It’s often fun to think about where you’d want your ashes scattered. One person I know, with a deep connection to New England, wants her ashes scattered on Cape Cod. Apparently, more and more people are not only dreaming of where their remains might mingle with the earth they’re also heading out to exotic places to make sure that loved ones are able to fulfill those dreams. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Before about 1980, just 4% of families were choosing cremation over burial. Now, 39% select cremation, and in the next 15 years, the percentage is expected to approach 60%, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The increase is being driven in part by cremation’s cheaper cost, and in part by the fact that fewer extended families are rooted in one specific place anymore—which means they don’t live close enough to visit a loved one’s gravesite.
“Religion used to hold the script of what you did with the dead,” says Tom Jokinen, who has turned his experiences as an apprentice undertaker into a memoir, “Curtains,” set for publication next month by Da Capo Press. “Cremation has handed the power back to the people to do what they want with the remains of their loved ones.”
Choosing to scatter the ashes, rather than preserve them in an urn or bury them in a cemetery, is also becoming more popular. The Cremation Association’s surveys indicate that about 135,000 families are now choosing to scatter ashes each year. Since the average body yields five pounds in cremated remains, that means some 338 tons of human ashes are spread around annually.
I have no problem with cremation, per se, or even scattering. However, when Christians pursue these trends, it goes against the traditional teachings of the church. And there’s a reason why the church has either opposed or preferred not to cremate its members.
First, cremation is destruction of the body—the body that God breathed life into and which was made in the image of God. Reference for the sacredness of the body led Christians not only to oppose cremation but also to oppose embalming and to gently wash the body of family members who have died.
Second, a belief in the resurrection of the body—indeed the very bodies we know “inhabit”—led Christians to seek to keep those bodies intact. Christians created cemeteries—in Latin, sleeping places—for those who had “fallen asleep in Christ.” Fully expecting these bodies to be resurrected when Jesus returns to this earth, Christians who died were simply awaiting that day. Burial was a witness to that belief.
Timothy George writes in Christianity Today, “Whether final disposition is by burial or cremation, the Christian church should offer a funeral liturgy in which the reality of death is not camouflaged, and the resurrection of the body is affirmed. We solemnize the departure of our loved ones by reminding ourselves that we brought nothing into this world, and that we can carry nothing out. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ “
Personally, I love walking through an old cemetery where the tombstones say something to the effect of: “here I lie until the Last Day.” Cremation, of course, isn’t a rejection of this. In fact, crematoria in many churches allow those “asleep in Christ” to await the Second Coming in a garden or other space next to the church. However, scattering does suggest a belief in the idea that our souls will somehow unite with the places in which our ashes are scattered. This, certainly, is not a Christian idea. “Religion” may not hold the script for what we do with our dead, but faith sure does. I’m pretty happy with a faith that offers hope in the life of the world to come.