There’s something inexplicably profound about the dead, buried body, even as it decays to bones and dust. It reminds man of his morality, while suggesting, via the tension of a corpse that looks and feels like a loved one — but is no longer fully our loved one — something transcendent about the human condition. In the graveyard scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the gravediggers jest over the bones of the deceased until Hamlet appears, and looking at one skull, famously laments, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio…” After Christ’s death, women weep over His soulless body and seek to honor it with spices and fresh linens.
Ever since, Christians have honored the dead bodies of their saints. We should honor our dead bodies, too.
Christians have good reasons for such practices, as Scott Hahn and Emily Stimpson Chapman note in their recently published Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body. Most essentially, man is made in the image of God precisely by being an intellective soul and body — not simply a body with a sensitive soul, like the other animals, nor pure, immaterial soul, like the angels. And, as Genesis 1:31 tells us, this flesh-soul being was good, something sin could taint, but not erase.
The Incarnation validated and elevated the goodness of the body. The Word took on flesh through the pure vessel of Mary. As early Christians declared in their rebuke of the anti-materialist Gnostics, how could the flesh be evil, when God deigned to take it upon Himself? Through the Incarnation, God made possible that human flesh be united to divinity, both through Christ Himself, but also, by extension, by us being united to Christ.
When Jesus died and rose from the dead, he appeared not as a bodiless apparition, but as a glorified man. “Put your finger here,” Jesus says to Thomas when he appears to Him. “…See my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). Jesus conquers death in the body. The earliest Christians took this message to heart, recognizing their own eternal destiny wrapped up in that same reality. St. John declares: “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). St. Paul asserts: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49).
The sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, are the means of experiencing this union to Christ’s resurrected body. Indeed, as the priest declares in the epiclesis, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. There we commune with Christ not only spiritually, but with his mystical body. Hahn explains: “transubstantiation, in effect, is a kind of nuclear fusion. It sets into motion a process that will create something entirely new: a new us.” Pace forms of Christian teaching and spirituality that over-spiritualize heaven at the expense of its physicality, when our bodies are resurrected on the last day, they will be united to Christ’s, like Christ’s.
This conception of the human body was in remarkable conflict with those of the ancient world. Pagans sought to gratify their bodily urges in the most gluttonous, lustful ways, but that was because they didn’t think their bodies mattered. The human body possessed a youthful, ephemeral perfection, and after that beauty faded—and especially after death—its putrid, disgusting decay was to be kept at a safe social distance. This is why so many pagan peoples burned their dead bodies. One can imagine funeral participants thinking, as they watched the corpse turn to ash “you won’t be needing that where you’re going!”
The Christian “obsession” with dead bodies struck many ancient peoples, and certainly the Romans, as bizarre and disgusting. The Christians honor their dead, visit their graves, keep their bones, and even venerate and kiss them! Yet such religious devotions stemmed directly from the Christian understanding of the resurrection, which communicated such a high regard for the human body, even the dead body, which would someday rise and be made anew. Sometimes it took a lot to convince converted pagan to abandon their funeral pyres; Charlemagne, the converted first Holy Roman Emperor, made cremation a capital offense!
Yet, as Hahn notes, after Charlemagne’s empire, “no other European country or power explicitly banned or permitted cremation. They didn’t need to. Nobody wanted to be cremated.” So Christendom stood for a millennia. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that various groups—“French radicals and Italian freemason, German Socialists, and Russian Bolseviks, English doctors and American civil engineers”—began reviving interest in cremation. Many of these cremation advocates were atheists and explicitly anti-Christian. As historian Thomas Laqueur explains: “Cremation was meant to strike a blow at a millennium-old community of the dead buried in sacred ground and to offer a historically based alternative.”
Some argued for cremation on public sanitation grounds. Corpses, they argued, polluted water supplies and released poisonous gases into the air. Later, in the twentieth century, they employed ecological arguments—that the earth didn’t have sufficient space to host humanity’s dead. Burying the dead also increasingly became expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Finally, globalization encourages the spread of cremation, as other religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism) typically burn their dead. The effect of these forces is startling: in 1905, 99.9 percent of Brits were buried. In 2017, about 77 percent were cremated.
The Church’s perspective on cremation has always been a begrudging permission. Marcus Minucius Felix, a third century Christian apologist, wrote: “We do not fear loss from cremation even though we adopt the ancient and better custom of burial.” Pope Boniface in 1300 in turn reaffirmed that cremation was for witches and heretics, not faithful Christians. This was enshrined as the discipline of the Church in the 1886 Catholic Code of Canon Law, which reads: “The bodies of the faithful must be buried, their cremation is forbidden.” The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia explained that cremation was a “public profession of irreligion and materialism.”
None of this, however, amounted to a formal doctrinal censuring of cremation. Which is why Pope Paul VI could legitimately lift the cremation ban in his 1963 Piam et Constantem. As Hahn explains, the apostolic instruction was a compromise to increasing numbers of Christians who requested the Church allow cremation “for reasons of health, economics, or other reasons involving private or public order.” Even here, however, burial remained normative, the instruction reading: “all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently buring the faithful departed.” Only “when forced to do so by necessity” should Christians do otherwise.
Further Church documents have reiterated Paul VI’s begrudging allowance of cremation. The 1983 revised Code of Canon Law explains that “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained,” even if “it does not however forbid cremation.” Hahn cites Catholic writer Patricia Snow, who observes that the Church “urges, strongly prefers, and earnestly recommends that Catholics continue the reverent and unbroken (piam et constantem) practice of burying the bodies of the faithful dead.” Indeed, after Snow wrote this, the Vatican in 2016 issued another document “insistently” recommending burial as “above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.”
The Church doesn’t approve of cremation; it permits it. Yet, similar to the Church’s teaching on sexuality that so many view as rigid and uncompromising, the harder road is more beautiful, more human, and more glorious. Christian burial preaches the resurrection, the transformation and glorification of the human body. Says Hahn:
Cremation teaches people lessons about the body that are directly contrary to what the Church actually believes. It teaches that the body is disposable. It teaches that the body is not an integral part of the human person. And it teaches that the body has no value once the soul is gone — that body has run its course, and there will be nothing more for it. No resurrection. No transformation. No glorification.
Yes, devout Catholics can, in good conscience, be cremated. Perhaps in some cases this is prudent or necessary. But I’m with Hahn. When I die, I want my death to be a flagrant message affirming the everlasting, bodily life Christ has purchased for all of us. As the hymn says:
Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign
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