The ‘Tomb Experience’ Matters

The practice of cremation clashes with many elements of Christian tradition

I’ve regularly criticized the contemporary Church’s generous toleration of cremation. I’ve voiced many reasons why this indulgence of cremation is wrongheaded, but one reason that I think gets too little attention is the symbolic confusion that cremation generates.

Man is a symbolic creature, one who is prone to see, recognize, and be influenced by natural symbols and their meaning. Catholicism has always understood this, both in its liturgy and — more importantly — in its sacramentally grounded life. The sacraments, after all, are “signs” that point beyond themselves to deeper meanings, and they are central to Catholic life.

That is why I would argue that, in this Lenten-Easter time, we fail to extract the full symbolic meaning of the “tomb experience.” When the Church says it prefers earth burial over cremation, in imitation of Christ, it’s not just “He did it so maybe you should, too.” We need to think deeper than that.

Israel did not cremate because it regarded cremation as profaning the body — and that was before Jesus spoke (as He did in the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent this year) about “the temple of His Body” or St. Paul spoke of our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit. Because the body had to be respected, and its profanation was a curse, it is reasonable to hold that the Jewish leaders wanted the bodies off the crosses that first Good Friday not just because of the imminent Passover but because leaving the bodies there was scandalous and Biblically forbidden. So, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus, “the man who came to Jesus at night” (Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent), come to bury Jesus. And, in roughly two weeks, we will speak of the empty tomb.

Burying something is a sign of respect, a sign that even what remains has value. Burning something is to destroy it. It’s a sign that what is burned no longer has value and, in fact, is corrupt and needs to be destroyed. But in the West, incineration of corpses (apart from voluntary cremation) rather than their burial was never practiced except in epidemic times.

As I have often said succinctly: We bury what is valuable (which is why we speak of “buried treasure”). We incinerate what is trash.

I raise the question of “cognitive confusion over cremation” because, hearing Sunday’s Gospel, it became clearer to me just how dissonant cremation is not just with the Catholic and Western practice but with the Christian story itself.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus spoke of the necessity of the seed dying in the ground. “Unless the grain of wheat fall into the earth and die” it cannot produce a harvest. We should draw two conclusions from Jesus’ allusion. First, the seed is valuable. It has a further destiny. It will produce a harvest. Second, that seed can only produce that harvest by being entombed in the earth. The seed has to be buried. Jesus’ reference would make no sense if the seed was burned. Jesus makes agricultural allusions to fire, too. Take the Parable of the Weeds and Wheat, particularly what happens after the seed is buried in the ground, dies, and produces a harvest. Our Lord refers to the act of harvesting. Because wheat and tares have grown together, there is a separation: the wheat goes to the barn, the weeds are bundled to be burned. But there is even a separation involving the wheat. Our Lord also speaks of the thresher who, with winnowing fork, separates wheat from chaff, the valuable from the waste. And, again, what happens to the waste? It is burned up “with unquenchable fire.”

From a New Testament perspective, therefore, what is valuable goes into the ground and comes out of the ground. (That’s where the man finds a buried treasure in the field. That’s where the lazy servant protects his talent). What is waste is destroyed, specifically, burned.

Note that focus on burning. Although He is solicitous of the world whose beauty was created “through Him and for Him,” although He is sensitive to the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field, Jesus does not speak of collecting the chaff and composting it. He doesn’t suggest the weeds be put to some biodegradable purpose. Yes, I understand the stark eschatological purpose in the contrast Jesus draws, but there remains a point here: what is essentially waste is burned.

Is it not perverse that some Christians today now treat the body that has been the Temple of the Holy Spirit, baptized and nourished by the Body of Christ, as at worst a waste product to be destroyed or, at best, some biomass to be “recomposted”? Perhaps we don’t want to call the corpse a waste product, but our actions make clear it certainly is not valuable enough to be preserved from a cheaper form of disposal. And we’ve already seen one bishop opine that recomposting might not be bad.

A whole series of motifs in the Johannine Gospel readings for this year’s Lenten Sunday Gospels has potential application to the cremation problem, such as the body as “temple.” Nicodemus, whose ultimate defining feature in the Gospel is his brave corporeal act of mercy: in the light of day, burying the body of Jesus whom the Jews branded a blasphemer and the Gentiles a possible insurrectionist. Jesus is the grain of wheat that has to fall into the earth because He has a further purpose.

This conflict of what Christianity says and how it says it with modern cremation is not my discovery. More than 25 years ago, two Protestant writers — Peter Jupp and Tony Rogers, men who actually support cremation — wrote that the praxis of cremation clashes with many elements of Christian tradition, including its parables, allusions, and narratives. In Interpreting Death: Christian Theology and Pastoral Practice (Geof. Chapman, 1997) Jupp and Rogers — writing primarily for British Anglicans — stressed that church’s rites, practices, and theology were not adapted to the rituals, practices, and understanding of cremation, especially in the forms they’d taken in modern society. Those two worldviews grate. Church officials, they say, have taken the easy road, simply tolerating the grating, one funeral at a time, without grappling with the scraping going on. As I said, Jupp and Rogers support cremation, so they are willing at least to try to rewrite the Christian tradition to accommodate it.

I think it’s a vain effort. At best you’ll produce an ersatz, watered down anthropology and theology, rooted in ambiguity and equivocation, in order for the church (again) to accommodate the Zeitgeist. I remain far more aligned with the questions French writer Damien Le Guay posed in his 2012 book, La mort en cendres. La cremation aujourd’hui: que faut-il en penser? [Death in Ashes: Cremation Today—What Should We Think about It?, Cerf, 2012). Writing about a once culturally Catholic France, Le Guay is astonished at the broad acceptance of cremation absent any disciplined religious reflection on what are the long-term religious and cultural implications of that shift. In an earlier work (Qu’avons-nous perdu en perdant la mort? [What Have We Lost in Losing Death?, Cerf, 2003), Le Guay amalgamates cremation to broader cultural trends that conceal death. Funerals are often no longer contemporaneous with death. An urn of ashes replaces a body. Wakes are minimal-to-nonexistent. Periods of mourning are nominal and largely privatized, mostly observed by the immediate relatives whom we salute as “dealing so well” with the death by hiding it and their grief.

Do we really believe that Jesus Christ chose to be incarnate in a given place and time as merely a spatio-historical happenstance rather than in “the fullness of time?” And, if the latter, then are not the great details of his life not just perhaps socio-cultural accidents but providentially relevant revelations of true human living (and dying)? Like the “tomb experience”?


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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