Christians will not consistently reveal the abundant life God offers nor act as if God’s Creation mattered unless churches weave a whole faith into their worship, theology, and culture. I’m exploring what that would look like in what I call the “whole faith church.” This is another post in that series.
Few things communicate as much about a church body’s faith and how that faith defines our relationship with God’s earth as the manner in which a church buries its loved ones who have passed away.
This is a defining moment in a church’s common life. It is a defining moment in the culture of one’s faith. And culture, of course, is typically something that is invisible to us. We do things within a culture just because that’s the way they are done.
So in the comforting rituals of our visitations, funerals, and internments it is easy to miss elements that are not in synch with a whole Christian faith. The elements that revolve around how the body is treated and how we treat the land in which the body is buried are particularly out of synch.
For that reason, the whole faith church will handle funerals and burials in some ways that are different from mainstream practices.
These ways, I believe, are actually more consistent with key messages of the Bible. These ways would also contribute to a church culture that more fully commits itself to stewarding the physical elements of God’s earth (including our bodies) with respect and honor.
These would be the key burial practice principles of a whole faith church:
Unless there are unusual circumstances, the loved one’s body will not be embalmed.
The loved one’s body will be buried in such a way that the return of the body to dust will not be hindered. Coffins, if necessary, will be biodegradable and vaults will not be used.
The land in which loved ones are buried will be stewarded in ways that make it possible for as much natural life to prosper as possible and will, simultaneously, have creative human design and art that set those places apart for special meaning.
The whole faith church will minimally gather once a year as a community at that place to remember the dead, to celebrate their eventual resurrection, and to tend to the landscape there.
What will these practices affirm?
That indeed we are made of dust and to dust we will return.
That the death of a loved one is a momentous event for which the rest of our lives should stop.
That we come into this world with nothing and leave it with nothing.
That we are all equal before God.
That we are both made in the image of God and also part of Creation.
That it is right to treat every place on God’s earth, especially those with deep spiritual meaning, with deep respect and with the intention of promoting the life of God’s earth as much as possible.
That we as a community are committed to remembering our dead and the land in which they have been buried actively and incarnationally with times of togetherness, remembrance, and hands-on work.
That the resurrection will be miraculous beyond all measure.
For some readers this will all sound whacked-out radical and completely impractical.
Ironically, this approach to funerals and burial is actually far more the norm historically. And it’s being done in increasing numbers of places today.
It is called green burial.
Green burial has its own certification organization – the Green Burial Council – that defines what counts as green burial (and there are a spectrum of types) and what doesn’t. There are also examples of green burial grounds that demonstrate how green burial can be done in combination with the ongoing stewardship of a beautiful natural area. Here are a few examples: Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, Green Meadow in Pennsylvania, and at Kokosing Nature Preserve at Kenyon College in Ohio.
My favorite story about this kind of burial comes from Dr. Billy Campbell, the founder of Memorial Ecosystems which launched the green burial movement here in the United States by opening Ramsey Creek Preserve.
Some of the rural neighbors of the property that became Ramsey Creek Preserve weren’t initially thrilled about having this “new” approach to burial close by. And one of the most vociferous opponents was a cantankerous older man known for his red suspenders. But as the years went by, he saw how Ramsey Creek Preserve’s approach to burial preserved the woods he loved and was a deeply meaningful way for people to bury their dead. He was won over.
A number of years later when his health was declining, he dictated that he wanted to be buried at the Ramsey Creek Preserve. And he was, wearing his signature red suspenders.
I’ll be writing more about this in posts to come. If you’re looking for one book to read to better understand how embalming works and to introduce you to diverse green burial options being practiced, then check out Grave Matters by Mark Harris. He also has a good website of the same name that includes this excerpt from the book describing a burial at the Ramsey Creek Preserve.