Ashes to Ashes: Dying on the Cheap (Part 2)


Biblical Meditations, Church Life, Theology / Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Read Part 1 to catch up but here are two more reasons why I intend to be buried rather than cremated unless providentially hindered. Cremation is no cardinal sin but we should allow Scripture to define how we live and die.

2.  In Scripture, the burning of the body was an expression of disgrace toward the person who died.  Though not without possible exception (see 1 Sam 31.12), the burning of a body–either alive or after being stoned to death–was a sign of desecration.  It was a declaration of shame (cf. Gen 3.24; Lev 20.14;  21.9; Num 16.35; Josh 7.15-25; Judg 15.6; Jer 29.22; Amos 2.1).  In burning the body the victors were essentially stripping the subject of personhood, erasing all traces of them from history.  In burning the body they were making a statement about the person’s soul. Even inanimate idols were to be burned as an expression of the people’s hatred toward them (cf. Exod 32.20; Dt 7.25; 2 Kgs 10.26).

The general scope of Scripture suggests burning as an expression of disgust toward that which is burned.  It is public display of shame and disgrace.  That said, we cannot hold God to that same standard.  When, in his wise providence, he allows one of his sons to be incinerated by bomb he is not shaming his child. Although, we should cry out against the wages of sin and the sting of death while retreating to Christ who will put the world to rights soon enough.

Not everyone views cremation as dramatically as ceremonial shaming.  In fact, everyone I know considers cremation a way to relieve a family of expensive burial expenses.  However, the church must uphold the value of the body as a testimony to her hope in the resurrection.  Part of that commitment is to ensure everyone who can be buried should be with all the dignity afforded an image-bearer of God.

Overgrown churchyards (cemeteries) slink into forgotten shadows while modern churches manicure their landscapes and gardens.  Churches with resources to build sprawling lakefront campuses, botanical gardens and sports fields might consider devoting a chunk of acreage to a cemetery.  It’s important we play well together but far more important we die well together.  The church of Jesus Christ cares infinitely more about epitaphs and souls than RBIs and goals.  We tell the world that we live and die as a community of faith in Christ.  Jesus died and was buried alone so that we won’t be alone in our death.

It is in the churchyard where elegies resound in the shadow of a Godward steeple. Our eyes are drawn upward as we place fresh flowers on graves.  We are reminded the cemetery is not where Christians go to die.  It’s where they go to sleep under the care of their God who never sleeps or slumbers (Ps 121.4).  He will keep their soul (Ps 121.7b) until the Dawn breaks.

No, I don’t want to be treated  like God’s enemies were treated.  Remember, how you treat my dead body is a part of how you treat me (see Part 1).  I don’t want to be burned to ashes and thereby join the ranks of liars, adulterers and idols who were so treated.  I want to die a churchman and raised with my brothers and sisters in glory.

3.  Burning of the body is how hell is described.  God describes hell as the “lake of fire” (Rev 19.20; 20.10, 14, 15) and all who go there suffer nth-degree burns for eternity (Lk 16.24).  He will one day raise the bodies of the unregenerate and prepare those bodies unable to die again despite enduring eternal, fatal punishment (Is 66.24).

God’s wrath is often personified as a consuming fire (Dt 9.3; Is 29.6; 30.27, 30; 33.14; 66.15; Heb 12.29; Dan 7.9).  Fire is also used to describe God’s favor, power or glory (Is 4.5, for example), but in such cases the fire is to purify, not consume.  God’s fierce anger toward his enemies is that of a consuming fire, complete judgment of both body and soul.

I want to be buried because I don’t want my body to be treated like the bodies of those in hell are treated.  Even in my dying I don’t want to give hell any “props.”  I don’t want to credit what is the eternal destination of unredeemed sinners with being a cost-saving measure in this life.  If I’m to return to ashes then it will be by God’s hand and according to his timing.  As in life, so in death.  Jesus bought me, body and soul, with a price and therefore let us “glorify God in [our] body” (1 Cor 6.20).

Take up thy cross, then, in his strength,
And calmly sin’s wild deluge brave;
‘Twill guide thee to a better home,
It points to glory o’er the grave.

Read Part 3.

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