Mankind has always treated the bodies of the dead with a certain degree of respect, as far more than a mere husk once inhabited by someone we know. There is a general feeling, throughout the world and throughout history, that the way we treat a body says a great deal about our attitude towards the deceased. In fact, scientists consider the first burials to be a sign of anatomically modern humans becoming behaviorally modern humans—it’s part of what separates man from the animals.
Of course, science has been wrong before, but even if a Biblical anthropology does mean rejecting some ancient, widespread transition from brute beast to what might be more properly called the image of God, we shouldn’t reject the notion out of hand. The fact remains that there is a wide gulf between how most living things treat their dead, and how mankind—and, perhaps, the highest animals—seek to honor their own.
This thought occurred to me this morning while I was reading Augustine’s City of God. It’s been required reading twice during my education, but the first time I only read selections, and the second was at a pace that barely counts as scanning, much less reading. I caught enough to know what I was missing, however, so I picked it up a few days ago and started working through it at a more leisurely pace.
City of God was written in the wake of the sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in 410 AD. For the past several decades, or even generations, a significant chunk of Western Christendom has been convinced that our faith’s hold on our civilization is weakening, that we are experiencing some sort of transition into a post-Christian West. Apologetics and evangelistic materials have been written with the assumption that Christianity is on the decline and the average person needs to be both taught about it and convinced that it is true. The occasional debate between staunch Christian and unyielding atheist sells books and DVDs, or at least admission to an auditorium.
Augustine’s era was much like our own, only in reverse. It was not Christianity, but paganism that had lost its hold on civilization. But though Christianity was on the upswing, it was not yet the uncontested master of the Roman religious landscape. Then, as now, apologetical material and evangelistic tracts were written, and pagan and Christian intellectual squared off in public debates.
After Rome was sacked, the debate grew more intense, with an edge of doom tinging the back-and-forth of the interlocutors. The sack of Rome was something like 9/11, but on a far grander scale. Entire provinces were abandoned by the Roman military, and the entire western half of the empire would be in barbarian hands before the century was out. Pagans blamed this disaster, and the decline that followed it, on the neglect of their traditional gods. These Christians had abandoned the old gods, abandoned the ways of the ancestors, and taught others to do so. Now the gods were punishing them.
Early in the first book, Augustine addresses all the evil the citizens of Rome have endured, pagan and Christian alike. An outsider might say to the adherents of either faith, “Where is your god now? What can he do to save you?” In response, Augustine must, among other things, explain why God would let horrible things happen to his faithful. Among these evils is that many of the saints lay unburied, rotting beneath the sky.
Just as common as taking special care for the dead is the sense that something is profoundly wrong when care has not been taken. Ghost stories the world over tell of unquiet spirits seeking someone to find their corpse and honor it so that they can move on to the afterlife. Just as proper care for the body implies honor for the deceased, so neglect of the body implies great dishonor—they are a nobody, a nothing, a mere piece of trash to be discarded in the street, left to wind and weather and wild animals.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Augustine says, quoting Matthew. If there was something our enemies could do to our body, to our corpse, to hinder the resurrection, would it make sense for Christ to say this? Of course not. The God who made heaven and earth, who kindled the stars, lit the sun like a lamp, and hung the moon in place will not be hindered in resurrecting the faithful simply because their bodies have been mistreated.
Augustine goes on to say that funerals are meant more for the living than the dead. The godless dead will find to profit by them, and the godly dead already have their reward. It is we who remain who need consolation.
But Augustine will not leave it there. If funeral rites and proper treatment of the body do not matter to the dead, then why pay attention to them at all? For some, that question sounds like nonsense. The answer seems obvious. But Augustine is right to address it, because there are many who truly fail to see the importance of such things. This is particularly common among Christians whose emphasis is on their heavenly home rather than earthly concerns. For such, this world can seem like an insignificant and painful stop on the way to a better place.
Augustine surely understands this perspective, but ultimately rejects it. If we love things that remind us of our loved ones—our father’s ring, the quilt our grandmother knitted, pictures of long lost relatives—how much more should we honor that which was so much more intimately a part of them? The body is not a suit to be put on and taken off at one’s convenience, but our constant companion throughout life, the very medium through which we interact with the world. Indeed, Augustine says it is part of our very nature as mankind. Reading the first chapters of Genesis, I would have to agree.
Human nature teaches us to regard contempt for the bodies of loved ones with horror, but Augustine does not stop there. He appeals first to the apocryphal book of Tobit, in which the title character is commended for going out to bury the bodies of slain Jews, and honoring them with the proper funeral rites. He then points to the woman who anoints Christ’s feet with perfume. Christ praises her, saying that she does this for his burial. Then we are told how, in the Gospel of John, Christ’s body is removed from the cross and clothed and buried with all honor.
These stories, and additional incidents from the latter part of Genesis, do not teach us that our salvation or the general welfare of our soul is dependent upon the proper disposal of our bodies. They do teach us that treating bodies with respect is dutiful and pious. But Augustine points to yet another thing these passages teach us—hope in the resurrection.
In taking care for the bodies of the dead, we affirm that neither we nor God have lost sight of the dead. One day they will rise again, clothed once more with flesh and blood, neither abandoned nor annihilated. God is concerned with our bodies, because they are a reminder of a promise.
In considering this, I am reminded of a change in funeral practices I have seen over my lifetime. Cremation has become far more common in this country than it once was, even among Christians. I find the thought unsettling, and my reasons are similar to Augustine’s.
A body that goes into the ground is a seed planted. It is a promise of new growth at some point in the future, and it leaves a reminder in the soil, in the green grass of some graveyard where future generations can go and think of both what was lost and what will come again. We are creatures of mud, with God’s breath breathed into our lungs. When that breath leaves, we return to the mud until he sees fit to give it back.
Cremation says something very different. The body is destroyed, totally annihilated. Whatever ash remains does not resemble the deceased in any way, and is often scattered in the wind. I can understand why someone might do this who believes the dead are truly gone, who thinks we are momentary phenomena rising from nature for a brief time, only to return to it when our life is over. I can understand doing this, if the human image was always illusion, always something to be destroyed and scattered with the play is over. But that is not what the Gospel teaches.
I will not say that cremation is a sin. There are many reasons to do some things, and in this case some of them may be commendable. But the tone of the whole ritual seems wrong to me, an act of despair. With Augustine, I believe the things we do with our dead, though not of great importance to them, are great importance to us. With Augustine, I believe the way we treat our dead should point to the final resurrection.
Mourning is fitting for human nature, but we should mourn like those who have hope.