Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thoughts on Cremation and Burial: A Response

I wanted to share my response to a discussion on cremation:

When the topic of cremation came up the other day, realizing that I held a contrary opinion than everyone else, and, since I was whopped tired, I thought it best to stay out of the discussion – I am learning slowly that it is often best to remain silent. Since, you wish to know my opinion regarding cremation and burial, which is not strictly mine but a tradition held  by the Church since the first century – and one can say dates back to the ancient Hebrews – I will give it. 

The early church fought vehemently against succumbing to the philosophy of the day. Yes, they adapted terminology but never full concepts and actual practices. One of the reigning philosophies was Platonism (and the subsequent Neoplatonism) which viewed the body as a cage or prison for the soul. Matter (or Creation) was seen anywhere from being a mere shadow of the real world, or essentially evil. The Church Fathers saw that this pagan philosophy could be the bane of catholic Christianity, which centered on the Incarnation of Christ. If matter (creation) was unimportant, or evil, then why would God become man, what would it mean for salvation? And there were many futile attempts at marrying Christianity with Greek philosophy, and they all denied at least one crucial tenet of Christianity. Many modern theologians have no qualms with Christ’s humanity, yet they have trouble accepting classical conceptions of Christ, viz His divine nature.  The early church struggled with those who had no problem accepting that Christ was God (or divine of some sort) but denied his humanity. The exact opposite of the problem we have today. 

The Church Fathers stressed the roll that the body plays in salvation. After all, man – the whole man, not only the soul – was created in the image and likeness of God. If this is so, the whole man is saved, not just the soul. In Christ the whole man was united to God. This is why having a correct understanding of the Incarnation is so important. Jesus was not simply God living in the shell of a human body that he controlled, like how we sit in a car and steer it, and when we no longer need it we exit, or when it exceeds its usefulness it is discarded for a new shiny one.  In the person of Christ we see the fullness of man united to God. Christ assumed (or took on) all of what makes us human persons in order to save us and heal us, “for what has not been assumed has not been healed”. If the body no longer serves a purpose after death (like a car no longer needed), then Jesus would not have risen from the dead, His disembodied soul would have floated to Heaven; the contrary, He rose from the dead with His body, albeit His resurrected body, but a body nonetheless. In Christ the body is also saved. 

The Orthodox teach that man is a “psychosomatic one”, when baptized the human person is reborn and renewed in Christ, a harmony of the nous (or the eye of the soul, the heart) and body. The Christian’s whole life becomes a journey to salvation: the deification of the whole person; and the body becomes the battleground for spiritual warfare. Misunderstandings arise from the Greek word used in the New Testament which is usually translated to flesh. The Greek word is sarx, which means carnal, or according to the self. Most Christians assume flesh means flesh, the physical body, so the body is seem as a source of evil (which is gnostic) and the body needs to be freed from it, remember Plato? Translating this concept to Christian lingo: when a person dies physically they are free from sin.  But when we read the word “flesh” in the New Testament what we should be taking from it is that the Scriptures are referring to the carnal self (the sinful man) and not strictly the physical self…this changes things. It’s not the body that causes us to sin but something else; we call this something else the passions. The passions—pride, anger, lust, etc--cause us to sin and the inner man becomes subjected to every fleeting desire or appetites of the body. These things are not sinful in themselves, but sinful when done outside the will of God.  So the body is not the source of sin. The body is neutral. 

As I said earlier, the Christian life is warfare and the body is the battleground. Our bodies can be used to sin, or to glorify God. As the Christian participates in practices and adheres to teachings of the Church, he or she will become more Christ-like; the body is set apart for Him and becomes holy. Remember the word holy means to be made whole. The person is “reconfigured”, in a sense:  we pray with the mind in the heart and the body is now in its proper place.  The whole person is holy.

So, back to burial and cremation. The Church has always respected the body. The pagans burned bodies because they did not honor and respect it. In a tradition dating back to the Hebrew patriarchs, the Church has always buried the reposed. Not just for respect, but always as a symbol for awaiting the resurrection, just as Christ was buried and resurrected. Touch your arm: we believe that it is this body, the one we have, that is the one that will be resurrected – yes, anew! There’s those jokes that pastors make that say: oh, I’m gonna be taller, or thinner, or less bald when I get my glorified body, usually meaning a brand new, shiny body, like getting a new car; and many Christians don’t even believe this, they believe we’ll be some spirit floating around on a cloud in heaven; but this is absurd and downplays the roll of the body in salvation. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit. As in baptism we are buried with Christ and are spiritually resurrected, entering into Christ and the Church, so too with burial we await the glorious resurrection -- baptism is both a sacrament and a foreshadowing for when the people of God and the cosmos are recreated. The person we are, the body-soul unity, will be resurrected and glorified. In burial we believe the body is like a seed which on the day of resurrection will sprout forth and bloom!

This is why I don’t believe in cremation.

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