Sunday, November 25, 2007

Relics, Cremation and Organ Donation, Part 2

Pagans like fire.

I can hardly blame them. Among earthly things, fire is significant. It creates, destroys, warms, burns, breathes, lives, and dies. Its connection to the spiritual is apparent.

God appeared to Moses as a Burning Bush. The Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire upon the Apostles’ and Mary’s heads. Christians like fire too. Neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians would consider a liturgy without candles.

But Pagans sometimes worship fire and burn the dead. That’s where our similarity ends.

The practice of cremation has been widely adopted in contemporary times among Christians. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks tersely of the issue: “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (CCC, 2300).

Not so in the early Church. From the earliest times, Christians buried their dead, in continuity with the Jewish practice. At first, this distinguished them from the practices prevailing in the larger Greco-Roman culture, although later a general cultural shift toward burial of the dead would take place. The practice of cremation was repugnant to Christians 1) because it was common among the pagans, and 2) because it appeared defiant of the Christian belief in the incarnation of God and the resurrection of the body.

During the Roman persecution of Christians, cremation of the martyrs was sometimes used as an official public mockery of these Christian beliefs.

That provision given in the Catechism ("provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body") is necessary, for it can certainly seem to so deny.

I’ll not be burning any of my relatives’ bodies nor requesting such for my own.


Dusty M Brahlek said...

Though I will not be cremating any of my loved ones, it does seem that some cultures would have a need for it. Unless the dead are shipped off to other countries, small counties will many people and a small amount of land may not be able to afford the ground space needed for burial, even above ground. I am glad I do not live in such a place.

Also with cremation… how would Catholics be able to go back and obtain the bones of a saint…?

dave said...

I used to be disturbingly rational about burial. I can remember talking with the Days back at Wabash and explaining that I could see no use in any kind of funerary practice. The easier and less costly, the better, I thought--they kindly disagreed but thought me quite naive.

I am very fortunate in that I can still approach the topic from a mainly intellectual perspective since I have never had to bury someone close to me. But I can now see the importance of symbolic action in acknowledging beliefs which otherwise we could only express in words.

Anonymous said...


Great blog-- thanks for adding me to your blogroll. I'll you to mine as well.

Excellent entry, too, on a very important topic. Many Christians have a disturbingly Gnostic view of the body as being unimportant. Have we forgotten that our bodies will live again?

While I know that God can do anything-- including resurrecting a body that has been turned to dust and ash-- I agree that Christians should reject cremation and insist on being buried.

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