Where to draw the line with cremation?

Andrew Burton GETTY IMAGES NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 05: People look at candles and flowers that have been placed … Continued

Andrew Burton


NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 05: People look at candles and flowers that have been placed in remembrance of Steve Jobs, founder and former CEO of Apple Inc, outside the Apple Store at West 66th Street on October 5, 2011 in New York City.

On Wednesday, October 5th, the world was reminded yet again of the gravity and significance of death. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and one of the most influential figures of our time, passed away. Not long after the sad news broke, his commencement address at Stanford University began appearing on blogs and Facebook statuses, as people turned to the speech to see how Jobs spoke of his own death. The talk is a poignant and timely reminder of how death can make life meaningful, how it can function as “Life’s change agent.” It is a difficult message to stomach, if only because we know it is true.

Not long before Jobs’s passing, reports were filed about a company in Alabama that will take cremated remains and drop them into bullets. The stories couldn’t resist continuing the puns inherent in the name of the company–Holy Smokes. Reuters went for the obvious, suggesting that there’s “something to be said for going out with a bang.” Puns aside, the idiosyncratic celebration of, as Jobs put it, “the destination we all share” raises serious questions about what sort of celebration befits the sacredness of life. If, that is, any form of celebration does.

Generally, our most sacred moments are in some ways our most wasteful and inefficient. Consider the person and work of Jesus. His first miracle, the wedding at Cana, is indicative of this sort of lavishness. There is no utilitarian dimension to his decision to turn water into wine. Water would have slaked their thirst just as easily, but the sacredness of marriage is fittingly honored with the best of drinks, not the most functional. There is no pragmatic utility here, no ends beyond the celebration for which the wine is intended. It is an end in itself, joy for joy’s sake.

At the same time, the life of Jesus hints at a radical embrace of inefficiency. Whatever you make the truthfulness of the story, if Jesus was who he claimed, he certainly had more efficient means at his disposal to accomplish his tasks. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, he acknowledges as much. When Peter takes matters into his own hands, Jesus points out that he has twelve legions of angels he could call on. But Jesus’ path is not necessarily the shortest or most expedient.

Sacred moments, then, seem to be constituted by a sort of prodigality that commemorates the fundamental goodness of life, combined with a reluctance to opt for efficiency as the greatest good. There is a lingering that goes on, a savoring of every aspect of an experience that is appropriate to sacred moments.

Though death is at the opposite end of the spectrum from marriage, it is unquestionably as important. And how we commemorate death will reflect our sense of what is sacred about life. Consider, for a moment, burial. Like the superfluity of wine at a wedding, there is a lavishness to burial that goes beyond what is required to efficiently dispose of the remains. Not surprisingly, the fact that burial wastes space and money are the two top reasons that people give to cremate. And no wonder: it is impossible to think of a less efficient way of disposing of remains than burial. The body may end up looking similar to cremains, but it will take quite a bit longer to do it.

Whether cremation adequately captures the superfluity and inefficiency of the sacred is, to me, an open question. But turning cremains takes the utilitarian logic one step further than we have gone before. While the decision might be a final act of self-expression on the part of the person being cremated, it is different than other means of disposing cremains in that it turns the body into a tool, into something that can be (and apparently is!) used for some other purpose. This sort of creeping utilitarianism raises genuine questions about whether there are any boundaries to the impulse: if bullets, why not electricity or heat? It may not have the allure of creative self-expression, but it serves a similar purpose, namely assisting others in their tasks.

The question is whether that sort of utilitarian impulse precludes the sacredness of the body and of human life. If there is a difference between a human body and a “thing” like a bullet or a chair, then that difference should affect how we treat human bodies after they have died. And while cremation might be acceptable, turning cremains into tools as a form of celebration leaves no space for a purely celebratory moment, a moment not shaped by some task we perform or function we fulfill. If the smoke is really to be holy, then it may have to be extraneous to any other purpose.

Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith. He writes at Mere Orthodoxy. You can disagree with him on Twitter.

  • Carstonio

    This is a strange column, and not just because of Anderson’s slippery slope argument in condemning “creeping utilitarianism.” His whole point assumes that human remains have an inherent sacredness, as opposed to any meaning endowed by humans. There’s no basis for his speculation that utilitarianism for the human body would be incompatible with meaning for human life, as if one couldn’t value both. People donate their organs all the time to save the lives of others, and that’s both utilitarian and meaningful. Besides, perhaps the true meaning of human life lies less in the body and more in the difference that the person makes in the lives of others.

  • Sajanas

    If you’re looking at the Gospels, Jesus does give a decidedly mixed messages, since its clear that the Gospel writers thought it was right and proper that *Jesus* should be given expensive gifts and valuables (like the woman anointing him with expensive perfumes, and the magi giving him swag), but his followers were expected to give up everything to the poor. And that’s only if you consider Jesus to be some sort of ultimate authority… frankly I see it as pleading to authority rather than stating your case.

    But really, the expense of a funeral isn’t about ritual, its about funeral homes gouging people in mourning, making them spend money they don’t have for things the dead person won’t need, wasting resources we don’t have. Its not about practicality versus spirituality, its about not being taken advantage of by an industry that is trying to upsell at people’s most emotionally devastating time.

    George Carlin said it best:
    “here’s another idea whose time has passed! Saving all the dead people up for one part of town?! What the hell kind of a medieval, superstitious, religious, bull@#@% idea is that?”

  • haveaheart

    I would agree that making human or animal remains into ordnance is both distasteful and disrespectful. But what about utilitarian uses that benefit society?

    What about the person who is an organ doner? What about the person who wills his/her body to science for research?

    My mother-in-law long ago made the necessary arrangements to have her body donated to an area medical research institution. Given that she is now well into advanced Alzheimer’s, her body will be valuable for the secrets it may reveal about this horrible disease.

    Since she chose this ending for her body — years before her mind went south — and her choice may help others in the long term, haven’t the respectful and the spiritual been preserved in her humanitarian gesture?

  • Carstonio

    Where in the world did you get the idea that I care more for the dead than the living? And I have no idea what your first paragraph has to do with my post.