No matter the religion, there have always been burial rites associated with our dead. From the common of a pauper's grave to the mighty mausoleum of the wealthy to the ordinary of simple plot of ground with a marker, we have tended with devotion to the bodies of those whom we love. Even among those who have historically burned the remains on a funeral pyre, there is a rite and a process and an end to the remains of the dead. While we might argue about the wisdom or faithfulness of various methods, what is in common is our attention to and our insistence upon reverence for the body and its disposition upon death.
Now there are reports of a more green alternative. Human bodies can be composted. It seems that there are human composting facilities that offer the choice for another way of disposing of the dead. The state of Washington was first in 2019 and California the latest in 2022 to make such composting fully legal. It is the perfect circle of life -- from dust to dust, with a little assistance along the way. Or is it? There is something rather odd and off putting about treating the human body in the same way you deal with banana peels and lettuce gone bad and potatoes with that peculiar odor of decay. It is the ultimate disdain for the flesh and the triumph of the spiritual for the essence that remains unembodied gloats over the demise of the flesh with all of its weakness, frailty, and death. But is it Christian?
I must admit that the current funeral practices do not offer us a clear Christian alternative. It is not Christian to dress up the body as if it were not dead and show it off while suggesting the body looks better in the coffin than it did at the kitchen table. It is not Christian to surround the body with sports memorabilia, favorite foods, trinkets from their collections, and photos of the family without even a cross to mark this body as one created by God and sanctified by baptism to be the dwelling of God in the Spirit. It is not Christian to cremate and then make a shrine of the ashes in the home or to forget them in the closet or to sprinkle a little bit of your loved one over the many places special to them in life. It is certainly not Christian to send the body to a facility to be turned into mulch for the garden. Why do we do such stupid things? Why do we think we are being wise and faithful by doing such things to the bodies of those whom we love?
There was a time when it was generally and genuinely believed by all of us that humans were unique in nature, unlike any other creature, created by God as life distinct from and elevated over all other life -- and therefore worthy of our respect. We all knew and it was the common thread of all our morality that when we crippled or diminished that life, we did evil. When we killed that life and discarded such life, we did the worst of all wrongs. We had a common respect for and fascination about the mystery of life. So that when we served the living, we believe we were doing good and when we served the bodies of those who died, we were according to them the dignity deserved of humanity. But that was then. I am not sure when it changed but it did. Now, it would seem, that we find the body nothing but an expensive bother and a problem in our green world -- one solved by composting the dead while thinking that we are treating faithfully the dust that will return to dust anyway.
C. S. Lewis imagined it all in The Abolition of Man.
In Lewis’s words, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.” Perhaps this is the logical end to a view in which the most God has done is create some parts and the rest was merely an accident of chance. All that we can hope is that one day we will remember that God did not merely created bits and pieces but things -- complete in their life and identity even though marred by sin. If that day comes, we just might have to change our burial practices.