Book Review: “Thou Shalt be Buried”

Thou Shalt be Buried. By Bishop Thomas Gordon. Exemplar Media, 2022. 110 pp. $10.00 (paper).

While cremation has become increasingly common in the United States, its acceptance in Christian circles is often still controversial. In this short book, the Most Reverend Thomas Gordon, presiding bishop of the Orthodox Anglican Church and Metropolitan Archbishop of the Orthodox Anglican Communion, makes a case for burial to remain the norm among Christians.

In arguing his case, Abp. Gordon presents the examples of Moses and the Patriarchs in the Old Testament, the biblical picture of fire being used primarily for curses and judgement, and the questionable ideological roots of modern cremation, while repeatedly championing the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Indeed, upholding the doctrine of bodily resurrection is the primary concern of the book. In short, Abp. Gordon concludes that because of its connection to the doctrine of the resurrection, burial is the biblical custom, while cremation is not.

Abp. Gordon anchors his biblical argument in God’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 14:1‒2 that their mourning rituals be different from those of the pagans.[1] While this verse specifically prohibits self-mutilation as a mourning ritual, it establishes the principle that God’s Word and our call to holiness as his people trumps the customs and concerns of the surrounding culture. From here, Abp. Gordon discusses the detailed description of the burials of Sarah, Abraham, Rachel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Miriam, and Aaron. Based on these narratives, Abp. Gordon concludes that the Scriptures demonstrate burial as the norm for God’s people. Indeed, as he notes, God himself seems to bury Moses, when Moses’ life is at an end! In keeping with the emphasis on the Resurrection, St. Augustine is cited as making a case that the reason for such examples was for them to be “an anticipation of the resurrection of the dead secured for us in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.”[2]

By contrast, a lack of burial (specifically exposure) is presented in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha as a curse or dishonor.[3] Furthermore, the Old Testament’s commands regarding burning are generally related to destroying cursed objects, such as pagan idols and wicked cities. In extreme cases, even people are burned to death as a form of judgement.[4]

While most of Abp. Gordon’s case is made from Old Testament examples, he also cites the New Testament’s positive portrayal of the woman who anoints Jesus despite the disciples’ grumbling, New Testament examples of burial (including that of Jesus himself), and New Testament metaphors of fire as an element of judgement to support his case.

From here, Abp. Gordon traces the rise of modern cremation. I found this section to be the most persuasive element of the book, as I was unaware of the insidious motives of the early advocates of cremation in the English-speaking world. The advocates for cremation in 19th century England and the United States were working from intentional and conscious anti-Christian perspectives. Indeed, they are presented as having radical political and religious agendas. Often, a goal of their agendas was to undermine “the old beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in a future life.”[5]That said, it wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that cremation became normal in the English-speaking world. Abp. Gordon cites the rising expenses of burials, the positive portrayals of cremation in Hollywood, and the relaxation of Christian denominations’ restrictions on cremation as the main causes.[6]

In evaluating Abp. Gordon’s arguments, I must stress two points. First, Thou Shalt be Buried is a pastoral work that is aimed at a general, popular-level audience. As such, while there are plenty of footnotes with citations of sources, this is not an academic-level scholarly work. Detailed technical exegesis and detailed historical or theological debates are beyond the scope of Thou Shalt be Buried. It is more of a pastoral tract.

Second, I must disclose that my own end-of-life plans include cremation and inurnment in our church’s columbarium. As such, I am not coming to the book without biases in the controversy. That said, I fully agree with Abp. Gordon’s main concern: upholding the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Most of his anecdotes regarding cremation include scattering the ashes in some way; this is something I also discourage for theological reasons. In his final chapter, while reiterating his recommendation that all Christians be buried, he concedes the following: “If you or a believing loved one are to be cremated, the cremains should be buried.[7] I agree, with the caveat that inurnment in a columbarium is similar to “burial” in a mausoleum (i.e. intombment); it may not be underground, but it is still a form of burial.

Indeed, the single element of modern Christian cremation I would have liked Abp. Gordon to have addressed would be church-based columbaria. In making my own plans to be inurned in our parish columbarium, I had two reasons: primarily, it would allow for my remains to be laid to rest on church grounds. As the old-world church graveyard is not feasible for our parish, a columbarium is the next-best thing. Secondarily, as Abp. Gordon noted, burial expenses are outrageous these days. Indeed, I see the provision of the option of a columbarium inurnment for our parishioners and families to be yet another service the church can provide to the community.

The second aspect of the debate I would have liked Abp. Gordon to have addressed more directly would be the lack of explicit Scriptural command for burial. While we have numerous examples of burial in Scripture, even the Torah gives no specific commands. Even the brief citation from Deuteronomy 14 is clearly part of the ceremonial law; per Article VII, we Anglicans do not see it as binding on Christians in a New Covenant context. While the positive examples of burial in Scripture, the negative examples of exposure, the lack of positive examples of cremation, and the nigh-universal voice of both Christian and Jewish tradition can certainly present principles that build a case for burial, the lack of imperative language discussing funerals weakens the claim that burial is the teaching of Scripture.

Nevertheless, I found Thou Shalt be Buried to be a good read overall. It shows a pastor’s heart for his flock, a deep concern for being guided by Scripture, and a desire to preserve the resurrection of the body as a core Christian doctrine. Even though my own plans are to be cremated, I must acknowledge that burial is a better picture for our hope in the resurrection. Abp. Gordon does an admirable job of painting that picture in this pastoral work, and I expect much of its audience will find it both challenging and persuasive.

Edit 08/14/2023: I received correspondance from a funeral director with some corrections as to the terminolology used in the industry. The review has been revised accordingly. – Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

Notes

[1] Page 1. Note: For the review, I was provided with a PDF copy of the book, which has fewer pages than is noted on the Amazon listing for the physical book. The page numbers cited in this review refer to the PDF copy.

[2] Page 24

[3] Pages 32‒33.

[4] Pages 46‒47.

[5] Page 70.

[6] Pages 74‒76.

[7] Page 77, italics in the original.


Fr. Isaac J. Rehberg

Fr. Isaac is the Archdeacon for liturgy in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations (ACNA), and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Heather, and daughters, Leah and Victoria. A bi-vocational priest, he works as a residential real estate appraiser and dabbles in various forms of music. Fr. Isaac earned his BA from the University of Texas at San Antonio and his Master of Christian Ministry from Wayland Baptist University.


'Book Review: “Thou Shalt be Buried”' has 1 comment

  1. August 14, 2023 @ 10:25 am Robert

    Another aspect of the discussion of traditional burial versus cremation is that for most people in Europe and British Isles apart from the nobility and the wealthy who had permanent graves or sepulchres in Church buildings or churchyards the average peasant had what amounted to a temporary 40 year grave. Most Christians were buried in shrouds and not even in coffins until the 17th Century. A grave was considered reusable after 40 years. The remains were either cleaned and stored in the charnel house or used as infill for another burial. Today, we could refer to this as a natural burial. There are green cemeteries today wherein the bodies are wrapped in shrouds or a biodegradable wicker basket or wooden box. Traditional burials are not good for the environment and even cremation uses energy and produces carbon emissions. Green cemeteries are usually very attractive locations with strict rules limiting the marker for the grave as the bare minimum sometimes only a small stone with a number. Churches should consider a low cost natural burial churchyard with restrictions on the marker sizes requiring flat markers on the ground. Bodies must be buried in biodegradable wicker baskets or woollen containers so that there are no toxins in the ground and churchyard maintenance is low cost and easy to maintain. The graves could be permanent are have a 100 year or more period after which the grave could be used to bury another body. Here is an opportunity for natural Christian burials that are not expensive and in sacred ground.

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