To Bury or to Burn, Part 1: The Decline of Christian Burial and the Rise of the Practice of Cremation

To Bury or to Burn, Part 1: The Decline of Christian Burial and the Rise of the Practice of Cremation

cremate. (v.) to dispose of a dead person’s body by burning it into ashes

Why hide Reason’s, or Affection’s eyes? The grave pollutes, the furnace purifies.
-THE URN (1895)

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. And we should at least consider that there is a remarkable shift in the ways in which Americans approach the 'disposal' of a deceased body. In my next post, I will consider more specifically Jewish burial practices in the first century and their influence on Christian burial and will later attempt to develop a biblical theology of burial. In the meantime, I close with a reflection by Boston University's Professor Stephen Prothero from his book, Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in AmericaThe quote is a reminder of the way things have been. The question is, will they continue to be?

What Americans usually do is bury. To be more specific, they call the funeral director, who arrives promptly and respectfully and in all likelihood at the hospital, where the vast majority of contemporary deaths occur. He (or she - the female ranks are swelling in the dismal trade) bags the body; drives it to the funeral home; cleans it; embalms it; dresses it; does its hair; daubs makeup on its face, neck, and hands; and places it in an appropriate casket.

At the visitation that follows, the body (now beautified via embalming) will in all likelihood be displayed in the funeral home's "slumber room." If the casket is open, those who have come to pay their respects may feel obliged to say the deceased appears to be sleeping peacefully. Typically a funeral service follows, at either a religious site or the funeral home. Prayers are spoken, scripture is read, music is sung, and the priest, minister, rabbi, or other officiant delivers a short, uplifting homily.

The body is then transported to the memorial park by hearse, followed by a line of cars whose headlights have been turned on. At the grave site workers will have prepared the soil with a backhoe, covered the broken earth with artificial turf, and placed the casket next to the grave. But when the funeral cortege arrives, there are no workers to be seen. A short graveside committal service follows: "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Laborers then lower the casket into the ground, typically with the feet pointing east. Friends and family may awkwardly sprinkle some soil into the grave before departing for food and drink at the home of the bereaved or at a favorite restaurant, but the bulk of the remaining labor is left to memorial park workers, who plant sod after filling the grave. In the months and years that follow, family members may be contacted by a "grief counselor" representing the funeral director. They may return to the cemetery to pray, to cry, to leave flowers, and to have a word with the departed. Or they may not, which would not be at all improper, since in the United States the care due the dead typically ceases the moment the corpse is committed to the earth. Such is the most common American way of death.

But there is now an alternative: the American way of cremation.

We will consider more about this "new alternative" in my next post.

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