A couple days ago, on a comment thread on Facebook, some of us discussed whether a Christian should be buried or cremated. In this post, I will be giving a simple commentary on the text from St. Augustine in his massive City of God. This post will be a longer one, especially because it will include the text in full from St. Augustine, so in this opening paragraph I will give a summary of the outline of the post. First, I will give the background to the text. Next, I will include the text, with commentary interspersed. Finally, I will summarize the claim of the text. The thesis of Augustine, and one that I believe is correct, is: Christians ought to be buried, for this best corresponds to and expresses our beliefs, but tragic events that prevent this are not to be seen as harmful to the hope of the believer or their relatives.
St. Augustine was the bishop in Hippo, a city in North Africa (present day Libya), thus he is called Augustine of Hippo, and he wrote things in various genres, he most well known pieces being City of God and his Confessions. He ministered in the passing of the 4th century into the 5th, and was involved in many debates, his most notable being with the “most famous (or infamous) theologian of British history,” Pelagius, who argued against the doctrine of original sin (that in Adam we all became sinners). If you know about this time in the history of western civilization, you also know that this was the time of the raids on the Roman Empire, and the sack of Rome. In this context, with the Visigoths gruesomely attacking the population, many pastoral questions were being raised. One such question was what we ought to think about all the bodies that were just left out and when sometimes funerals were not possible. What are we to make of this?
Below I will include the text in full, with only short interruptions for commentary. This comes from Part 1, Book I, Chapters 12-13 in the Penguin Classics edition.
12. The lack of burial does not matter to a Christian
‘But many could not even be buried, in all that welter of carnage.’ Religious faith does not dread even that. We have the assurance that the ravenous beasts will not hinder the resurrection of bodies of which not a single hair of the head will perish. He who is the Truth would not say, ‘Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul’, if the future life could be hindered by anything which the foe chose to do with the bodies of the slain. Unless anyone is so absurd as to contend that those who kill the body should not be dreaded before death, for fear that they should kill the body, and yet should be dreaded after death, for fear that they should not allow the corpse to be buried! In that case Christ spoke falsely about ‘those who kill the body, and have nothing that they can do after that’, if they can do so much with corpses. Perish the thought, that the Truth could lie! The reason for saying that they do something when they kill is that there is feeling in the body when it is killed; but after that they have nothing they can do, since there is no feeling in a body that has been killed.
He’s just saying here that in desecrating a corpse, these people are not hurting the eternal state of the individual, since then they would be able to do more than “kill the body,” which Jesus sets as the limit of man’s ability to harm believers.
And so many Christian bodies have not received a covering of earth, and yet no one has separated any of them from heaven and earth, and the whole universe is filled with the presence of him who knows from where he is to raise up what he has created. The psalm says, ‘They have set out the mortal parts of thy servants as food for the birds of the sky; and the flesh of thy saints as food for the beasts of the earth. They have shed their blood like water all round Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.’ But this was said to underline the cruelty of the acts, not to stress the misfortune of the sufferers; for although their sufferings seem harsh and terrible in the eyes of men, yet ‘the death of the saints is precious in the eyes of God’.
In this paragraph, he is saying that they have not destroyed the hope of resurrection for believers’ bodies.
Such things as a decent funeral and a proper burial, with its procession of mourners, are a consolation to the living rather than a help to the departed. If an expensive burial is any advantage to the godless, then a cheap funeral, or no funeral at all, will prove a hindrance to the poor religious man. A crowd of dependants provided the rich man in his purple with a funeral that was splendid in the eyes of men, but a funeral much more spendid in God’s sight was provided for the poor man by the ministering angels, who did not escort him to a marble tomb, but carried him up to Abraham’s bosom.
This is treated with ridicule by those against whose attacks we have undertaken to defend the City of God. Yet their own philosophers have shown contempt for anxiety about burial. Whole armies, when dying for their earthly country, have often shown no concern about where they would lie, or for what beasts they would become food; and their poets could be applauded for saying,
Who lacks an urn, is covered by the sky.
By what right do they jeer at Christians because their bodies are unburied? Christians have the promise that their bodies and all their limbs will be restored and renewed, in an instant, not only from the earth, but also from the remotest hiding-places in other elements into which their dead bodies passed in disintegration.
In all of this, for this chapter, St. Augustine has been arguing that there is no harm done when the body remains unburied. By not burying the body, those who have desecrated it are not harming the person, either regarding his final resting place or his resurrection hope. Ultimately, our hope is in the promise that we are taken up to God and that he is powerful to resurrect the body no matter where it ends up.
Next, St. Augustine argues for the importance of burial.
13. The reason for burying the bodies of the saints
This does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be scorned and cast away, particularly not the bodies of the righteous and faithful, of which the Spirit has made holy use as instruments for good works of every kind. For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing. A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man. Hence the burials of the righteous men of antiquity [in Scripture] were performed as acts of loyal devotion; their funeral services were thronged, arrangements made for their tombs, and they themselves during their lifetime gave instructions to their sons about burial, or even the transference, of their bodies; and Tobit is commended, as the angel testifies, for having done good service to God by giving burial to the dead. The Lord himself also, who was to rise again on the third day, proclaimed, and commanded that it should be proclaimed, that the pious woman had done ‘a good deed’, because she had poured costly ointment over his limbs, and had done this for his burial; and it is related in the Gospel, as a praiseworthy act, that those who received his body from the cross were careful to clothe it and bury it with all honour.
These authorities are not instructing us that dead bodies have any feeling; they are pointing out that the providence of God, who approves such acts of duty and piety, is concerned with the bodies of the dead, so as to promote faith in the resurrection. There is a further saving lesson to be learnt here – how great a reward there may be for alms which we give to those who live and feel, if any care and service we render to men’s lifeless bodies is not lost in the sight of God. There are other examples of instructions given by holy patriarchs about the disposal or the transference of their bodies, instructions which they wished to be taken as uttered in the spirit of prophecy; but this is not the place to discuss them, and the examples we have given may suffice.
But if the absence of the necessities of life, such as food and clothes, although causing much misery, does not shatter the good man’s courage to endure with patience, and does not banish devotion from his soul, but rather fertilizes it by exercise, still less does the absence of the usual honours of funeral and burial bring misery to those who are at peace in the hidden abodes of the devout. Therefore where those honours were not paid to the bodies of Christians in the sack of their great city, or of other towns, no fault lay with the living, who were unable to offer them, and no penalty was suffered by the dead, who could not feel their deprivation.
In the first paragraph, he argues that there are reasons for caring for the bodies of the dead, namely that they are part of a human not to be disposed of carelessly and that there is biblical precedent for caring for them. In the second, he argues that the importance of being careful for how we deal with the dead helps us to understand the surpassing good of caring for the living. Finally, he returns to what he said in chapter 12, that there is no absolute harm done when burial is not able to occur, but rather that the pain felt when we are deprived of this ability helps to steel our faith.
Summary and Argument
St. Augustine moves from the absence of necessity for proper burial to the goodness of doing it. By absence of necessity, I mean that he argues that the soul of the individual who died is not impacted when burial is unable to occur. In our day, we will be increasingly forced to put the emphasis on the latter part of his argument. You see, the Christians that he has in mind likely already have a great concern for burial, so they need comfort in the face of the events that have recently happened which prevented it. Presently, however, we are moving in an increasingly gnostic direction, where the body-soul separation is so great that the body no longer matters. Notice his argument is from basic observation, to biblical examples, to theological and practical conclusions (with a final caveat in the event of inability).
Augustine begins with the basic observation that we (particularly children) deeply value the items used by our family members that have passed on. The example I use is children of soldiers that have died who continue to wear their father’s dog tags. We treasure these items, being careful with them. How much more careful should we be with the instrument of the Holy Spirit, and that which really is part of the person who died? It’s a lesser-to-greater argument that the body of the individual was really part of the individual (not just an adornment) as well as something specially used by the Spirit. If we honor trinkets, why would we not honor the actual person?
While there are times when bodies were not able to be dealt with properly (like the destruction of Jerusalem that he references), the constant mindset we see examples of in Scripture is one where the individual is asking that his body be dealt with properly (or it just happening). Think of the plot of land the Abraham purchased to bury Sarah, or Jacob’s insistence that he be buried there. Think of Joseph’s expression of faith when he commands that his body be taken with the people when they get to leave the land. Each of these is an expression of faith, faith that they really would inherit what was promised. St. Augustine points to the great care taken with the body of the Lord, even though he was going to rise again shortly.
Theological and Practical Conclusions
St. Augustine argues that in burying our dead we are expressing faith in the providence and sovereignty of God to raise the dead. Practically, we are demonstrating to those who observe that we care about people. We believe that we are not simply going back into dust, but that there is a real resurrection, like that of our Lord, coming in the future.
I hear some common statements made that relate to this that I think we do well to address.
- I want my ashes to be spread out over the ocean/mountains/etc. This is a statement that is sentimental and mystical rather than Christian. The funeral pyres of pagan religions also emphasize this ‘joining nature.’ The Christian belief is that when a person dies, their body awaits the general resurrection. When Christ returns, the graves and seas will give up their dead. We are not related to nature the way that statements like this make it seem. We are creatures, like everything else, but we are distinct. There is continuity between the body you have now and the one that you await. As we wait for the new heavens and new earth, we express that even in our death by being buried rather than spread out over some sentimental spot.
- We are all just going to dissolve into dust and become worm food anyway. This view assumes that our bodies don’t matter, and the care of them upon death doesn’t matter, simply because of decomposition. Christians have never been unaware of the effects of time on the corpse, but they have continued to bury their dead anyway. The reason is, again, that this represents hope in the resurrection (which will be of our bodies). Further, this view denigrates the body. It assumes that it is unimportant, something we simply have upon us. However, when God created us, he created us with the purpose of the unity of body and soul. We only distinguish between these two things now because of sin, because something has interrupted the unity. In the new creation, these will be one again and for eternity. Statements relating to decomposition that are said flippantly like this often reveal an unhealthy understanding of the relationship between the body and soul. My body is me, it is a part of me. Sure, when I die my soul and body are separated, and my body will undergo decomposition and God will again raise it from the dust. This does not mean that I all of sudden regard my body as nothing different than the plasticware I use to eat my dinner. Your body is ‘no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to [your] very nature as a man.’
- Doesn’t cremation express hope that God can raise up from the ashes. This sounds good, but it is often connected to the one above, and used to bolster the argument. The problem with this view is that it makes something meaningful that has no precedent for meaning in Scripture. Meaning is given to burial, not cremation. I can’t use koolaide for baptism because it signifies washing with blood, or candy for communion bread because it represents the sweetness of fellowship, or replace the Scripture with a play because it represents that the Word is “living and active,” or preaching with a group talk because it represents that we are unified in our dependence on Scripture. We can’t just give meaning to something we want to do anyway, ignoring a consistent example. Is it commanded in Scripture? No, or else it would be a definite sin not to be buried. But this doesn’t mean we just brush off the normal example as an unnecessary item in the text.
- What if I can’t afford a burial. For this one, you must speak with your elders. Ask them if there is a way to do a burial cheaply, or if the church can contribute to help with the costs. I understand that there is a high cost in this, but don’t just write it of automatically. There may be help that you can receive, especially from the church, and this will more likely be the case if you express the importance that you see in burial. This is a much harder situation that really requires input from pastors who are concerned and understand the importance of burial themselves. If they are not inclined to stay in line with the consistent practice of God’s people for four-thousand years, they may rashly counsel cremation when something could have been done, but if they see the importance and still feel that it is most wise to do it, you can rest in the confidence that “no fault lay with the living, who were unable to offer them, and no penalty was suffered by the dead, who could not feel their deprivation.”
For all of this, I hope that you will recognize that everything we do represents our beliefs, even the way we die/deal with death. Burial represents belief in attainment of the promised land and hope in the resurrection, both of Christ and our own. Cremation represents an unhealthy disregard for the importance of the body, or sometimes an infatuation with some sort of mysticism more in line with idolatrous religions than our own. Still, if for some extreme reason burial is not possible, we have hope that the God who is everywhere and knows all things will be able to locate our bodies when the Lord comes. It is this event that we eagerly await, confessing with the church of all ages (including St. Augustine), that “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” (Nicene Creed)
Augustine, and Henry Bettenson. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. London: Penguin Books, 1984. On Amazon for about $10 here. There are tons of different editions that you can find too at all different price points, as well as free online copies.