Every now and again, I find myself disputing with advocates of human cremation over the propriety of the process. Cremation has very rapidly become the preferred option, in certain sectors of society, for dealing with the corpses of the deceased. Whereas at one time its appeal may have been pretty much strictly economic to those not strongly influenced by oriental, non-Christian culture (or anti-Christian sentiment), it is these days often pitched as a moral recourse to a looming Malthusian crisis of usable land – the argument being that burial unnecessarily consumes land that could be put to more utilitarian use; the accompanying hysterical assertion being that we are running out of land upon which to live because of all the land that is left for the dead.
On the rare occasion I find myself discussing this, I try to make the case that the cremation process – which is by no means a simple incineration, but also involves a subsequent pulverizing of the skeletal remains, as if the bones of the deceased are fed into a human garbage disposal – is a disrespectful way to treat the body of a deceased loved one. To make the point that it should matter to us how the dead are treated, I’ve asked people if they would consider having their wife/husband/parent etc. disposed of corporeally by being dropped into a vat of acid that would eliminate all traces of the deceased, and then could be simply drained away. I’ve intended it as an over-the-top, reductio ad absurdum argument that might give people pause to stop and think about the importance of respect for the corpse. How naive of me…
David Mills published a post at the First Thoughts blog last Friday entitled Rest in Solution, which linked to a Daily Mail article about Belgium’s plan to wash its dead down the drain, a plan which entails using a potassium hydroxide solution to eliminate the fleshly material of the corpse – leaving, as does burning, the bone matter to be crushed. The big selling point? It’s more eco-friendly than cremation, which emits large amounts of carbon dioxide! Gotta watch that carbon footprint! Given the anti-burial movement’s long history of symbolic and actual rejection of Christian resurrection doctrine, I’m not quite sure what to make of the claim in the Daily Mail that the process, called resomation, comes from a Greek word for the rebirth of the human body (soma meaning body in Greek).
The body reduced to near nothingness seems to be of a piece with modernity’s contempt for the body. Moderns seem largely divided into two silently collaborating camps: those who hold a reductionist, positivistic view of human life comprising only bodily life, unsanctified by the spiritual soul – with all that implies for the dignity of the place of man in the cosmos; and, on the other hand, those who, reviving the ancient errors of Gnosticism, see the body as a kind of unfortunate storage place for a soul. But the body is an integral aspect of the human being: neither the totality of the person, nor an inessential “thing” that exists apart from the self – except in that dreadful state of personal violation we call death.
As a counterweight to the depressing, techno-sterile misanthropy of resomation, Mills provides a second link in his article, this one to a Weekly Standard article from last March by Matt Labash called: Love Among the Ruins. It tells the story of “Father Rick” Frechette’s tireless work to minister to the castaway dead in Haiti – among his other acts of mercy to the people of that broken land. I’ve taken the title of this post from the response he gives in the article to a question about why he expends so much time and energy to minister to those who are already dead, and won’t know the difference:
Frechette thinks about it a long while, then says, “If the dead are garbage, then the living are walking garbage.”
In another place, he speaks about why he carries on, offering his gifts of mercy in what seems to be such a losing battle:
“Sometimes with horrible things, you really feel there is nothing you can do. Nothing. You’re just useless. But over time, you start seeing that to do the right thing no matter what has tremendous power.”
Reading this article feels like taking a warm bath after reading that Daily Mail piece. Strange, considering what a tale of desolation and horror it is. God bless you, Father Rick. I think it’s time for a re-reading of the Book of Tobit.