The Briefing 10-26-17
Tags: Audio, Burial, Cremation, Death, Humanism, Liquefaction, Secularism, Thailand, Theology
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, October 26, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll see what burial practices tell us about worldview, why theology always shows up at a funeral. We will understand the emptiness of humanism and observe a Thai king’s very expensive sendoff.
Why we should pay careful attention to the ‘yuck factor’ when considering liquefaction
This particular emerging story hasn't yet gained much attention in the mainstream media. I've been waiting to see when one of the nation's major newspapers or news sources would run an article would run a story on this new development. The New York Times did so just in recent days. The headline appears to be very minimal. It states,
“An Alternative to Burial and Cremation”
That's all there is to it. It appears on page A20 of the print edition at the bottom of the page. It’s just three short columns of print. It's an article that doesn't look to be very important. It almost appears as something of space filler at the bottom of an internal page. But what it’s talking about is liquefaction – that is the new process whereby human bodies are being disposed of by turning them to liquid. It is presented as an alternative to both burial and cremation. Bromwich writes,
“What do you want done with your body after you die?”
He goes on to say,
“It is an unnerving but important question, and for most Americans there have long been only two obvious choices: burial or cremation.”
But he says there is now a third option, liquefaction, a,
“process called by a variety of names — flameless cremation, green cremation or the ‘Fire to Water’ method”
It’s also known as alkaline hydrolysis. He says it's,
“starting to gain popularity throughout the United States.”
The news impetus for the story has to do with the fact that last week California became the 15th state, says the Times, so far,
“to outline commercial regulations for the disposal of human remains through the method, chemically known as alkaline hydrolysis”
There's not much more to the news article. The process is described in minimal terms. We are told that the environmental benefits of alkaline hydrolysis are significant that the carbon footprint is about a tenth of what is caused by burning bodies and cremation. Of course those who are the proponents of cremation dispute the figures, but that's not really the most important issue in the article. And this is the first major article I've seen in the mainstream media, but there have been articles in other forms of the media about this new process. And furthermore it has received some pretty interesting scientific consideration as well.
A major article appeared in the September 7 edition of the magazine Scientific American. The headline,
“Dissolve the Dead? Controversy Swirls around Liquid Cremation”
The author in this case is Devin Powell, and he writes about the fact that indeed there's been controversy about this method of disposing with human remains. He writes and I quote,
“this means of final disposition crosses uncomfortable lines for some.”
He says that one particular funeral service in Columbus, Ohio, started offering alkaline hydrolysis in 2011. However, after the process had been used on 19 corpses, the Ohio Department of Health,
“suddenly stopped granting permits for the process, and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors accused him of ‘immoral or unprofessional conduct.’”
So here you have a service that thought that they were offering a new innovative and environmentally friendly way of disposing of human bodies who was then accused by the professional society there in Ohio of being engaged in immoral or unprofessional conduct. We’re told that this funeral director had been left with $150,000 worth of equipment that was gathering dust.
“He now transports bodies across state lines, to Chicago, for the procedure.”
We’re also told later in the article that with the regulations pending in California the California Catholic Conference had urged the state’s Senate there to vote no,
“concerned that alkaline hydrolysis ‘does not appear to respectfully treat human remains.’”
Now, I'll simply say that in this case I'll think those bishops are on pretty solid ground. It doesn't appear to respectfully treat human remains, but for that matter, neither does cremation. Cremation might be proceeded with the kind of formality, but so could alkaline hydrolysis. There could be a service even with a casket or even with a body present, but the reality is that in either cremation or in liquefaction the body is going to be destroyed in one case reduced to ashes in the other case reduced to liquid. The article in Scientific American says that the liquid remains can be for example taken out to sea where they form a brown puddle with bubbles before eventually disappearing into the ocean blue. The Scientific American article went on to say that alkaline hydrolysis, liquefaction, is also known in various versions by the names biocremation, aquamation and resomation. According to Scientific American, it’s,
“the next big thing for those who want to make an environmentally friendly exit.”
Scientific American also helpfully gives us a bit of history, telling us that the technique has its origins in a patent granted in 1888 for making fertilizer and gelatin. In the 1990s certain laboratories began to dispose of lab animals with the procedure, but it was only in 2006 that a machine was built of a size and capacity that can handle a human body. Fast-forward from that development in 2006 to the fact that the state of California is now adopting regulations for how the process may be used. Scientific American isn’t sure what to do with this morally or in terms of worldview. But the author tells us,
“How we treat our dead is a delicate issue. The ‘yuck factor’ that often accompanies thinking about what happens to bodies of our loved ones was invoked by an Indiana lawmaker (and casket maker) to derail alkaline hydrolysis there. ‘We’re going to put them in acid [sic] and just let them dissolve away, and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever.’”
Those are words of state Representative Dick Hamm as reported by The Indianapolis Star. Is Scientific American right to point to the yuck factor here? I think it's undoubtedly true. But the question is, of course, should there be a yuck factor here? The mere presence of moral revulsion in seeing this kind of development doesn’t mean that the moral repulsion is well grounded or legitimate. But from a Christian worldview perspective, the closer you look at this, the more the yuck factor appears to be entirely appropriate. We are talking here about an act that is just at face value an act of disrespect for the human body. But by extension if we are to understand that liquefaction is an act of disrespect to a human body by destroying it in the name of disposal, then the same logic would have to be extended to any other form of disposal that would also require the destruction of the human body.
The language used to describe and even to debate this procedure is itself telling us something about the reduction of the human being to simply a matter of atoms and molecules upon death so long as the secular world is concerned. I read this,
“One worry might be amount of water used in the process,”
I'll inject here, remember that the argument is that this would reduce the carbon footprint as compared with cremation. But there are those who are arguing that on the other hand, it will use a lot of water. I'll go back to the article, one of the person cited in the article says,
“this might be a consideration during droughts but is otherwise a drop in the bucket.” She said, “If every Californian who died in one year used water cremation, it would amount to 64 million gallons of water in that year.” She says, “One L.A. [water] treatment plant uses more than 500 million gallons in a day.”
End of subject. Now there can be no doubt that at some point these kinds of issues can be reduced to measurements such as 64 million gallons of water, but the bigger issue is what this says about our understanding of what it means to be human. What it means to be human when alive and what it means for a human body to be human even after death. All of this comes as recent news stories we’ve discussed on The Briefing indicate that cremations are becoming in the words of one observer,
“the choice for more and more families.”
In the year 2016 a milestone was reached in which the percentage of cremations as compared to burials exceeded 50% in this case in 2016 reported as 50.2%. We are told that that percentage is expected to rise significantly in fairly short order. Of surprise to many Americans would be the fact that virtually every single religious group represented in terms of Christianity and Judaism and Islam has been steadfastly opposed to the destruction of the body by fire. It would surprise many people to know that until 1963 the Roman Catholic Church forbade cremation, and even after 1963 it advises against it and limits its application to certain circumstances. But as you look to the historic Protestant churches, it’s interesting to note that virtually every single one of them was adamantly opposed to cremation as has been Judaism.
Why? Because any religious impulse that comes from the pages of Scripture has to understand that the willful destruction of the body either by liquefaction or by fire was considered to be something alien from biblical faith. Instead, the biblical understanding of what it means to be human as a psychosomatic unity meant that the body can never be disrespected. In the New Testament we are told that for believers the body is understood to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, we are told in Scripture that there is a basic continuity between the bodies we know now and the bodies we will know then after the resurrection. That glorified body will be different in many ways from our current body, but there will be continuity to it. The Bible's clear teaching is that our body will be raised, it will be resurrected, for the judgment that is to come, and there will be a continuity.
Now there could be no doubt that God is going to be quite able to raise every single body from the dead, including bodies that had presumably over time disappeared into the soil, disappeared into the sea or been destroyed by other means. But that's a very different thing than the intentional destruction of the body. Now when it comes to the matter of cremation, or for that matter now liquefaction, we’re not talking about something that is expressly forbidden in Scripture that would lead us to characterize it as sin. We’re not suggesting that this should be a matter of church discipline amongst Christians. We need to make a clear distinction even as we talk about different moral issues to the fact that some are clearly matters of sin or not sin. Others are matters of prudence are matters of judgment and wisdom. And here is where Christians understanding that some issues can't be reduced to a simple yes or no have to understand that that refusal for simplification does not mean that these are not morally considerable questions, very important questions. So now we have a story that breaks into the mainstream media telling us that now there's going to be a new technology spreading from state to state which can destroy the body as a way of eliminating human remains. And here we simply have to know that even as at present there is something of a yuck factor in response to this news we've demonstrated over time that we are able to get over a yuck factor and move on.
Exploration of burial traditions reveals that secularism doesn’t satisfy when it comes to death
But next in recent days, there was a story at National Public Radio, indicating that there are now American morticians who are exploring what we can learn from other cultures in terms of paths for what's called here,
“the sacred transition of death.”
So now you have this article by Renee Montagne and Samantha Balaban at NPR telling us that it might be time for innovation, spiritual and theological liturgical innovation, when it comes not only to the format of the funeral service but also to what's done with the body. At the center of the story is Caitlin Doughty who is identified as a mortician and author of the book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. That's the kind of title that should certainly attract some Christian reflective consideration, and we are told that her family has decided to go green when it comes to funerals. We read the article and find out that this mortician is interested in a Japanese cremation ritual called kotsuage.
“Here in America when we pull out the bones after a cremation we grind them down in a machine called the cremulator to the ashes we know in a scattering or in an urn. But in Japan, they pull out the full skeletonized body from the cremation machine and the family stands around it with chopsticks. Starting at the feet they pull the bones individually and place them in the urn.”
Interestingly, this mortician in the midst of, yes this was reported on National Public Radio and yes it is important, here we have this reporter talking about this mortician who explains that people were originally horrified by cremation, but they got over it. She also explains that one of the reasons why people were offended by cremation then but are not now is because people back then associated fire with hell, but no longer. Now remember this piece on National Public Radio is about an American mortician who seeking to consider how American burial and funeral traditions can and should change. It ends with a 32-year-old,
“accustomed to thinking ahead,” thinking about her own end. “She wants a green burial. Dust to dust. Unless there's a way to be laid out above ground.”
“The model for this is the Tibetan sky burial, where when someone dies they are laid out to be eaten by vultures. Hence the name ‘sky burial.’ The Buddhist idea,” she says, “isn't worth anything to you anymore, so why are you trying to hold on to it? Why don't you give it back to other animals to take up into the sky? And I think that's gorgeous.”
Now once again, we can see a great worldview dividing line between the people who think that's gorgeous and the people who wouldn't use that word to describe it. But it also reminds us that in so many of these burial rituals having to do with non-Christian religions and traditions the whole point is the worldview assumption that we are spirits entrapped in a body from which we must be liberated. We simply need to note that is not only foreign to Christianity it's antithetical to Christianity. And in terms of how moral and cultural change takes place within a society, you have to note that this kind of article that appears in a place like National Public Radio becomes the entrée for this kind of discussion to become far more widespread. And as we've seen, as in the previous story for the yuck factor to begin to disappear. One day, it's yuck; the next day, it's the service offered next door.
And of course we’re looking at the fact that even in the supposedly secular age people just won't stay secular for long. Even though they declare themselves to be secular, the next thing you know they're going out shopping around the world for some kind of religious meaning they can bring in at the moment of death.
Theology always makes an appearance, especially at the point of death
Similarly, not too long ago, Adam Lee, writing in the pages of the Guardian made the argument that the shift from Christianity to humanism means that most people won’t be looking to the church at all or to any kind of Christian truth or Christian formality when it comes to the final passage of life. And so he says instead, embracing humanism,
“We can design funerals that emphasize the good we did, the moments that made our lives meaningful and the lessons we’d like to pass on. Rather,” he says, “than the same handful of biblical passages, we can have readings from any book, poem or song in the whole broad tapestry of human culture. Rather than mourning, gloom and sermons on sin,” he says, “we can have ceremonies that are joyful celebrations of the deceased person’s life.”
But there you see in the end the banality and the emptiness of the secular worldview. Because if all there is at such a moment is the profound opportunity to celebrate someone's life and that all that remains of that person is our memory of them for however long we can hold it, then it turns out that our lives are not really worth much in the long haul. They're really not much in terms of meaning. The tradition of the Christian funeral going all the way back as we can tell to the earliest time in the church and even the burial and funeral traditions that are revealed in Scripture were all about pointing out the meaningfulness of life precisely because we are human beings created in the image of God. And because the end of our lives is neither the end of history nor the end of God's purposes for our lives, and our identity is not secured merely in our own best memories of the best moments of our life, nor in merely the memories of our friends trying to celebrate those very best moments in our memory, our identity is secured as our existence is secured in the creator God who made us in his image for his glory.
So theology makes a difference. It always makes a difference, and it always makes an appearance, most especially in the moments when theology is unavoidable, such as the moment of a birth, or a marriage or a death. One way or another theology will make its way known because, well here it is, we are theological creatures. We can't help being theological creatures because we were made theological creatures, and we were not made creatures merely intended to end our lives and to have other mere creatures present our bodies to be eaten by other creatures.
A funeral—one that costs between $30 million and $90 million—fit for a king
Meanwhile this week in Thailand, the late King Bhumibol, he's been dead now about a year, is finally being cremated in a cremation that is expected to cost between $30 and $90 million in terms of preparation. A cremation ceremony explained by a professor at the local university in these words,
“‘We believe that the king is a god from heaven. He is totally a god, so when he passes away he has to get to heaven’ to rejoin the main Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.”
So as I say theology always shows up at such a moment, and there it shows up in the form of the Hindu theology explaining the cremation of the late Thai King at a cost of between $30 and $90 million. All these stories appearing in the mainstream media in just the course of a very few days. Think about it.
Thanks for listening to the Briefing. For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to BoyceCollege.com.
Today I’ll be speaking in New Orleans, Louisiana, on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary celebrating its 100th anniversary. I’ll be glad to celebrate that with our sister institution in New Orleans. I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.