Friday, October 14, 2016

Concerning Burning

The burning of books is objectionable on principle. Indeed, whenever I hear of books being burnt, I always think of the famous quote by Heinrich Heine, who was born a Jew but converted to Christianity, and who died 1856. He said, “Where they burn books, in the end they will burn people.” (There is a fine irony in his far-sighted wisdom, since his books were among the many consigned to the flames by the Nazis in the 1930s.) The reason that book-burning is objectionable is that consigning something to the flames means not just its destruction, but in many circumstances its renunciation, and asserts its total lack of value. And pretty much all books have value—even the books the contents of which we disagree with. We may disagree with the ideas some books contain, but the idea of a book itself—that is, offering ideas from one person to another—is valuable and good, for all books involve sharing and dialogue, and all human dialogue has value.

In the same way that burning books is bad, burning people is bad also. Put another way, cremation is not a part of our Christian Tradition. Asserting this flies in the face of much modern North American culture, where cremation is rapidly becoming the preferred method of dealing with the bodies of the dead, but Orthodoxy continues to make this assertion nonetheless. As far as the historic practice of the Church is concerned, cremation involves the burning of people.

Modern secular culture denies this. It says that people—human persons—are to be sharply differentiated from their bodies, so that cremation burns not the person, but the body of the person. The person—the real person—is identified with the soul, and this soul resides in the body in the same sort of way that a letter resides in an envelope. In the case of letters and envelopes, the envelope has no real and lasting function apart from the safe delivery of the letter, and after the letter is received, the envelope may be thrown away. After all, it is the letter which is of value, and it is the letter which we keep. In the same way, modern secularism holds that the soul is the real person, and the body only the temporary container or vehicle for the soul. When the soul departs from the body at death, the body has no more lasting value than the envelope has after the letter is removed. Both may be thrown away, or burned.

Read the rest here.


rick allen said...

"modern secularism holds that the soul is the real person, and the body only the temporary container or vehicle for the soul."

Surely gnosticism is the belief that the soul is the real person, the body only a container. Modern secularism, as a materialist ideology, would hold that there is no soul, except to the extent that it's a function of the material of the body.

Not that I don't get his point, but an act can have numerous meanings. For a very long time the Catholic Church took a very dim view of cremation. I understand that that was because is was touted by some as a declaration that the soul dies with the body.

But no Christian believes that cremating a body makes it any more unsuitable to resurrection than the normal process of decay. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

Indeed, in some ways our American practice of embalming our bodies and burying them in hermetically sealed capsules suggests a push-back against the inevitable.

A few years ago the Archbishop of Santa Fe distributed a circular letter against the practice, very common here, of distributing ashes outside, on a mountain, etc. His point was not against cremation so much as to emphasize the Catholic preference that the remains of a human body be honored, by a visible place of rest where surviving friends and family can have a special place to visit and remember. (and that is of course a widespread custom here on the Dia de los Muertos). Made sense to me.

rick allen said...

By a strange coincidence, the CDF has just issued guidelines on cremation and burial, following fairly closely the position I understood above to be the usual Catholic take:

Or probably not so coincidental, since the question must have been "in the air."