When I was an adjunct English professor I especially enjoyed an assigned reading on all the strange and, let’s be honest, disturbing things morticians do to a body after death. In the United States, the practices surrounding death, wakes, and funerals are strange to say the least. In short, making a person’s body fit for viewing days after decay has begun is no easy task. Blood’s gotta go. Eyelids need to stay shut. Makeup is required.
Despite the rather macabre topic, Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory is a pretty engaging read. Doughty writes from the perspective of the crematory operator, but she also includes fascinating insider information from the embalming side of things, too. Her real aim is to throw back the lid of the casket and take readers into the process of death after death.
This is actually pretty important. As a Christian theologian, I’ve long thought about this problem. Christians typically defend the practice of viewing the body in an embalmed state (and rejecting cremation) as a way of (1) grappling with the challenges of death/dying/grief, (2) rejecting the practices of pagans (e.g. Romans), and (3) affirming the centrality of the body. The last point is particularly compelling: the Christian understanding of death hinges on the promise of resurrection. Christians are often confused about this belief: more important than the immortality of the disembodied soul is the promise of the resurrection of the whole body (body, mind, spirit, soul, strength, and everything else). For many, keeping a body intact (holding off the process of “dust to dust”) seems the best way to affirm this process.
Doughty’s account of cremations certainly does raise the question whether the unity of the body after death is even capable of being accomplished. The “smoke” that “gets in your eyes” is really the ashes of the person: “It settles in places you think impossible for dust to reach, like the inner lining of your nostrils” (also: in the operator’s ears or clothes, the walls of the facility, etc.) (18).
Here’s the problem: modern practices of “death followed by embalming” may very well dishonor the stated justification for avoiding creation in the first place. Even before the mortician embalms, various organs may be removed. Transplants are a gift and a sign of love despite the division of the body, right? But even if we just focus on the intact dead body, we have to consider the practices involved, including the removal and replacement of our bodily fluids (get out your trocar everyone!). And in terms of respect for creation, the idea of putting chemicals into the ground can hardly qualify as a sign of environmental stewardship (not to mention the casket and vault).
So why are we so quick to permanently postpone the famous words of our liturgy: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”? I’m not saying that embalming is theologically illicit, but I am questioning the presumption that contemporary embalming practices are inherently more respectful to the body than cremation. I am also saying that churches almost never discuss these issues, and I’ve never once heard a mortician join in public conversation with a pastor to discuss death, dying, and burial practices from a theologically informed perspective. Thankfully, Doughty has a website devoted to answering many of our questions (see below).
Talking about death is uncomfortable. Sharing details about what happens when the mortician drives away with your loved one may be unsettling (think about that for a moment). But ignoring the question in favor of the unending modern desire to forestall death only complicates the real dialogue we should engage as believers (and dis-believers, too!) in the resurrection of the dead.