Cremation, Confusion, and Christian Hope

Yesterday I officiated a funeral and subsequent burial. Beforehand, there was a viewing of the deceased in an open casket–nothing unusual here. However, just moments prior to the service, the funeral director informed me that the family wanted the casket open during the service. I’ve officiated funerals before, and this was a first for me. Furthermore, we were in fairly tight quarters. The casket was just inches away from me. I occasionally wondered if the people present for the funeral found it hard concentrating on the entirety of the service with the casket open before them immediately next to me. Admittedly, initially I found it a bit awkward.

However, along with the awkwardness I also found officiating a funeral with an open casket refreshing. How so?

  1. In an age where cremation is increasingly outpacing a more traditional burial, an open casket flies in the face of viewing death as a sanitized act. Death is normal (although we weren’t made to die). A funeral with an open casket, which would likely be viewed as overly-morbid (even gauche) by many, clearly communicates the harsh reality of death in ways that a closed casket, and especially cremation, often fail to do.
  2. It serves as a reminder that the person didn’t just disappear. Staring at an open casket, one is faced with the tangible, even tactile, act of death. One is looking at, sometimes even touching, a body whose soul is now departed. It’s much more difficult understanding this concept with cremation, where the body has been reduced to ashes, placed in an urn.
  3. It serves to remind everyone of a future resurrectionAs N.T. Wright puts in his provoking and excellent book Surprised by Hope, cremation suggests “the underlying implication, of a desire simply to be merged back into the created world, without any affirmation of a future life of embodiment, flies in the face of Christian theology (p. 24, emphasis mine).

I’m not suggesting an open casket funeral is preferable to one with a closed casket. However, it does provide some food for thought.