As Christians begin to understand themselves as unlimited by time and the physical world they begin to grasp the idea that death is not the end, but the companion of the life of faith. Such an understanding rejects dualistic understandings of the material world by confronting fears about mortality, and in turn it informs how we see our relationship to the earth.
The garden is God’s first gift to humanity. It is created and filled, made ready for mankind as one might prepare a room for a new child or a guest. It has everything the man and the woman need: plentiful food and water, shade, companionship, beauty… Here God walks with the people he has lovingly created. Upon recognition of their nakedness, the man and woman are given clothing made from skins. Again, creation has provided what they needed, even though they only needed it due to their failure to live in the light of God’s love and trust in God’s word. From here on there are struggles between human beings. Beginning with Cain and Abel, there is a struggle for God’s love and a difference of opinion about how to live on the land, whether by farming or hunting. Conflicts continue with God continually trying to teach humanity that it has enough.
The land is repeatedly the site of God’s promise, it is the proof of God’s loving kindness again and again throughout the story: land after the flood, land shared by Jacob and Lot, land that is promised and journeyed toward, land that is the hope of those in exile…
To take this concept of the land literally and specifically has continued conflicts to this day. I will not argue that a specific plot of land as more holy than another. One might, in fact, conclude that the sojourn in Egypt and the Babylonian exile, and the life of the “wandering Aramean” teach people of faith not to hold on to the land so tightly. Yet, the land is life, whether living as owners or sharecroppers. The land, all by itself, without any product yet to name, is called “good” by God, and from the land, we are told, we were created. We are people created from the dust and to dust we shall return, and humanity itself was also proclaimed good.
If we live in the light of these stories, we cannot buy into ideas about the preservation of the body through caskets, embalming and vaults. Modern graveyards have been described as the largest toxic landfills of our time, with tons of concrete, steel, wood and chemicals buried in vast expanses and covered over by chemically treated lawns. These products, purchased out of a sense that we can honor our dead by burying them in something expensive and beautiful, or that we can protect them from the elements, are out of sync with the Hebrew and Christian stories. Ostentatious displays do not really honor the Christian dead. Such materialism is out of step with our humble Lord. The denial of death is incongruent with the one who went willingly to the cross, and in any case, belief in bodily preservation is ill placed. Sealed containers do nothing to stop decomposition; instead decomposition is hastened through anaerobic bacterial processes. The more bodily preservation is sought the more it is lost!
Green burial grounds, though few and far between as yet, allow for preservation of undeveloped land or offer the opportunity for re-forestation as trees may be planted over or near a grave site. Unlike modern commercial cemeteries, which require cement grave liners so that the graves will not sink in and create an uneven lawn, green burial sites allow the use of a simple box or no coffin at all. One may, like Jesus, be simply wrapped in a burial cloth and buried directly in the earth. Such a burial honors the earth. It does not deny death, but performs a willing return of the body to the earth.
Direct burial in the ground is also most congruent with traditional liturgical practices. Those who understand the bread and wine to be Christ’s body and blood return any bread or wine consecrated in the Eucharist that has not been consumed directly to the earth. Evangelical Christians do not have this practice, but in liturgical settings the extra bread and wine is never simply tossed in the garbage or washed down the drain to co-mingle with human waste. It is returned directly to the earth from which it has come. So too, if we are indeed the body of Christ, far be it from the Christian to flush our body parts down the drain (as is done in the process of embalming!) Rather for the Christian it is right for the body to return to the earth.
In some cases, especially where whole body burial is unavailable or at too great a distance, cremation followed by the burial of ashes may be a worthy option. Cremation uses considerable energy and creates heat, however, the burial of ashes in a setting that is close by may provide other benefits. Burial in the church yard, for instance, provides for more regular remembrance by the church family. The use of the energy to cremate may be off-set by the fact that burial in a location that is more convenient does not require friends and family to drive a great distance either for the interment or to visit the site. Even if one is cremated, friends may still care for the body at home prior to cremation, accompany the body to the retort, and then bury the ashes. The words at the Ash Wednesday service, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are more poignant after seeing the ashes of a fellow parishioner – about half a shoe box worth – buried in the church yard. Cremation, if that is your choice, does not necessarily negate any of the other values here espoused unless it is done without care, as if to say that the body does not matter. The body matters as well as the dust.
And with the mention of dust we return to our beginning, that site at which we were first formed by God’s own hands. To say that we are dust and to dust we shall return is to say that we will return to the hands of God, the hands that first formed humankind when the Word was God and the Word was with God. Whether your body returns to the dust after passing through a purifying fire or through the natural process of being wrapped in cloth and laid – box or no box – in the earth, your body returns to the hands of God.
It is for this reason that we must cherish the earth: the earth is where God first met and still meets us. If we are to preserve the world for future generations it is because those future generations will best know the Creator through the creation, not merely because it is beautiful and majestic, but because the land, the earth is where God has always mediated loving kindness to humanity.