The Sunday Denver Post is available at newsstands on Saturday, so I picked one up as I passed through Denver International Airport. The main headline story concerned the surging popularity of cremation in Colorado. In ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Wins New Respect, reporter Robert Sanchez reveals that more than half of the 29,800 persons who died in Colorado in 2003 were cremated. As Sanchez summarizes, “In Colorado — where Old West independence, environmentalism and a general lack of religious affiliation have changed the way families deal with death and the afterlife — people are thinking outside the pine box.”
The article is particularly noteworthy for the fact that the issue of Christianity came up repeatedly, with several persons indicating that the popularity of cremation is tied to a rejection of traditional Christian beliefs about respect for the body.
“Cremation was my way of taking death back,” commented ‘Saul,” an Aurora man who said he would have his wife’s body spread in at least three locations. “I didn’t let religion dictate what should be done.”
And consider this section from the article: “Families these days are ‘wildcatting,’ spreading Mom illegally in state parks and other public places; having grandpa made into a reef; shooting Dad into space; or turning grandma into jewelry. In one 2002 case in Boulder County, a dead woman was put on plywood, covered with a burial shroud and cremated on her land. And it was totally legal. ‘She just couldn’t burn on a no-burn day,’ says Jeff Webb, assistant fire chief at the Boulder Rural Fire Protection District, who witnessed the cremation with three other firefighters. Rayanne Mori, owner of Denver’s Monarch Society, has seen families beat drums and chant as their loved ones were placed into a cremator that reaches 1,500 degrees. And on rare occasions, she never sees the family. ‘It’s a phone call, an e-mail, a fax and an address to ship’ the ashes, says Mori, who opened her business in 1982 and performs 30 cremations a month. ‘In this day, it’s like people don’t have enough time to handle death.'”
This is a sad commentary. The reporter is absolutely right to connect the issue of cremation with a loosening of ties to historic Christianity. The early church rejected the pagan practice of cremation because of a belief that the body is to be respected. The early Christians observed the Roman pattern of cremation and agreed that it represented an intentional destruction of the human body — a belief that conflicted with the believers’ understanding that death was to be understood as sleep, and that the dead are awaiting the resurrection to come. There is no question that God can and will resurrect all human bodies on that day — no matter the disposition of the body. The primary issue was and is a proper Christian respect for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.
The Denver Post article reveals something tragic at the heart of a post-Christian culture. Without Christian conviction and the Christian hope, the dead human body becomes just one more object for disposal. Requiescat in pace.
LINKS TO CONSIDER: A good and brief historical review in Christian History; Timothy George, Cremation Confusion in Christianity Today; Is Cremation Appropriate for Christians? by Richard D. Phillips; Stephen Prothero, Sifting the Ashes in The Wall Street Journal.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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