As if there’s not enough decisions to make in life, these days we’re even forced to make choices about what happens to us after we’re dead. If you’d like to go out with a bang, you can be cremated and have your ashes stuffed into fireworks so your family can ooh and aah as you’re blown into colorful smithereens in the night sky. Or your dressed and upright corpse, a stiff drink in hand, can be the life of the party as your friends gather round to drink and dance your demise away. Or, if you’re not really on the wild side, there’s always doctors and scientists eager for another cadaver. Hell, you might even go retro and be laid to rest in a coffin.
Alas, but even then, there are decisions to be made. You might opt for a funeral home with a drive-through window so the mourners—after they’ve grabbed a burger and fries down the street—can roll down their window, leave the A/C running, and take a quick gander at your remains as they dab their eyes with a McDonald’s napkin. Or if you make people actually get out of their cars and go into a church for a service, you need to decide if you want to have a Celebration of Life service or stick with the tried-and-true traditional funeral.
The long and short of this is that if you’re currently undecided as to what you’d like to happen to your corpse, know that every day your options expand. Death is not only a huge business; it’s also become quite the creative enterprise, full of entrepreneurs eager to Americanize death and cash in on your corp$e.
Before you make any decisions about your postmortem particulars, however, you might want to sit back and ponder bigger, more fundamental questions such as these: Should you even care what happens to your corpse? And, if so, why? So what if you’re cremated or left intact, celebrated or mourned, exploded in the heavens or buried under the earth? You’ll be dead, of course, so why should it matter what the living do with you?
Let me, first of all, tell you why I think it should matter to all of us. Secondly, let me spell out the practical implications that positive belief has for what we do with the body after death.
The Body Matters, Even After Death
Our bodies matter because, even in death, they continue to be at the core of our human identity. The real me is not something hidden within and enveloped by an extraneous costume of flesh and blood. My face is not a mask. My hands are not gloves. My sexual organs are not accouterments attached to a human outfit. They are part of me. So death is not a disrobing of the naked soul that constitutes my true personhood.
As such, my postmortem body continues to embody memories of who I am. Let’s say that death has come calling for me. What will my wife and children, my parents and sister, see when they see me? They’ll see the man whom they still love. They will not see a shell, an empty husk. My wife will see the face of the man who stood before her and vowed, “I do.” My children will see the hands that held them on the day they were born, and that wiped away their tears when they hurt themselves. My parents will see a scar on my right wrist that I got when barely out of kindergarten. Much of my biography is inscribed upon my body; it is part of who I am, my story, my personality. It is not peripheral to my personhood. A body is not some thing but some one. As such, I want my family to treat my body not as an object I sloughed off upon leaving this world, but as the continuing, meaningful icon of my identity as son, father, and husband. To treat my body with respect, love, and honor is to treat me with respect, love, and honor, for my body continues to be an essential part of who I am.
If this were the sole reason for us to care what happens to our corpses, it would be sufficient. But for those who hold to a theistic worldview, who believe that God created our bodies, there are many more reasons to care. Jews and Christians alike confess that the Creator makes and shapes our bodies from the moment of conception onward. In the words of Psalm 139, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Our very existence is a divine gift; and part of that gift are eyes of a certain color, legs of a certain length, a nose of a certain size—each tiny part of us uniquely fashioned as our own. Our body is a gift while also a continued possession of the Giver. It is not ours to do with as we please.
What we do with these gifts should reflect that they are from God. And what applies when those bodies are alive applies equally when they are not alive. Death does not disown God from our bodies. They continue to be his possession, his gift to us, part of that divine bestowal that marks who we are as created people formed in God’s image and likeness. Thus, even when I’m dead, my corpse matters, because God’s gifts matter. I want my body to be treated not as a piece of meat, or fuel for the fire, but as a blessing from heaven.
For those who believe that there will be a resurrection on the last day, there are even more reasons to care what happens to our corpse. Every Sunday Christians around the world confess in the Nicene Creed that they believe in “the resurrection of the body.” They hold that, as the body of Jesus was raised back to life on Easter, so this same Jesus will unearth and enliven their bodies—indeed, the bodies of everyone—when he comes again. Thus, for Christians, not only do their bodies point backward to God’s creation of them, those same bodies point forward to God’s coming re-creation of them. Death does indeed sever the soul from the body, but this is only temporary; indeed, it is highly unnatural. But nature will be restored and perfected, soul and body reunited, in the resurrection. Therefore, whatever is done to my body postmortem, let those actions boldly confess that God is not done with this body. Lay my body to rest as a divine gift; do not dispose of it as human residue.
Funerals are Teaching Moments
Death is the final liminal moment in life, wherein we transition from one state to another. Like other of these important moments, such as birth or baptism or marriage, death also has cultural and religious rituals attached to it. These threshold moments, and the ceremonies by which people commemorate them, express what we hold to be true about human existence. How people welcome a newborn child into this world tells us what they think of procreation and human life. The rituals around the union of husband and wife tell us what they think of marriage. And funeral ceremonies, too, reveal our cultural and religious thoughts on life and death, the human body, and the afterlife.
These rituals, however, are not only expressive. They also affirm, instruct, and constitute what we hold to be true. In other words, rituals are also teaching moments. We are taught what marriage is at a wedding. That instruction may be good or bad, but it is instruction nonetheless. The same holds true for a funeral. Death is acknowledged, commemorated, and expounded upon through the rituals that accompany it.
Those who believe that the body, even after death, continues to matter, continues to be part of the human identity of the deceased individual, ought to desire a death ritual that does not undermine but underscores that truth. This brings up the subjects of cremation and its seeming opposite—“extreme embalming.”
Cremation Has Drastically Increased, Unfortunately
Over the last few decades, the number of people who have opted for cremation over burial has skyrocketed, from a mere 3.56 percent in 1960 to a projected 48.8 percent by 2017. The reasons for this upward shift range from economic to ecological—with a heavy stress on the former. Whatever a person’s thinking on this subject might be, the fact that almost half of American funerals will soon have no body present is worthy of note—and, in my opinion, worthy of reversal.
Incinerating a person’s body does not bear a neutral or positive message about what the body is; it says that this body is so unimportant that it need no longer exist as a body. Cremation reduces the continuing, meaningful icon of spouse, child, sibling, or parent into an urn full of ashes. It is the radical transformation of the human body into something that bears no resemblance to the human body. The fruit of the womb becomes the fruit of fire. It renders the very substance of our humanity—an “I”—into an object—an “it.”
Our culture has been hard at work for decades now in redefining the body from a divine gift into a physical object with which we can do as we wish. If there is an object known as a fetus growing inside a woman against her wishes, it can be legally removed and disposed of through the machine of abortion, as if the baby is a mere tumor. The unborn infant is not a he or a she (an “I”), but an it. If male bodies do not display the particular sexual objects the male desires, or vice versa for the female, they can alter their sexual parts as a mechanic alters the parts on an automobile. Rather than seeing bodies as a divine creation, fashioned in each case for the particular individual, as a blessing to them, it is seen as a mere physical object with which we can do as we please. They are, after all, our bodies, as the thinking goes. Does not our culture already make our bodies into objects enough, without us adding an exclamation point to that sad fact by opting for cremation when that body dies? If anything, a countercultural statement can be made in the rituals surrounding death by affirming, in our actions with the body of the deceased, that this corpse is not an it but an I.
Those who are religious yet opt for cremation often argue that God can put their bodies back together on the day of resurrection no matter what has happened to those bodies. Indeed, according to the Christian tradition, the omnipotent Creator can do, and will do, just that. What is at issue, however, is not the power of God but the responsibility of people to do what bears witness to the body as a divine gift. We need to reconstitute a unified Christian witness that this body bears the image of God and will be reconstituted perfectly to bear that image in the resurrection. Rather than burning the body, let the body be bathed, clothed, and laid to rest as one who is awaiting the resurrection. Because funeral rituals affirm, instruct, and constitute what we hold to be true about life and death and the afterlife, careful consideration should be given before we teach, by our actions, that bodies are mere fuel for the fire.
Extreme Embalming and Celebratory Funerals Are Another Poor Choice
On the opposite spectrum of cremation are recent attempts to mannequinize the corpse through so-called extreme embalming. Earlier this year, for instance, Miriam Burbank was posed sitting upright at her funeral under a disco ball “with a glass of Busch beer, a menthol cigarette and a New Orleans Saint-themed manicure.” It was what her daughters called a “perfect send-off.” And there was the April funeral of philanthropist Mickey Easterling, whose body, wrapped in a pink feather boa and holding a champagne glass, was bid farewell in a party atmosphere. Although these examples might be on the fringe, they reflect a vastly popular movement toward “putting the fun back in funeral” by having a Celebration of Life (COL) instead of a traditional funeral. I have critiqued that movement in another article, but it bears mention here because of the growing tendency to imbue the funeral or COL with more finality that it deserves. As Easterling’s daughter said, her mother’s funeral seemed to be a “really nice way to say, ‘The party’s over.’”
Ironically, in the end, cremation and such party-style funerals both suggest the same message concerning the deceased, namely, that death is the final chapter of human existence. Cremation says, “This is it, so we’d just as well destroy the body,” while Celebrations of Life say, “This is it, so let’s celebrate what was.” In both cases, the most important message that can be communicated at a funeral is muted: that this is not the end of this person. Indeed, the body itself is a physical prophecy of what is to come. This body, though now dead, has a living future. The party is far from over.
The Best Is Yet to Come
Like it or not, all of us have decisions to make about what happens to our bodies upon death. Better that we make our choices known to our loved ones, lest they make decisions for us that contradict the foundational beliefs we held in this life. We will not speak at our funeral, but we can let our choices speak for us.
Those who think that this life is all there is can have a ceremony that reflects that belief. But for those who confess that this life is but the preparation for a life to come, who believe that their bodies are a good and gracious gift from the creating God, who affirm that this same body will one day be resurrected, let them have a ceremony that reflects that belief.
At my own funeral, I want the message to be that the best is yet to come.
Find Chad’s meditations, poetry, and musings at Flying Scroll.