31 July 2007

Burying the Bodies of the Dead in the Hope of the Resurrection

Commemorations this week and next present a compelling argument in favor of burial and against the now common practice (even among Christians) of cremation. That occured to me this evening, as I prayed and confessed the daily catechesis with my family, in a way that I have surprisingly never considered before. It's not my intention to burden the consciences of those whose loved ones have been cremated, but I believe this is a matter of importance, and that Christians have not been guided altogether wisely about this in recent decades.

Today is the commemoration of St. Joseph of Arimathea. He was a respected member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and presumably a wealthy man, but he was waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God. In that faith, hope and love, he was bold enough to request the body of Jesus following the Crucifixion, and along with Nicodemus he removed that holy body from the Cross and placed it in his own tomb. There is that beautiful scene, depicted in various works of art, of the Lord being taken from the Cross and received into the arms of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had once cradled Him to her breast as an infant. It was surely with no less piety and tender devotion that St. Joseph did his part in handling the Lord's body and laying it to rest in the belly of the earth, whence it would rise all-glorious on the Third Day.

The funeral rites of the Church confess the creation, redemption and sanctification of the departed Christian's body by the Holy Triune God; and furthermore, that the Lord Jesus Christ has hallowed the graves of His dear saints by His own Sabbath rest in the tomb. The body matters, ultimately because His body matters. Indeed, it is in and with His body that He has accomplished our salvation, by His incarnate life, death, resurrection and ascension. As His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin has sanctified the pre-natal life of our children, so has His burial sanctified the tombs of our blessed dead.

The Christian soul has no life or salvation apart from the body, but receives the grace of God in Christ precisely in and with the body. The ears receive the proclamation of the external Word of the Gospel. The body is washed with water comprehended by the command and promise of God, in His Name, such that soul and conscience are thereby cleansed by Christ and His Spirit. Man, who was created in the image of God, both body and soul, is recreated in the image of Christ, the incarnate Son, who is both God and Man. The child of God, therefore, is fed unto life and salvation by the body and blood of Christ Jesus, in faithful expectation of the resurrection of the body.

The death and burial of every Christian have been taken up into the significance of the Lord's own Cross and Tomb. For He has taken our place under the Law; He has borne our sins and griefs and sorrows in His own body on the Cross; He has even gone so far as to become the curse of sin and death in our stead; He has suffered and died on our behalf, in order to redeem us for Himself and for the Father forever. In Baptism we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. A Christian funeral is a bold public confession of that precious Gospel. What we do with the body following death proclaims what we believe to be true concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a powerful case in point. The body of Lazarus was grossly dishonored in his life on earth; it was left to languish in the streets, covered with sores and licked by dogs, ignored by the rich man and apparently everyone else. But in death he is taken up in the arms of the holy angels of God, those great majestic creatures, who are not ashamed but honored to serve the body of one who belongs to Jesus. So ought we to regard the bodies of those who have been forgiven, washed, and fed by the incarnate Savior.

Too many Christians have regrettably swallowed and perpetuated the lie that the body is nothing but an empty, useless shell following death. We would not dare to speak this way about the body of Christ the Crucified, and God forbid that we should speak in such a way concerning His dear Christians. It is precisely in the face of death that we ought to confess most boldly our faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Sure, it is true that the Lord who created our bodies from the dust of the earth can and will regather the dust to which our bodies return and resurrect them all-glorious, immortal and imperishable, like unto the risen and ascended body of Christ Himself. Thus, when the pagans decimated the bodies of the martyrs, feeding them to animals, or burning them and scattering their ashes to the winds, the Christians could confidently assert that it was no problem for the Holy Triune God to recreate those bodies in the resurrection. Neither do we despair, therefore, when death brings with it the destruction of our mortal frame. But let us not join sides with bitter death and pagan unbelief in our treatment of that flesh and blood which the Lord Himself has hallowed as His Temple and destined for eternal life!

I do not know by what genius it was designed, or if it is simply one of those happy "accidents" of the Church's life on earth, but consider the other commemorations that occur in these weeks, before and after today's remembrance of St. Joseph of Arimathea, who buried our Lord Jesus. This past Sunday, the 29th of July, we remembered with thanksgiving St. Mary, St. Martha, and St. Lazarus of Bethany, who are uniquely identified with Jesus' death and resurrection. St. Mary lovingly anointed His body ahead of time for burial. St. Martha confessed her faith in the resurrection, in the hope of which she had buried her brother Lazarus. And St. Lazarus himself was called forth bodily from the grave, a living sign of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life. Similarly, on Friday of this week, the 3rd of August, the Church commemorates the holy myrrhbearers, St. Joanna, St. Mary, and St. Salome, who would have tended to the body of the Lord Jesus in death, had He not already been resurrected from the dead. These Christians, even in the midst of their grief and fear, not yet knowing the Easter to come, recognized and confessed the sacred significance of the Lord's body. We ought do no less with the bodies of His saints in our own day.

Next week, the Church will commemorate St. Lawrence of Rome, that archdeacon and holy martyr who was roasted alive on a giant grill. In his life on earth, in faith and love, he cared for the bodies of the poor and lowly and infirm, until he was called upon to lay down his own body in death for the name and sake of Christ Jesus. He bravely endured his martyrdom with faith in the resurrection, not fearing those who are able to hurt the body but cannot touch the soul. He trusted the Lord of both soul and body, who raises and glorifies His saints from death and the grave unto the life everlasting. How shall we, who share his faith and the joyful expectation of the Kingdom of God, not also share his love for the bodies of our fellow Christians, yes, even for those who have departed from this life on earth. Not as though our handling of their bodies will have any affect upon their resurrection and eternal life, but as a confession of our hope and of our love for Jesus. Whatsoever you do unto one of the least of these, His brethren, you have done it unto Him. Shall we burn the bodies of those who belong to the Body of Christ? Or shall we not, rather, lay them to rest with solemn dignity and joyful confidence in His Resurrection?


Zaripest said...

I've always thought that cremation was a sort of weird practice, but I have never thought about it in this light before. You've made a very interesting observation, and now I wonder why I've never thought of it before...

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Zach, I've enjoyed and appreciated all of your comments over the past day or two. You have a very nice way of expressing yourself, even when you do so briefly.

As for this matter of cremation and the way in which we ought to care for the bodies of the dead, my observation this evening was one that I had not made before, either. In fact, your comment is essentially descriptive of my own experience in this regard. I don't know why it has never occured to me before in quite this way, but it struck me powerfully during catechesis this evening. The commemorations of this week and next, as I say, teach us something specific about the way we as Christians regard death and the bodies of those who have died.

It is an extraordinarily important point, that Christians do not simply believe in a life after death, but in the resurrection of the body to the life everlasting. That belief and confession go hand in hand with our faith in the Lord's own incarnation and bodily resurrection from the dead. And in retrospect, it casts the true light upon the signficance of the original creation of man in God's image. In contrasts to the gnostics (both ancient and modern), Christians recognize that the body is part of God's original design and intention. That is confirmed in Christ Jesus, and it is shared with us in Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion, even as it shall be fulfilled in our own bodily resurrection from the dead.

jerseyboy7 said...

Rick, I have to disagree with you here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who believes as you do should be in favor of mummification as even those bodies that are buried whole will eventually become the same as the ashes from cremation.

Just as a point of reference, are you suggesting that those who died in childhood will be resurrected with the same child's body they had when they died and those who died in old age will be resurrected as an old timer?

Also, even scripture teaches there is a big difference between the body and the soul. You might recall the pericope about not fearing those who can destroy the body but those who can destroy the soul?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments, Jersey Boy. I respect your opinions, though we do seem to disagree. It appears that you may have misunderstood my point, however, as I actually cite the very verse that you mention, concerning the difference between body and soul. I don't have any strong opinion on whether the resurrection bodies of the saints will be children or adults, although I rather suspect they will be thirty-something years old.

I'm neither for nor against mummification per se. My point is simply to say that the attitudes of Christians toward the bodies of the faithful departed ought to confess the Church's faith in the resurrection. Treating the body as though it were incidental and disposable falls short in this regard. Nevertheless, I have tried to underscore the fact that, whatever may happen to the body in and after death does not impact the Lord's raising of that body in the consummation of all things. Most assuredly, He will gather our dust from the four corners and glorify us most marvelously, irrespective of what has become of our mortal flesh and blood. We should not, for that reason, show disrespect or disdain for the body, even in death, no more than we should deliberately mame or mutilitate our bodies in life.

Especially in our highly gnostic, new age culture, in which the "spiritual" life is commonly envisioned in opposition to the material of God's good creation, I believe it is all the more essential that Christians clearly confess the resurrection of the body. That was my main intention.

It also struck me, as I said, that the handling and treatment of our Lord's body is instructive of the way that we handle the bodies of the blessed dead. Not that we can or should emulate every detail, but that we view those bodies (and their resting places) - as, indeed, the funeral rites say - as sanctified by the Holy Triune God and the Sabbath Rest of Christ.

You've previously mentioned your appreciation for the early church and its practices. My reading of the church fathers, and of early Christian popular literature, leads me to believe that our forebears in the faith gave a good deal more attention to the hope of the resurrection and the significance of the body than the church has been inclined to do in recent decades.

I should clarify, however, that while the resurrection of the body is a matter of doctrine, the way in which the body of the deceased is handled is a matter of piety. I do not intend to insist upon any particular practice(s), nor to burden consciences in this regard. I believe it is important, and not to be taken lightly, but I do not condemn those who may confess their faith in the resurrection of the body differently.

beth speers said...

Pastor Stuckwisch,
Thanks for your post--I found it thoughtful, thought-provoking and very pastoral. I always find it comforting during the commital service, I think it is, when the pastor talks about Christ Himself having 'sanctified the grave' by having lain in one. The Scriptures are full of references to the believer in Christ 'falling asleep' in death and the care and respect that Christians afford the earthly remains of the beloved of God attest to that fact.

My father died very suddenly in 2004 several states away. He was cremated, according to his wishes, 2 days after he died, which left my family and me without being able to begin to deal with his death by first seeing him that one last time. He died in the faith and I have no doubt (as you have stated) that he will be raised on the last day--the logistics are not mine
to fathom. However, it was very hard for us to deal with the fact that the body of the man that we loved as Grandpa and Dad was just incinerated, instead of being treated with respect and honor as a precious gift of God. We confess in the Apostles creed that our bodies are unique and undeserved gifts of God, for which we thank Him reverantly. Is this not also true after the death of a loved one?

I once tutored a little boy whose family was Muslim. He looked out our window and saw our church cemetery and asked me 'Why do you plant your dead people in the ground like seeds?' I was given the opportunity to tell him that we Christians are very much like seeds--our bodies are planted in the ground at death, and we will rise with new glorious bodies at the resurrection because of the work of Christ. This is an important topic--thanks for taking it up.-I enjoy your blog.
beth speers

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Dear Beth, thanks so much for your thoughtful and personal comments. I appreciate your kind words, and the insights you have shared from your own experience and reflection. God bless you and your family.

Carl Vehse said...

The issue of whether cremation is Scripturally or confessionally forbidden because it is a sin and against God's will, was discussed extensively in Bunnie Diehl's blogsite on several threads:

June 15a, 2005
June 15b, 2005
June 17, 2005
June 18, 2005
June 20, 2005
July 02, 2005
July 05, 2005

Caveats that state something like "there is no intention to burden the consciences of those whose loved ones have been cremated, but..." do little good when objections to cremation often describe alleged motives for cremation that imply not caring for a Christian's body after death or an unwillingness to confess one's faith boldly through burial. Without evidence it is wrong to imply such motives to persons who have or are considering cremation or any other use of the body after death (e.g., donating one's body to medical science).

Conservative Lutheran church organizations like the LCMS, WELS, ELS, and CLC, have stated in official publications that cremation itself is not wrong or sinful and that a decision for cremation or burial is a matter of Christian liberty.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I don't know who those people may be who have alleged motives on the part of others who have had their loved ones cremated. I have done no such thing, and I am very sorry if I have given any such impression. It would be a rather odd thing for me to do, given that some of my own dear loved ones have been cremated, and I am certainly well aware that the only motives involved were ones of honor and respect for the departed. When I have given pastoral counsel to my own members in the past, as well, I have been clear that cremation is not sinful, and that it does not impede in any way the resurrection of the body on the last day.

My caveat, that I have no intention to burden the consciences of those whose loved ones have been cremated, was made sincerely and in good faith. Let me clarify, therefore, for the sake of anyone who may have taken that caveat disingenuously, that such things are free and not a matter of sin. Indeed, all things are free, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Yet, not all things are profitable, and I stand by my point, that cremation is not the clearest confession of our faith in the resurrection of the body.

Thanks be to God that the fraility and faultiness of our confession - including my own fumbling words - is forgiven by the holy Body and precious Blood of Christ our Lord.

This appears to be the evening for me to offer apologies for offenses that I have unintentionally caused. I am sorry for all of that, and I do want to do better.

Carl Vehse said...

"Yet, not all things are profitable, and I stand by my point, that cremation is not the clearest confession of our faith in the resurrection of the body."

A Christian is to make a clear confession of his faith while alive (by words and deeds). Your point implies that a Christian must be buried, not cremated, in order to make the clearest confession of his faith after death. This transforms the decision of whether to be buried or cremated into theological significance, contrary to the Missouri Synod's position (https://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=2124):

"In itself, the practice [of cremation] has no theological significance and may be used in good conscience. In fact, because of space limitations in some areas (e.g., West Berlin, England), and because of health considerations, cremation is increasing in favor. Cost, too, is a legitimate consideration, although the family considering it for this reason should be reminded that cost is saved only when there is no public viewing and, thus, no need for embalming and use of the visitation room."

Similarly, regarding organ donation (and taking it to the limit of donating one's whole body to medical science) the Missouri Synod has stated (https://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=2118):

"The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod encourages organ donation as an act of Christian love, but this choice is entirely up to the individual and/or his or her family, and should not be a cause of guilt or regret no matter what decision is made. The Bible has nothing specific to say regarding this issue. Therefore, it is a matter of Christian freedom and personal (or family) discretion."

Statements that deny Christian freedom in either case falsely present Christians with a dilemma between "an act of Christian love" and "the clearest confession of faith", when in fact no such dilemma actually exists.

What may be theologically significant is the motive for which such a decision is made. If the known motive for either choice is Scripturally wrong (pride, greed, hatred, vengence, lack of faith, etc.) then the motive needs to be addressed. Otherwise, Christian liberty prevails.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Dear Brother Vehse, I respect your opinion, and I thank you for your helpful commetns, even though I do disagree with some of your apparent conclusions.

When I speak of the confession that is made by the way in which the bodies of the dead are laid to rest, I'm obviously not speaking about a confession of faith by the departed, but on the part of those responsible for making such decisions. And while you are correct that the motives of the heart are certainly decisive when it comes to the question of sin or unbelief, that is really not the point with respect to a public confession of the Christian faith.

I do apologize, however, once again, for my lack of clarity in affirming the freedom of Christians to have the bodies of their departed loved ones cremated. Along with that, I'm sorry that my origional point and observation seem to have been lost, namely, that the way in which the body of our Lord was cared for and laid to rest when St. Joseph of Arimathea removed Him from the Cross may help to inform our handling of the bodies of the blessed dead. I trust that I may have and exercise such piety in the freedom of the Gospel.

For the record, I haven't said anything about, much less against, the practice of organ donation. I'm not sure how that topic even entered into the discussion, but I'm certainly not opposed to it. Thank you for the opportunity to make that clarification.

Perhaps I can simply say this, and leave it at that: Handling the bodies of the dead with respect and care is not superstitious, but, on the part of the bereaved Christian, is a confession of our sure and certain hope in the resurrection of the body. And lest I leave any room for doubt, I do believe that such a confession can be made with deep respect on the part of those who have their depared loved ones cremated. For the largely new age, gnostic world around us, however, I'm not convinced that the confession of our Christian faith in the resurrection of the body is as clear and obvious in such a case. It strikes me as quite similar to the case of eating meat sacrificed to idols, as discussed by St. Paul.