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?