Culture At Large

A Christian's take on cremation

Caryn Rivadeneira

By the time I was 11, I knew exactly how I wanted to be buried. It wasn’t a death wish, by any means. Instead, I credit a long-forgotten story about a girl who got lost in a cemetery. After the rush of her spine-tingling and hair-raising adventures, I decided that was the legacy I wanted to leave to folks who came to visit my grave.

So, I imagined my burial site with twisting, gnarled trees - packed so dense the sun stood no chance of sneaking in. Black crows would perch and squawk in the branches. Vines would twist and moss would crawl over cracking tombstones. It would need to be the kind of burial place in which no one would linger without jumping at the sound of a snapped twig.

Obviously, I was a weird child.

And, apparently, that weirdness dies hard. Because if you asked me today (and now that I’m nearly 41, the subject has come up in earnest a time or two), I’d confess: that’s still pretty much how I imagine my final resting place.

Except one thing, like an ever-increasing number of Americans, I don’t want to be buried. I want to be cremated.

According to Time magazine, “in 2011, the U.S. cremation rate hit 42.2%... Several states already have cremation rates above 70%.” If these rates continue, Time reports, by 2014 50% of Americans will “choose flames over dirt.”

While I’m quick to embrace cremation, I’m not so quick to let go of hallowed spaces.

Like so many of these Americans, I can’t imagine “resting in peace” knowing the economic and environmental cost of a burial. And, though some Christians feel uneasy about the practice (citing Paul’s seeming pro-burial stance), I figure the Creator of the universe isn’t dependent on embalming fluid for bodily resurrection.

Still, there’s something about my childhood final resting plans that I can’t shake, that I’m not willing to give up. Unlike so many of these Americans, I don’t want my “cremains” scattered over a football stadium or turned into reef. I don’t want to be worn as jewelry or sit on a mantel.

My introversion be darned - I want my cremains to rest in a public spot, with others, where my name, birth and death days can be read and remembered.

And yes, I’d still love the spot to hint of the ooky spooky. I’d love for my spot to bring on the chills, as the finest of cemeteries do. Not because of haunting spirits, of course, but because the ook and spook I’m actually drawn to is the sense of otherworldliness that cemeteries offer.

I mean that wonderful, set-apart space where one can at once soak in the mystery of death, the power of memories, the press of grief, the swirl of curiosity and ultimately the presence of God. Because God is present as we pray and process, wrestle and trust, remember and believe.

So while I’m quick to embrace cremation, I’m not so quick to let go of these hallowed spaces that let us linger in mourning and mystery and memory - and let us do it in public, in community. This practice is essential to Christian life; I’d love to see it essential to Christian death.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Many churches, in fact, have continued the Church’s graveyard roots with on-sight columbaria for interring ashes. Plenty of other churches have taken an interest in establishing them as well.

And, as the number of cremations continues to rise, I hope the trend of churches establishing these sacred spaces to remember and to feel the chill-inducing, spine-tingling presence of God work in our collective grief continues. These spaces don’t have to be (shouldn’t be, in fact) big; many existing church-yards have plenty of room. But if they involve gnarled oaks and creeping moss, all the better.

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