The last half century has seen changing attitudes not only to the act of dying but also to how the human body after death is treated. For one thing, there has been a tremendous increase in the use of cremation in the West to dispose efficiently of the corpse or to reduce it to manageable size for being placed in a resting place. For another thing, the positive value placed on cemeteries and graveyards by society has been eroding.
One may claim that in American culture, religion and law from the colonial days to the decades immediately after World War II, there was a deeply ingrained respect for the dead and for the places set apart for the burial of dead bodies. And the underlying reason for this profound respect was the Judaeo-Christian heritage that (a) human beings are created as a unity of body-soul in the image and after the likeness of God; and (b) that the graveyard is a dormitory (=cemetery) where the bodies “sleep” until the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. To this, for Christians especially, was the added dimension that the body had been made holy by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and is precious unto the Lord.
In the American courts a powerful metaphor (for a public that knew the content of the Bible) used by judges to emphasize the sacredness and uniqueness of land consecrated for burials was “God’s Acre.” It was based on Genesis 23, a chapter wholly given over to the purchase of a burial place, the Cave of Machpelah with the adjoining land, by Abraham for his wife Sarah. This burial place then became the resting place for all the patriarchs of Israel, together with their wives and families (see Genesis 25:9; 49:31 & 50:13) and is thus an important piece of hallowed ground for the Jewish Bible (= Christian OT). It is still hallowed ground for Jews, Christians and Muslims and is situated at modern Hebron.
As far as I can tell, the last use of this metaphor by the Courts to emphasize the unique nature of consecrated burial-land was in the mid 1960s. The dropping of this metaphor may be seen to reflect not only the decreased knowledge of the Bible by the general public, but also the changing perception of the social value of burial-lands, especially when they claim prime land in growing cities. (Apparently the modern city of San Francisco has no burial grounds at all within its boundaries.)
Sometimes cremation is the only possibility available in modern times to residents in a city or with very limited means. And a major problem here is that this can occur in such a way—and there exist societies to make this possible— that there is virtually no respect for the dead as the children of a loving Creator displayed at all in the very technological and mechanical processes.
It is well to recall that one consistent theme through human history until the latest phase of the western world has been the awesome respect for the dead and for ancestral graves. Indeed, what archaeologists find more than anything else as they unearth the remains of previous civilizations is that there is a preponderance of artifacts which relate to the care of the dead!
All this—and much more than can be told here—point in the direction that the only way in some cases to ensure a Christian burial for oneself and using a wholesome Rite is (a) to make this clear in one’s will and other papers, and (b) leave the money for it to be done. Alternatively, one needs to leave instruction that if cremation is used, it is used in such a way as to honor the basic doctrines of the human being in God’s image and the hope of the resurrection of the body—and this is easier said than done, as caring pastors know from experience.
Regrettably many modern funerals—even in church—have little to do with the proclamation of the Christian hope of the union of body-soul in a new resurrection body of glory for life in the communion of saints in glory, and much to do with “a celebration of a life”, the telling of the supposed good life and deeds of the deceased. That is they look backwards (not sure there is a future to look into) instead of forward in faith, HOPE and love.
Dr Peter Toon,
President of the Prayer Book Society 2007