Saturday, March 22, 2014

Where are You Going after You Die?

Where are going to end up after you die?  No, this isn't a question about the state of your immortal soul [actually, I don't believe in such a thing:  Christians confess the resurrection of the body, which is something quite different]--but rather a literal inquiry:  what's going to happen to your body when you die?  Are you going to be cremated?  Donated to science?  Or, if you are like most people in this country, perhaps your body is going to be pumped full of formaldehyde, placed in an expensive metal coffin and buried in a concrete vault.  Not quite "ashes to ashes" is it?

The following article in The New York Times got my attention because one of the classes I am teaching this semester is a "doing theology with your neighbor"--where the students are invited to think deeply about the beliefs and practices of another religious tradition such that their own understanding of Christianity might be both challenged and enhanced.

One of the interesting places for this type of interreligious reflection, of course, are the practices around death--in no small part because they reveal so much about what each religion teaches and believes about the human being:  the worth of the body, the understanding of life after death, and the acknowledgment of the interrelatedness between humanity and the rest of creation--or not.  And, of course, it's also an interesting place where common practice often doesn't match up with official teaching, which, I would argue, is the case for many Christians.

As we become more and more aware of the environmental crisis facing the planet, and also more and more aware of human culpability in that crisis, many Christians are realizing the need for a more holistic and interrelated understanding of what it means to be human--and the kind of practices around death and funerals such an interrelated understanding might foster.  We are a part of, and not above, the ecosystems in which we live; and therefore our own resurrection is bound up with and connected to the grand resurrection and restoration of earth promised in the eschaton.  Surely God is not dependent upon our literal preservation of every bit and scrap of our body to ensure a complete resurrection:  knee replacements, organ transplants, amputations--surely that ship will sail for most of us long before we die. So, why the expensive time- and space-consuming [and ultimately futile] activity of preserving and protecting our bodies after death?  Preserving them for what?  Protecting them from what?

For me, I appreciate the theological statement that is made with a "green burial:"  an invitation for God to create life out of our death, and a radical trust that we will be resurrected, not simply as individuals, but as a small but integral part of the glorious, diverse, beautiful cosmos God cares for and loves so deeply.


  1. At Dharma Drum mountain they have established the practice of what they call "ash burials" as a form of environmentally sensitive burial (see item #20 on ). This practice is a radical shift in Chinese sensibilities regarding funerals, as it does not involve siting the burial in terms of feng shui. Thus, there seems to be a convergence of concerns regarding the environment, though the social resistances arise from different cultural preconceptions.

  2. I want a green burial too. So you believe in the general resurrection and eschaton but not the immortality of the human soul? I think the two are compatible.

  3. I'm just saying the church doesn't actually teach the immortality of the human soul, nor that there is a "soul" separable from the body--whatever that might look like. Instead, Paul was clear that it is all of who we are--and certainly our bodies--that is going to be resurrected and transformed.

  4. Thanks for the question and perspective!
    In recent years, I have begun to wonder about the usefulness and efficaciousness of burials and cemeteries, but have not delved any deeper (no pun intended). With the mobility of culture and society, many do not return to "the family plot" either living/visiting or in death. I believe that is true because our ties to and our sense of sacred places is not as meaningful as it used to be, not to mention our understanding of death.
    I can't really say where I will go when I will die, but it will likely NOT be the hometown of my birth, not in the cemetery among my ancestors, etc. I also can't say that I'm particularly worried about it. My presumptive widow, should she outlive me, and/or our adult son, will make a decision based on circumstances at the time, and maybe even a family discussion prior to that time.
    Again, my thanks for your observations.

  5. You are so right about how we are all so spread out, too--and "home" no longer means the same thing to us as it did to our parents and grandparents. That makes a difference in our thinking, too!