August 15, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, August 15, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll consider what changes in American burial and cremation practices tell us about shifts in America’s worldview. We will go to Thailand and ask why a massive funeral pyre is being built there for the late Thai king and what that tells us about that nation’s worldview. And we will look at what happens 70 years ago today that utterly changed the maps of the world.
What does the rising number of cremations tell us about shifts in America’s worldview?
The most formal moments in our lives, some of the biggest decisions, are the ones that reveal the most about our worldview, and some of these come at the end-of-life. One of them is the issue of burial or the question of burial. Now it turns out that one of the patterns we can see in our contemporary culture is that a rise in the secularization of the society has also gone hand-in-hand with the rise in the percentage of those who intend or who are eventually cremated rather than buried. That might seem to be a small issue, but it has absolutely massive worldview significance. And that hasn’t been lost even the theological dimensions on the secular media. Just recently James Barron reported for the New York Times about a Catholic mother who before she had died left a note to her son. It was not to be opened until she had died in which she gave them the shocking instruction that she was to be cremated rather than buried. Her son said, and I quote,
“Never in a million years would I have thought that this is what she would have wanted.”Show Full Transcript
He went on to explain to the New York Times,
“that he had expected her to say she wanted a traditional burial at St. Raymond’s, a Roman Catholic cemetery near the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge.”
Several celebrities are buried there, the paper notes, but also several of this mother’s relatives. But Barron goes on to say,
“cremations are quickly becoming the choice for more and more families. And now,” this is a rather stunning statistic, “for the first time, more Americans are being cremated than having traditional burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.”
The Times went on to report that,
“The cremation rate in 2016 achieved a milestone, edging past 50 percent to 50.2 percent, up from 48.5 percent in 2015, according to a report issued recently by the funeral directors’ association.”
That percentage is expected to rise rather significantly in fairly short order. The New York Times tells us that by the year 2025 there is a prediction that,
“63.8% of the people who die in United States will be cremated, and by 2035, 78.8%.”
Let’s just round those figures up to 64% and 79%. That’s a very significant issue. Remember that the majority figure that 50.2 barely over 50% came just this past year in 2016. Compared to what? Well compared to millennia, compared to over 2000 years of human experience in the West or Western civilization. That civilization has been shaped by Christianity, and where you find biblical Christianity, even where you find historic vestiges of Christianity, you find the tradition of the burial of the body. That’s not just Christian by the way. Those who know the Bible know that it is deeply Jewish as well. There is a reverence for the body. There’s no misunderstanding about the fact that it is a mortal body, but there’s nonetheless in both the Old and the New testaments a very clear reverence and respect for the body. And of course in the New Testament, there is the promise of the fact that our bodies will be resurrected on that great day will be raised in mortal for the Day of Judgment.
Now as we look at the story in the New York Times, it’s interesting how quickly Barron gets to the theological dimension. He writes, and I quote,
“The reasons include the weakening hold of religion on American life as well as a loosening of strictures against cremation by some denominations. The proportion of consumers 40 and older who think it is important to have religion as part of a funeral has dropped by 20 percent since 2012,” that again from the Funeral Directors’ Association.
Now let’s just pause there for a moment. First of all, it’s interesting to note that people are here defined as consumers even by their age 40 and older. And it is consumers here who have been surveyed who say it is important to have religion as a part of their funeral, but a figure that is dropped 20% in just the last four years. Now that’s stunning if true. That’s one of those statistics that’s buried in an article in the New York Times, and yet it’s one of those numbers that should simply jump out at us. Could it possibly be true that in just the last four years there’s been a decrease by 20% in the number of adult Americans who believe that religion should even have a part in a funeral service?
But we’re also told that it’s not just culture and religion that’s a factor here. It’s not just secularization. It is also the matter of cost because cremation is usually less expensive than a conventional burial. Now that number is quantified in the article. We are told that in some places, under some situations, the cremation option can be about 25% of what a traditional burial might cost. Now, again, that’s not insignificant. But one of the really interesting twists and turns in this article is that the very human story with which it begins says that we are told that this woman was concerned about cost but her offspring decided to memorialize her after she was cremated with a $30,000 bench in the very same cemetery. So it appears that in this case cost was certainly not a factor.
The Times article also tells us that indeed some denominations as identified here have been loosening their strictures against cremation. Most importantly in terms of the larger culture, the Roman Catholic Church seems to have given in to what is understood to be inevitable. The Vatican last year took note of what it termed an unstoppable increase in cremation by simply suggesting that Catholics should be very careful about what they do in terms of the disposition of the remains thereafter. But why should Christians think about this? It’s certainly not a sin to be cremated. That’s not the big issue. It’s a matter of Christian judgment and an understanding of the fact that burial has had very deep theological and biblical roots in the Christian and in the Jewish tradition. And it’s because of a reverence for a respect for the body as well it’s described in the New Testament for Christians as the temple of the Holy Spirit. And furthermore, there’s been a respect for the body that has stood in distinction to the spiritual and theological beliefs of other cultures that have practiced cremation.
Pyre fit for a King: Thailand prepares for King’s funeral and cremation
So next we turn not to the United States but to Thailand. An article that appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago telling us about the plans for the cremation of the late Thai king, the late King Bhumibol of Thailand. The Thai king, you might remember, died late last year, but he hasn’t been cremated yet. Seth Mydans reporting for the New York Times from Bangkok tells us why. He also tells us when. He reports,
“On a broad parade ground not far from the Grand Palace, Thai masters are constructing a vision of heaven — an elegant, nine-spired funeral pyre for King Bhumibol Adulyadej that will send his soul into the afterlife later this year.
He went on to tell us,
“Built to represent Mount Meru, the center of the Hindu universe, it will embody the highest of Thai arts and architecture, with delicate towers adorned with images from mythology and from the life of the king, who died last October at the age of 88, after 70 years on the throne. The cremation,” we are told, “is planned for Oct. 26, the second of five days of funeral ceremonies. It will be witnessed by 8,000 invited guests as well as millions of Thais around the nation.”
Now you’ll note for a moment the almost year of preparation and construction in order to build the funeral pyre for the Thai king. We are told that the main cremation tower will be 165 feet tall. It’s going to have a seven tiered roof and spire surrounded by eight smaller pavilions representing mountains that surround Mount Meru. I’m going to skip on down through the article where we read this,
“The cremation itself will take place in a confined incinerator within the structure. Any remaining bones will be enshrined as royal relics at the Throne Hall of the palace, and the ashes will be kept separately at two temples, the government said. The pyre will later be dismantled, its wood sent to temples or other destinations around the country.”
Now pay close attention to the next words,
“The body of King Bhumibol, or Rama IX, now lies in state at the palace, where hundreds of thousands of mourners have filed past to honor the monarch many revere as divine. Every day, thousands of Thais in solemn black make a stark contrast as they cross paths with large groups of brightly dressed tourists.
The worldview significance of this planned cremation become very clear in the article when we are told,
“In this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, beliefs about the monarchy are an amalgam of Buddhism and Hindu mythology. While the chanting of the monks at the funeral will be Buddhist, the cremation itself, with the pyre at its center, will be Hindu,” that according to a professor at a major university there in Thailand.
He also said,
“‘We believe that the king is a god from heaven. He is totally a god, so when he passes away he has to get to heaven’ to rejoin the main Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.”
Now that’s very interesting for one thing theology appears even explodes once again in the pages of a newspaper like the New York Times because it has to say something about what is considered to be big news in Thailand, the building of this massive princely funeral pyre for the burning of the body of a king, for the cremation of the monarch that’s believed to be divine. But more importantly here is what’s described as the amalgam of Buddhism and Hinduism. Because that’s not just about the Thai king, it’s about Eastern religion and its worldviews. What we come to understand is that Buddhism and Hinduism, but Hinduism in particular, believe that the spirit is trapped within a body and once the body dies the spirit must be liberated.
We simply need to note that that is basically a complete parallel opposite to the biblical worldview that holds that the body and the spirit are one. It’s called in theology a psychosomatic union as taught in Scripture rather than the spirit being trapped within the body. We are not spirits in our reality merely trying to escape this world to get to the next. No we are creatures made in the image of God, the only creature made in the image of God, and our body is a part of God’s desire for us in creation and a part of his glory. That’s the reason why, one of the reasons why, there’s been a deep reverence for the body in Christianity and an aversion to cremation. One of the interesting things to note is that when the missionary movement began in the 18th century, particularly where missionaries from Christianity were sent to nations like India, there was the immediate effect of the gospel in which cremation came to an end among believers in order that believers would be like Christians before them buried in anticipation of the day of resurrection.
Now once again, this does not mean that Christians who have, will be, or have been cremated have done so in disobedience to Scripture. It’s not a command. It’s a practice and an instinct and intuition that has been very deep within Judaism and biblical Christianity, and thus we need to respect it’s an intuition that is based upon biblical theology and what we find in Scripture about respect for the human body. So both of these stories appearing in the New York Times are theological and tellingly the New York Times to its credit understand so.
World maps changed radically 70 years ago today as Pakistan and India gained independence
While we are thinking about Asia, today is a very important and historic anniversary. It was on August 15, 1940, 70 years ago today that the nations of Pakistan and India in their modern form were born. The birth of those two nations as they gained their independence from Britain came with the crumbling of the British Empire and the fall of what had been called the Raj. The British rule by Imperial force and by the oversight of a Viceroy of what was then and now one of the largest countries in the world with one of the largest populations of any nation. But of course it wasn’t just a nation that was the result of this date August 15, 1947. It was two; originally it was three. It was Pakistan, East Pakistan, which is now independent as Bangladesh, and the nation of India.
But August 15, 1947, is remembered in very conflicted ways. W.E.B. Du Bois in the United States said that the day deserved to be remembered,
“as the greatest historical date,” of modern history.
The date that India, most importantly, gained its independence. All this came as part of that great movement towards the self-determination of peoples that came in the wake of World War II. And thus it also meant the breakup of the British Empire. Lord Curzon, one of the chief architects of that Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, said the loss of India would mean that Britain would drop straightaway to a third rate power. And no doubt, the loss of India, India and Pakistan gaining their independence, did mean that Britain immediately lost the majority of its territory that had been included in the British Empire all around the world.
That movement towards self-determination was a great movement towards independence, and it’s understandable, especially in the second half of the 20th century. And no doubt it came about by some of the great movements in history, movements in history that included the American war of Independence beginning in 1776, and the furthermore, it came as a very conflicted data because it came also as the partition between Pakistan and India. It had been one unit under the British rule, but after independence came also came partition, the partition between predominantly Muslim Pakistan, and overwhelmingly Hindu India. In the movement of peoples and in the chaos after Independence Day and after the partition, between 1 and 2 million persons died in religious and sectarian conflict most of them in the Punjab region. It is also the case that the great hopes that Pakistan and India would become representative democracies well that hope was severely tested throughout the decades that would follow.
And one of the things we also need to note on this 70th anniversary of both Pakistan and India is that Pakistan is now a very clearly Islamic nation. And of course this is a complicated situation because Pakistan is at times for the United States an ally, but Pakistan is also known to harbor those who have been identified as participating in terrorist groups, and it clearly has an Islamic agenda. On the other hand, India is even more sectarian in terms of the Indian and Hindu nationalist tradition under its current government that at any point since the nation gained its independence 70 years ago today. Theology certainly matters in terms of the present and enduring conflict between Pakistan, the Muslim country, and India, the overwhelmingly Hindu nation. So the maps of the world were changed radically 70 years ago today. That wasn’t of course for the first time nor was it the last.