight against the current funeral customs and say, “go naturally – buried without embalming or exhibitionism.”  The embalming only serves to protect the body for a viewing, which is not a Christian rite in any way.  how much money could be saved, how much false doctrine avoided is we let the people see death as it is.

All of this talk of death reminds me of the Woody Allen quote : I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.



7 Responses to “The Dignity of Death”

  1. Talk to the funeral directors about their policies. Its very interesting. One of the local guys has done a no-embalming funeral 7 days after the death. They required the body to be double-bagged and to be in a sealing casket. He said they had some past uncomfortable experiences explaining the stench.

    He didn’t have any problem with a 72 hour no-embalming funeral given that it was closed and the body bagged. Your mileage may vary.

  2. Rev Mathew Andersen Says:

    The original reason for burial instead of cremation, at least in the early Church in Rome, the Christians were making the statement that they would be using the body again at the resurrection (albeit glorified). This was in stark contrast to many of the philosophies of the day which generally saw the body as evil and sought eventual release from the body in some kind of spiritual “ascension” similar to the new age today. So while most Romans cremated, the Christians buried.

    Today, however, the maudlin, sentimentalized idolization of the body has reached the point where we struggle more against the Egyptian view that somehow a person is still alive as long as the body exists or some memorial to them stands, rather than the Greek/Roman view. (Oh how I cringe when I here the pop-phrase “as long as we remember them they are still with us”) Even with non-embalming burial, you still have people who would go to the grave site once a week to “visit mother.” To me this is far creepier than the embalming etc. Even with a non-embalmed burial you still have the cemetery regulations which normally require sealed casket and cement vault so that even then decay hardly occurs in a natural manner.

    For this reason I do not discourage those who wish cremation and have chosen it for myself.

  3. Rev Mathew Andersen Says:

    Oh – I forgot the main reason why I would opt for cremation.


    To me those horrible plastic/cloth flowers sticking out of the snow in the middle of January are the absolutely creepiest thing about modern burial customs.

  4. Rev Anderson some people don’t have to go to the grave side to “be with mother” I know someone who keeps the urn of his wife in the bedroom.

    On another topic; My sister wants to be cremated and buried in a flower pot.

    I know someone who wants to have her ashes spread on her farm.

    What is the philosophy of that (spreading you ashes in this place or the other)?

    BTW I don’t care one way of the other as far as bury or cremate.


  5. Rev Mathew Andersen Says:

    Well I would certainly discourage keeping the urn. If the person desired to cremate a loved one in order to “keep them close” then I would make certainly counsel against cremation. In my experience, however, that tends to be an exceptional situation. The only time I’ve actually seen anyone keep the urn was when it was a pet that was cremated. Most people feel rather uncomfortable keeping the cremains any longer than necessary.

    Generally, the ones who want to have the cremains spread in a certain place are expressing a wish that the body be allowed to do what God said would happen once death entered the world, return to dust. For the most part I don’t find those who want to be “spread” in a certain place to be less concerned about the actual location – they usually choose one they are fond of just to have someplace to tell their family to put the cremains so that the family doesn’t have to make a decision. So, again, that usually is not a big deal unless the attachment to the place borders on idolatry.

  6. Rev Mathew Andersen Says:

    Sigh – no editing functions once posted

    That should have read:

    “For the most part I don’t find those who want to be ‘spread’ in a certain place to be especially concerned about the actual location”

  7. This is a very interesting topic. May I ask a few questions, of Pastors?
    Our mortal “husks” take, what my Dad called “his dirt-nap”. Falling asleep, temporarily=nap, in well, the dirt, hence what he called his “dirtnap”. Embalming, does not prevent “from dust to dust, ashes to ashes” it just delays it a while. My Dad planned his, and per the info from the F.H., he opted for the basic package: closed, nothing else but embalming. There is a reason Muslims & Orthodox Jews, have the 24hr rule. No defiling of a body. Law absent of Gospel for Jews, and well…the other.
    So here are my questions,
    Why do we not talk or explain this in sermons?
    We teach children of Christ to live as children of Christ, but not how to die as one (assuming you recieve an advanced ticket) or encourage members to have a written arrangement “plan”, for our Pastors & family?
    We don’t really tend to cover, the napping aspect, our bodies fall asleep, we don’t “die”, death of the human husk is different than death referred to in Scripture, why do we avoid discussing the difference or teaching the differences, death of the husk does happen to us all?
    Death, of our mortal understanding, is rather muddled -Christian & pagan rites merged, and are an uncomfortable subject, but rather vital to know, isn’t it?
    So, as Pastors, what would you all do if you could & what would you preach to your Congregations, if you could?
    Death comes to us all, but Life, in Christ, only to some, so what would you all have us know, learn, or understand of this?

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