Chapter 4: A Sister’s Cremation: The Question of Resurrection

When A Person Dies: Pastoral Theology in Death Experiences
by Robert L. Kinast

Chapter 4: A Sister’s Cremation: The Question of Resurrection


It is a weekday morning. A woman in her late fifties is knocking hard and loud on her neighbor’s door. The neighbor is only a few years older than her friend, but she recently had a foot operation and still moves around rather slowly. Besides, her hearing is a little impaired and her doorbell never works. Her friend knows all this, so she makes a lot of noise when she comes by and waits for the door to open.

Usually she and her neighbor do things together: go to church, shop, play cards, watch TV. They are both widows and have been close friends most of their adult lives. They find mutual support in their friendship and they look out for each other. In fact, this recent foot operation was a joint decision. It was corrective surgery that didn’t have to be done but was supposed to help relieve some discomfort. They talked about it, considered the implications, inquired about medical coverage and costs, and finally decided to go ahead with it.

Their shared feeling was that even though they were aging and past their prime," there was no reason why they shouldn’t take good care of themselves. If minor foot surgery would make it easier and more comfortable for one of them to get around and there were no real obstacles, why not do it? Part of their agreement was that while the one was recuperating, the other would do the shopping for her, pay her bills at the bank (to save on postage), cash her pension check, etc. They had it all worked out and things had been going well the first week after the operation.

When the door finally opened, it was obvious something was wrong. As the one woman inched back on her cane into the house, she kept grumbling and complaining. She was very disturbed about something. It took a few minutes to calm her down and get the story. Late last night she had received a phone call from her brother-in-law telling her that her sister had died. That was shocking enough, but when she asked about the funeral arrangements, she was told that her sister had already been cremated. That disturbed her most of all.

The news of her sister’s death was quite surprising. She had been in reasonably good health for someone nearing sixty-five. On the other hand, she didn’t write or phone very often, and she had been living in a city 300 miles away, so visits were infrequent. Anything could have been happening to her health and the family wouldn’t have known about it unless she took the trouble to tell them. Her husband surely wouldn’t.

He had never been on good terms with the rest of the family. They all felt he had seduced their sister and caused her to divorce her first husband whom they all loved. Sometimes they felt angry toward the sister; sometimes they felt sorry for her. She didn’t seem to be all that happy in her second marriage, almost as if she were being controlled by her husband. There was never much variation in the family’s feelings toward him; they were always angry with him,

Another reason why they couldn’t stand him was that he was an avowed agnostic. He made no secret of his disregard for religion and seemed (to the family) to delight in criticizing church-going people as hypocrites or duty-bound slaves to habit. He could be very cynical about religious beliefs and practices, all of which the family valued very highly. They were staunch, traditional Christians who were very involved in the church and very dependable volunteers.

Over the years a lot of hostility built up and was never dealt with directly or honestly. Everyone seemed content to tolerate the husband on the occasional visits home (no one ever visited them) and to communicate only with their sister. So it was quite strange to hear his voice on the phone last night. The conversation was not lengthy. He simply wanted to inform the family that their sister (he did not say his wife) had died and in accordance with her wishes had been cremated. Her ashes were in a mausoleum. Settlement of the estate would be handled soon, but almost everything had been willed to the husband.

The call had come too late for the sister to let her neighbor know, but she launched right in as soon as she came to the door. She had a mixture of feelings: sadness that her sister had died, frustration that she couldn’t have seen her and didn’t even know that she had been ill, anger at the husband for not telling anyone, and outrage at the fact that her sister had been cremated. She kept lamenting that "she had to have something like that done to her." It seemed just like her husband to pull such a thing, knowing how it would disturb everyone in the family. And cremation! Here she was, going through this operation at her age to try to feel her best and take care of herself, because she was always taught that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and we should take care of them. Her sister knew that too, and now she was cremated.

It didn’t help when her friend tried to point out that she was just as dead whether cremated or embalmed. To her sister, she had been violated. Maybe pagans who don’t worship the true God and don’t know any better can cremate people. But in this case, someone had intruded into the way God intends things to be done. And she knew just who that someone was and why he had done it.

Theological Question

The sister in this instance doesn’t seem to have any questions. She is full of judgments and feelings built up over years of pent-up animosity. Very little that anyone can say or do now will change that. But underneath her anger, there are two issues that may be troublesome to her and that are real questions for other people. One concerns our bodily existence and its value in our ultimate destiny. The other is the actual condition of our bodily selves in the afterlife, what has customarily been referred to as the resurrection of the body.

This woman places real value on her own bodily existence. She is willing to go through an unpleasant operation to improve her physical condition, and she seemed to feel some theological responsibility for taking care of herself, symbolized in the notion that she is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The value of the body is largely shared by people, whether from religious motives or not. The only self we know is a bodily self, and so we are prone to affirm our bodiliness as good because it is who we are. The question is whether this value, which seems so clear in this life, carries over to the next life. Is our bodiliness valuable enough to be included in our immortal existence?

Opinions divide on this question. As we saw in the previous chapter, the Greek philosophical tradition, which has influenced our Christian theology so much, did not see the body as valuable enough to carry over to the immortality of the soul. In fact, the body was seen as a liability to the soul, no matter how useful or necessary it might be for existence in this life. The body simply belongs to a lower level of existence, and the sooner it can be discarded, the better. This leads to a dualistic view that many still espouse, according to which the material and spiritual, body and soul, are seen as separate and unequal elements, temporarily joined together (during our lifetime) but separated in death so that the soul can assume its rightful, higher place. The body has some pragmatic value for life in this world, but no value whatsoever for the afterlife.

The Jewish tradition, which has also influenced Christian theology, although not always so much as the Greek philosophical tradition, did see the body as valuable and integral to the life of the person. This was felt so strongly that for a long time Jewish people envisioned no immortality or resurrection for the dead because it seemed to them that when death occurred, the whole person died. Death meant a kind of hazy, indefinite drowziness, not exactly unconsiousness but certainly not fully alert, active existence. This conclusion followed from their very holistic view, which many people today espouse on different grounds, according to which the material and the spiritual, the body and soul, are inseparably united. Whatever the fate of one, that is the fate of the other. Bodysoul existence is always a united, integral existence.

The Jewish expectation of a general resurrection, which had been developing shortly before the time of Jesus, was consistent with this holistic view. At the end time, the dead would be raised up by God. The whole, bodysoul person would be resurrected. This expectation, and the language/imagery used to convey it, was used by the early Jewish Christians to express their experience that Jesus had been raised from death by God. One of the startling features of their proclamation was that one person had been resurrected before the rest. But another feature was not so startling to Jewish hearers: Jesus had been raised as a bodysoul person.

Many persons today accept a holistic view of the human person not on biblical grounds but on modern scientific, biological, psychological grounds. On this basis alone, many persons conclude, like the ancient Jews, that the whole person dies. Without any religious belief in immortality or resurrection to supplement this conviction, they see nothing beyond this life. There are no compelling reasons to think that one part of a person lives on if the whole person does not live on, and it is hard to imagine how a whole bodysoul person can live on.

Perhaps the cremated sister’s husband felt this way. He just didn’t have any persuasive reason to think that the whole person who is his wife doesn’t die completely. The traditional religious beliefs of his in-law family may have struck him as a hodgepodge of philosophy and religion with no real consistency. His wife dies; her body decays but the soul lives on; eventually the body will be resurrected and reunited with the soul. His wife will be complete again. But what about in the meantime? Was she whole or not? Either the body is integral to a person’s existence or it isn’t. If it isn’t, why reunite it? If it is, how can it be suspended and the person still be in existence? The attempt to have it both ways strikes many people today as inconsistent and possibly unnecessary. The real task is to explain the immortality of the whole person without minimizing the value of the body dimension by postponing its inclusion or presenting it as an eventual addition to the real person, the soul.

This touches on the second theological issue lying behind the irate sister’s feelings -- the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of the body certainly points to the ultimate value of the body, the material dimension of afterlife, and sees the whole person as the ultimate goal. But the resurrection, as pointed out in the last chapter, is a special act of God. It is not an automatic, natural event. This fact alone may make some people wonder how intrinsically related the body is to the soul if it takes a special act of God to resurrect it. However, if we do not assume the Greek idea of a temporary separation of body and soul, then we can think of the resurrection as affecting the whole person, all at once -- as the ancient Jews thought of it. When this holistic resurrection takes place is another matter, one we shall discuss shortly.

Apart from these considerations, there is the further question of what the resurrected bodysoul person is like. Usually this question is asked in terms of the body only, because it is assumed (from the Greeks again) that the soul is what it is and cannot be different, whereas the body, or our bodiliness, can take different forms. This is part of the sister’s anxiety about cremation. What if something essential to the bodily composition is destroyed in that act? What if our resurrected body depends in some way on the condition of our body when we die?

Speculation about what the resurrected body is like has virtually nothing to go on. The accounts of Jesus’ resurrected appearances are highly stylized proclamations that do not seem to have been written to give us information for our questions. Probably the response of St. Paul to the Christians in Corinth is the most perceptive (1 Cor.15:35-36). When asked what sort of body the dead will have when they are raised, he replied that that was a foolish question.

Well, foolish or not, theology tries to answer it, speculatively but consistently with what is known from tradition as well as what is seen, maybe for the first time, in contemporary experience. The challenge to theology is to affirm the whole person while explaining the resurrection. How does theology do this?

Theological Reflection

A typical theology keeps the discussion of the resurrection of the body in its proper biblical context -- the resurrection of the dead. To isolate discussion and focus it on the body is a misleading theological direction. The resurrection of the dead conveys two important points. One is the whole person; the other is the communal or social aspect of resurrection.

Death affects the whole person, not just the body. It is incorrect, from a theological point of view, to say that only our body dies. The thorough, permeating dimension of death is better conveyed by the expression resurrection of the dead, which is also the biblical and early creedal expression. This is hard for many people to grasp today because we have become so accustomed to thinking of death as a separation of body and soul, implying that the soul is unaffected by death. But if the soul is embodied, indeed if the purpose of the human soul is to enliven bodily matter, then even a separation is a death for the soul in the sense that its purpose is over, its capacity to enliven this body is completed, its existence as an integral part of this bodysoul person is terminated.

In addition, the phrase "the dead" is a collective. It includes all those who have died. Whether we assume that each of us is essentially an individual who chooses to join others in various forms of social grouping or that each of us is primarily and inescapably social, the fact remains that death is a shared experience that ironically unites or confirms us in some social dimension. Consistent with this, resurrection conveys a social or communal event, the raising up of those who have died.

Given this holistic and communal dimension, a typical theology cannot say much beyond the fact that our bodies will be transformed through the resurrection. This event is generally associated with the end of the world but not much more is specified. For the most part, the biblical imagery of the end time is retained and the philosophical description of immortality (sketched in the previous chapter) is used. The two are put together without a great deal of harmony, and the questions of the cremated woman’s sister are not often dealt with. The result is a not very satisfying explanation of the resurrection of the body in the context of the resurrection of the dead.

Some modern theologians, relying on insights and suggestions from human development studies, have tried to describe a kind of total human process that goes on in and during the experience of death. In these descriptions, the person (e.g., the cremated sister) acts as the primary agent, finally shaping her whole life project and emerging as a whole into an immortal, afterlife state. Viewed from an immortal perspective (God’s), this could be called a kind of resurrection or transition from one form of bodysoul life to a new form of bodysoul life. The resurrection in this sense would occur at death rather than in some future time. The communal dimension is expressed in the fact that who she finally becomes is influenced by and includes all the others who have been part of her life in any significant way.

This approach appeals to many people, although it does not seem to do complete justice to the biblical accounts/expectations of the resurrection of the dead, and it seems to minimize God’s active role in the process. It cannot really be called a typical theology of resurrection because not that many theologians today advocate such a view, but it is a new explanation that tries to answer consistently the questions raised above. Such a view draws upon a relational understanding of reality and will be developed more fully later.

One of the goals of a typical theology of resurrection is to affirm the value and dignity of the body, even if we don’t know very clearly what happens or will happen to it in the resurrection of the dead. One of the most concrete ways this value and dignity is expressed is by the reverence/care shown for the corpse. How this is expressed will vary from culture to culture, or from time to time within a given culture. The customary practice in our society of embalming and publicly viewing the body is one way of doing this, but it is by no means the only way. Variations from the customary practice, however, are sometimes interpreted as a variation from the underlying value. That seems to be the case with the sister. She interpreted her sister’s cremation as a violation of her dignity.

She may have had other concerns, depending on how literally she understood the resurrection of the body to be a raising of this bodily material. Of course, for someone who believes that God can and does create out of nothing, recreating or reconstituting the ashes of a person would not seem to be that much of a problem. This degree of literal belief, however, does pose another, real problem because it tends to equate resurrection with resuscitation and perhaps to overidentify the resurrection with what happens to the body. When people make this identification, they lose sight of the faith proclamation about resurrection and reduce this great and hopeful mystery to a problem of chemistry and biology.

Respect is shown to the corpse, not necessarily because this body will be enlivened again one day to function more or less as it did during the sister’s lifetime, but because the sister’s bodiliness, concretized in and through this body, remains an inseparable dimension of her very existence. We can’t relate as directly or intimately to her existence now as we used to, but her corpse (or ashes) gives us some point of contact, some focus for our attention. It is no longer who she is, but it is a reminder of who she was. Whatever transformation has taken place or will take place in her existence, it is a transformation of an actual life that this corpse was integrally part of as her earthly body. It is that past and future life which is valued, and this is expressed by showing respect to the corpse.

These points fit in with a relational view of reality and can be amplified by looking more closely at that view and asking: How would the resurrection of the body be interpreted in a relational approach?

The foundation for a relational interpretation is the relation of the body and the soul. Other terms could be used to describe these two primary dimensions of human existence and experience, but these are the customary ones. In the last chapter, the husband’s new experience of his wife’s presence was explained as a radical new relationship that she had assumed to the world through death. Instead of the world being for her, she was now for the world. It was mentioned that during her lifetime, she was the center of her existence and the world provided her with the material out of which she created her relationships, i.e., who she was to be, her selfhood.

In a relational view, this pattern is found in everything that is actual. But the actual things we know most about are ourselves as human beings. Our experience of being alive is an experience of centering the world around us, of bringing the world into relationship with us, from our perspective. We cannot not do this and be alive. Now, the organizing, coordinating center of our existence is our selfhood or soul. This has two dimensions. One is the general nature or character of the human soul. Whatever it is that makes the human soul human and distinct from all other life-centering forces, that is the general nature of the soul.

But this general soul never actually exists except in relationships because nothing is actual unless it is in relation. So the soul is human at one level and simultaneously personal or self at another level. The second level is the level of concrete experiences, of particular occasions of relationship. Thus, in a relational view, there is no such thing as an unrelated human soul or a soul related only in general to the world. Actually to be a human soul, it has to be in relationship concretely, specifically.

Obviously, this understanding is in conflict with the classic Greek notion that the soul could and should escape its relation to the body and exist body-less in a totally spiritual realm. Such a view is neither possible nor desirable from a thorough and consistent relational perspective.

It is the concrete relationships of the soul that are of initial interest here and that are most accessible to us. The nature of the soul as such is known to us only through these concrete relationships since that is the only way we know anything. And the most significant soul relationship is the relation to the body. The body is the immediate environment of the soul, the physical point of contact with the available material world. How this intimate relationship originates is not the prime concern here but rather how the soul and body function together. They function in an interdependent way.

This means that they provide something indispensable for each other (just as the world provides God with actual experiences and God provides the world with ranked possibilities from those experiences). The body provides the soul with concrete, limited, definite, specific material to relate to; the soul provides the body with order, direction, harmony, coordination. The body’s contribution to the soul comes in numerous ways, through sensations, impulses, perceptions, location, etc., all of which are filtered through the brain. The soul’s contribution to the body comes in numerous ways also, through memory, judgment, intuition, imagination, etc., all of which are filtered through the brain. In this sense, the brain is the meeting place of the soul and body.

These interactions occur so rapidly that we are not aware of most of them. We become aware only of large-scale, dominant, and relatively final impressions. Our feelings, our thoughts, our movements, our sensory perceptions -- each of these is itself a clustering of innumerable interactions between the soul and the body exchanged through the brain. In all of this activity, the soul is constantly relating to, experiencing the body as its body, and the body is sensing the world as a world for its soul. There is an intimate "withness" that characterizes the relationship.

This may be detected by the way we speak of ourselves as acting. We do not say that we see what our eyes see or hear what our ears hear, as if our experience and the organs of our experience were separate. We say that we see with our eyes or our eyes see; we hear with our ears or our ears hear. Our language is accurate. We are verbalizing one of our most basic, intimate, complex experiences, and because it is so close to us, because it is our self experiencing, we tend not to be aware of it.

One of the implications of this view is that in every occasion of experience the soul and body are experiencing together. They do not experience the same thing together, but they experience themselves being together; they experience their intimate interdependence. This experience is repeated countless times in every instant, but each time is new and reinforces all the previous times while opening up into the next time. Until death.

At death this interdependent activity ceases. Whatever causes the cessation, the result is that the bodysoul interrelationship ends. Does anything remain? Yes, and this is where the general nature or character of the soul comes in. What remains is the accumulation of previous bodysoul experiences. This accumulation is housed in the soul because the soul has a capacity for order, coordination, harmony, synthesis, etc. This is characteristic of the soul, whereas the body is an ordered, coordinated, harmonized vehicle for supplying the "stuff" of experience. The body in this active respect does not remain after death; it becomes a corpse. But the body, in the sense of the intimate supplier of the soul with the primary data of its experiences, remains with the soul.

To translate this into somewhat more concrete terms: the cremated wife’s life consisted of innumerable relationships or experiences. In each one, her bodysoul was the way she experienced; indeed, she was her bodysoul experiences. This means her experience was what her soul (self) experienced of the world her body provided. Put another way, her soul experienced the world that was her body, the world mediated by her body. These experiences were the relationships that constituted her life, and every one of those experiences included a bodysoul relationship.

How does this relate to the resurrection of the body? Initially, it means that the body that is resurrected is the body as experienced in the lifetime of bodysoul relationships to the world. This bodily experience is not every occasion that was shared by the bodysoul. it is rather those occasions that the soul retains, reaffirms, includes, remembers, etc. Put another way, the resurrected body is the relevant body in the soul’s experience.

This is the unity, the wholeness, the integral and inseparable oneness that has been affirmed in the biblical tradition. This is the only actual body there is, and it shares in the destiny of the soul after death. The material construct that was the active body before death is now the corpse, no longer actually related to the bodysoul person who has died, and no longer relevant to the future (immortal) bodysoul experience.

In this view, the resurrection of the body is immediate, and the soul is the prime agent. Through the experience of relating to the body, which is an accumulated experience, the soul preserves the body as an integral part of its own experience. The soul could not eliminate this experience and still be the soul because the body is too intimately and integrally part-of the experiences that constitute the soul. The unity is unbreakable, but is it immortal?

The bodysoul experience just described is the initial moment or phase of the resurrection of the body. It is the foundation for the next moment or phase of resurrection, that provided by God. As mentioned previously, God relates to everything and everyone that is actual. The bodysoul experience after death is an actual experience that God relates to fully. In this act of relating, God keeps the bodysoul experience actual, in existence, and does so in the way described in the previous chapters.

But more than this, God relates this "resurrected" bodysoul to all the other experiences that God relates to, including in this comprehensive network all those who have previously died. In the terminology being used here, God relates each resurrected bodysoul person to every other resurrected bodysoul person. This is something only God can do. The soul of each person can resurrect the body of that person through the accumulated, uniquely intimate relationship generated through a lifetime; God resurrects that same bodysoul person by including it in the accumulating, uniquely comprehensive relationship generated by God’s experience.

This is not just an addition to the bodysoul resurrection. Without God’s inclusion, the bodysoul experience could not survive. It would be neither immortal nor resurrected in the full sense of the general resurrection of the dead. Only that resurrection endures, and only that resurrection is God’s to effect. In this way, a relational view affirms both God’s primacy and the resurrection of the dead, not just the resurrection of the body. In fact, the resurrection of the body would be only a momentary experience, passing out of actuality almost as soon as it became actual unless there were a resurrection of the dead to sustain it. And only God can resurrect the dead.

In this view, however, the resurrection of the dead is an ongoing, ever-increasing event. There is no real interim state between a person’s death and the final resurrection. There is a continual process of inserting each person with his or her personal bodysoul resurrection into the accumulation of others who have died and are given immortality by God. This seems consistent with a relational view, but is it consistent with our belief? The full answer to that question can only be given by looking at the next two chapters on judgment and the end of the world.

At this point, it is sufficient to note the following. In this approach, the unity of the human person is maintained. This means that the value of the bodily dimension is upheld. Moreover, that value carries over to immortality, while the unity of the bodysoul person is simultaneously affirmed by explaining more carefully in what sense the body is united to the soul and remains united after death. Finally, the resurrection of the body is integrally related to the resurrection of the dead as God’s act whereby each individual is related to all others through God’s relational experience. Thus, at bottom everything of ultimate value derives from God, which is what any theology aims at proclaiming.

Practical Implication

In the case that began this chapter, the sister was disturbed that her sister had been cremated. According to the theological reflection developed here, there is no need to be disturbed. She might have other concerns, especially relative to her sister’s husband, but cremation itself does not affect the eventual resurrection of her sister. Her ashes have a value as a concrete focal point for those who knew her, but the resurrection of the body doesn’t pertain to this remnant as such. This may not be easy to explain to the sister, especially if her own convictions are tied in with a very literal reading of Scripture. Probably the most effective way to communicate with her is to invoke God’s power to raise up her sister. The relational view presented here affirms the same thing but explains it quite differently. If a further explanation were needed (or if she could really hear it), it would follow along the line presented above. The key points are that we live and die as whole persons and we are raised to immortal life by God alone along with the rest of the dead.

Part of her disturbance over the cremation also stems from her own valuation of the body and the care she takes of hers. These values are worth affirming. From a relational point of view, the body is important; in fact, it is indispensable. The body is not just an instrument, used rather mechanically to get on in life until we are freed from its restrictions. The body is how we relate to the world, and the quality of our relating is partly dependent on the condition of our bodiliness. This important role of the body generates a respect for it, both in life and in death, but cremation isn’t necessarily a sign of disrespect.

More than anything else, questions about resurrection should lead to a reaffirmation and clarity about the primacy of God. No matter how we understand or explain resurrection, we can’t resurrect ourselves. Only God can do so, and God does so only in relation to everyone else, i.e., the resurrection of the dead. God seems willing to do this; in fact, God virtually needs to do so to be true to the divine nature of relating to everyone and everything fully. Not to resurrect someone would be to let that person simply die, pass into oblivion. This would diminish God’s perfection or fullness because there would be one less relationship than there could have been. This seems to suggest that no one is every excluded from God’s relationship. That has direct implications for the next topic: judgment.