Getting Rid of the Body

As any devoted fan of gangster shows like The Sopranos can tell you, one of the biggest problems for the killer is how to get rid of the body. What to do? Dump it in the river? Bury it out in the country? Burn it in a furnace? 

We have a similar problem in contemporary American society. What to do with the bodies of our dead? Increasingly, the cry of Oswald in King Lear: “Bury my body!” is heard less and less, and the alternative option “Burn, baby, burn,” is heard more and more. The cremation rate in the United States has been increasing steadily over the past ten years, with the national average rate rising from roughly 24 percent in 1998 to 37 percent in 2009. In some states, such as Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and California, classic locations for the retired, the rates are well over 50 percent.

What does this cultural shift betoken? For one thing, funerals, like weddings, have become too expensive. But this problem is only a symptom of a deeper pathology. Why have funerals and weddings become prohibitively expensive? What do we say about a culture that has forgotten how to do basic things like get married and buried? Except that it has forgotten the things that really matter and lives with the illusion that money and technology can solve everything.

But there may be something else at work as well. You can tell a lot about a society — about how it views life — by how it approaches death. So, for example, cremation makes perfect sense in many Eastern cultures, because they believe the body is merely a shell. Burning the body is an appropriately symbolic act of ushering the person into the next life: of preparing the “real person” within for his or her journey to another incarnation, or perhaps to nirvana. If you believe that our bodily divisions are all illusory, that the goal of life is to overcome them and to discover our fundamental unity within the fabric of the universe, then cremation makes sense. 

Christians, however, have a very different view. They believe in the goodness of creation, in the Incarnation of our Lord, and in the resurrection of the body. For them, cremation makes no sense; the symbolism is all wrong. Why obliterate something that will be glorified? It would be like being given an old Giotto or Titian or El Greco in need of some skilled renovation, and burning it instead. Now if you thought that those great artists were symbols of an abusive culture, something akin to the art of the Nazis, then you might be happy to burn it. But if you thought: “This is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received,” burning makes no sense.

[Photo by Phil Bess: Graveyard in Cooperstown, New York]

Let me say immediately, to avoid confusion, that the Church does allow cremation, but she does not encourage it. The Church allows cremation for the same reason there should be no real problem pastorally for the families of those who are lost in a fire or killed by a bomb: God knows where every particle of your being is. God can reconstitute you from the far ends of the galaxy if need be. Metaphysically, cremation is not a problem. But in terms of what it communicates culturally, its increasing popularity is troubling.

That increased popularity is of a piece with our inability to deal with the unavoidable human reality of death. There was a time not so long ago when every teenager in America would have seen death: in the barnyard, in a war, at the bedside of a relative who died at home. Now almost no one has been forced to look into the eyes of death. We suffer from what the philosopher Martin Heidegger once described as “the forgetfulness of death.”

Cremation in our society is, I fear, not an affirmation, as it may be in certain Eastern cultures, but a negation. It isn’t an affirmation of the life after death, but merely a denial of death itself: an attempt to put it as far away from us as possible. Cremation is the preferred choice of a culture of nihilism. It is the cultural embodiment of our disembodiment. It is society’s way of saying: we are nothing; life is essentially meaningless; so it is appropriate that, at the end, we be obliterated. Isn’t that often what we’re communicating with our cultural practice of cremation?

Think about how much different it would be if instead of “funeral homes” (the furthest thing from “home” one can imagine), wakes were carried out in actual homes or churches. What if, instead of all the expensive folderol, parishioners were laid out in their own parishes and then buried in the church yard? Think about the difference churches could make in the lives of their parishioners if they took over the crushing burden of funerals and guided them into a simple burial. Think about what it would teach the congregation each Sunday to walk up to the church past the bodies of the dead buried in the churchyard, rather than in some huge industrial field miles away? Would it perhaps remind them of important things they would prefer to forget, but at their own peril? 

Churches should once again become the burial places of our beloved dead so that, as T. S. Eliot suggests in “The Dry Salvages,” they may once again help nourish:  
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.

A forgetfulness of death is not an affirmation of life; indeed, it’s more often the opposite. A culture that has forgotten how to deal with the inevitable reality of death is a culture that has forgotten how to live.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.