What should you do with my dead body?

photo credit: 18thC tombstone, Ecclesmachan - Kim Traynor

No, I’m not dying. Well, actually I am, but I’m not dying any faster than the rest of you. Of course, maybe I am and I just don’t realize it. But that’s a topic for a different post. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t need to figure out what to do with my dead body any time soon. But, I want to ask the question anyway.

“I don’t care what you do with my body. It’s not me. Just throw it away.”

I’ve heard that sentiment many times from Christians. And, it worries me.

We should all affirm that “the story of me” does not end with the death of my physical body. Or, better said: “the story of me” continues because it has been drawn into the story of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. So, whatever I believe about what comprises a human person (one part, two parts, thirty-nine parts, whatever), we should affirm that physical death does bring the story to an end.

But, that’s not the same as saying that my body is extraneous and irrelevant. God created me with a body. And, in the end, he will raise me to live again as an embodied being. That should lead to the conclusion that my body is an important part of who I am. It’s not an annoyance that I just put up with for a time. It’s how God created me. And, I fear that the “just do whatever you want with that dead hunk of meat” stems from (and contributes to) a persistent failure to appreciate this fact.

Augustine wrestled with this very issue in City of God 1.13. In the previous chapter, he assured Christians that even if they were martyred and had their bodies torn apart or burned, they didn’t need to fear what would happen in the resurrection. God knows how to handle things, and he’ll get it all straightened out in the end. But, he didn’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that this means we can just do whatever we want with people’s bodies after they died.

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….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.

So, Augustine wants to walk the line between two false ideas:

  1. Our story is entirely wrapped up in our physical bodies.
  2. Our story has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. And, he thinks that how we treat people’s bodies after they’ve died has significance for life and ministry today. We should treat people’s dead bodies in a way that respects the person, honors God’s grand purposes for the physical world, and manifests faith in the resurrection. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any definite conclusions regarding specific burial practices (e.g. cremation), but it does provide a wise set of ideas to keep in mind when dealing with the issue.


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 1, 2011, in Anthropology, Early Church, Eschatology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Well at my age I am closer to death than most of you, and I am going with cremation for the body…”ashes to ashes, dust to dust..” I will (or have them) bury my remains in the ground. My spot is all picked out (and my wife’s), with, or will have a stone bench near (Ireland). God will raise my dust at the Resurrection!

  2. I did not think Dean’s ever die,

  3. Raises the issue of organ donation. Is it really honouring to the body to have it harvested for all the functioning bits after death? Obviously there are good reasons for it, but it seems to me that the issues are more complex than we often let on. If the treatment of a corpse is to be shaped by our resurrection hope, perhaps we should be less cavalier about treating our bodies like old cars, fit to be pulled apart for spares when they’re taken off the road.

    • I think that being “less cavalier” is exactly the direction this should press us in. Whatever decisions we come to should be more reflective than tends to be the case.

  4. I used to think “Who cares!? Do to me whatever is cheapest (ie, cremation)!”, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot more about the symbolism of burying a body and the consistency of its practice throughout Christian history. So, if I can find a way to bury my body that is not outrageously expensive (or a scam), then maybe I’ll go that way.

    I was also really struck by the practice of burial when I was in Jerusalem, walking through all the old Jewish graveyards. Our guide said that everyone was buried with their feet facing towards Jerusalem, so that when the Messiah came, they could be raised facing his entrance into Zion. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but if it is, it makes me want to take burial and dead bodies more seriously.

    I listened to an interview recently about how “funerals” have transformed into “memorial services”: how bodies and caskets are decreasingly central to them and how these services are less and less about the deceased actually going somewhere and more and more focused on the living and their memories. Hmm…

  5. I find it very interesting that the Hebrew word “aphar”, used for man in Gen. 3:19; it is simply “dust”, “ashes”, used also for the earth and ground. Of course here is the “body” of man or the human being. And when it dies, it will return to this form, or should. For here the body was taken. Therefore, cremation appears to be a cleaner and faster way to return this “body” to its original composition. We should note also that the RCC allows for cremation also.


  6. Odd, I just came back from a cadaver lab that I visited this afternoon as the bioethics discussion over cadaver ethics emerged. It is a serious discussion that many medical students, nurses, physical therapists etc. have had to pause, think about, and discuss. So would you donate your body to science? Just wanted to pick your brain on this one.

    • I would leave that for the pagans 😉 , i.e. the donation of one’s body. Btw, I was pre-med years and years ago, but went Philosophy & English Lit. (and later, after my first tour with the Royal Marines, went theology.)

    • I’m still inclined to support the practice, though it’s not the “no brainer” for me that it used to be. Since I used to take the “hunk of dead meat” view of the body after death, I could never understand why anyone wouldn’t do something like this. Anything else seems like wasting a good resource. Now that I’m beginning to see that more is involved, I’m approaching the discussion far more cautiously. But, I think I could still donate my body, not because it’s a “resource” that can be used however we want, but because I would see it as an extension of my commitment to live out kingdom values in a broken world.

      • Very interesting Mark! Certainly how each of us sees the use and even disposal of our own body, is left (or should be) to again each of us. But the Christian, and his/her belief in the glory and the place of the resurrection, and especially the Resurection of Christ simply must dominate our thinking and place therein! So for me at least, this idea of giving our body to science is really more pagan, than it is Judeo-Christian; again this is my conviction at least. So I very friendly but certainly disagree! And as noted, I see the great place and value of the dead body’s cremation at death. For God In Christ, can and will raise the body’s ‘dust & ashes’ at the resurrection…”of both the just and the unjust.” (Acts 24:15) Note, the Christian’s body belongs to the Lord, and even at death! (1 Cor. 6:19-20 / 2 Cor. 7:1 / Jude 9 / Rom. 14: 7-9)

  7. Not so sure about the Romans 14:7-9 passages as point action. The present tense of dying suggests to me that St. Paul is referring to the dying process as one set aside to Christ in a theology of witness/martyrdom. But what do I know I am a bioethicist 😉

    As far as cadaver ethics, after the pick’n and grin’n is respectfully done, the remains are buried in accordance with the deceased’s wishes. So, I don’t see how that is any different from immediate disposal-cremation or otherwise. If you are into stewardship of God’s money, the education departments often pay for a part of the simple burial with no embalming costs since the remains are already pickeled. So the estate gets the savings for Kingdom work or you can use it for a really nice wake-like the Waking of Ned Divine. It depends on the state however.

    • Since I have seen mates literally blown to pieces, I am so happy that God is the God of the dead and the living, and certainly the Resurrection and the Life! As I age, I can see that my younger self, and the once athlete moving to memory! But God is good, and HE changes not! 🙂

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