“And when Abraham rose from before the face of his dead, he spoke to the Sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and an alien in your midst, place in my possession a grave in your midst and I will burry my dead from before my face.”
This is the first recorded account of an actual burial in the Bible. God had spoken of burial to Abraham before (Genesis 15:15), but it was more of a passing reference than a description of how to treat the dead. Yet, here we have a specific account of the corpse of a loved one being placed in the ground (in this case, in a cave) and sealed up, “away from sight.” It should also be noted here that since the act of burying the body is casually spoken of with no explanation or divine fiat, it should be surmised that burial was the normal procedure for treating the dead.
It is significant to make note of this because here marks the basis for the Christian and Jewish traditions of burial. Because we anticipate a resurrection, we place the body whole into the ground for keeping until that time when Christ comes again to raise us all — believers to eternal life and unbelievers to eternal destruction.
In the west, the process of cremation has been becoming more popular within Christian circles and rarely is it asked, is this a good thing or is this not a good thing? Surely, the God who created the universe can raise a body from the ashes just as easily as he can raise a long dead and decayed corpse to life, but is that the right question to be asking?
The tradition of burning the bodies of the dead can be traced back to pagan sources, not to Judeo-Christian ones, and that ought to at least raise an eyebrow. The basis of this practice was the pantheistic view that all living things are part of the divine within creation and thus when one’s flesh is burned and returned to the dust of the earth, one’s physical essence continues as part of “Mother Earth’s” life-cycle. And while Christians who are seeking cremations certainly have not subscribed to this pagan way of thought, should we not be concerned about the symbolism that our acts communicate? Then again, perhaps this falls into the realm of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny where certain levels of “socially acceptable” paganism are incorporated into the Christian life…
So, where do we go from here? My counsel would be to think through the question of symbolism, because every action we take can either point others to God or away from God. Indeed, if one is cremated, one need not fear whether our God can raise that person from the ashes…indeed he can! And it should be noted that sometimes there is no other option but cremation (for example in island nations like Japan where there is not enough real-estate to establish large graveyards as we have here in America or where people’s bodies have been turned to ash by bombs). That being said, when we have the option, my suggestion is that the traditional Judeo-Christian model of burying our dead is the best model to follow. It communicates the dignity one has for the corpse as well as the hope of a resurrection far more clearly than through burning the body and burying a pile of ashes. And certainly, Christians ought not choose to scatter their ashes as that communicates an attitude that says, “I do not care about” or “I do not believe in” a resurrection. Such an attitude is not consistent with what we know from scripture to be true.
In the case of Abraham, a specific place for Sarah’s burial is sought out. This will be a place located in the land God promised to the people and that will be kept in memorial for generations to follow. May this model of Abraham guide us in our own model as well.
Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”
I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.
It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.
But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?
In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.
Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.
So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.