When I was a child, we had a quaint kind of formula we would sometimes use in the playground to support what we were stating: we would say “Cross my heart and I hope to die”. We didn’t have the faintest idea of the literal gravity of these words, only that they sounded suitably solemn. I was recalling this memory in reading Hope to Die by Scott Hahn (Emmaus Road Publishing). Hahn, a well-known US biblical scholar and convert from evangelical Christianity, puts this aspiration in its proper context: the subtitle is “The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body.”
Written before the pandemic that has struck the world, it nonetheless offers a timely meditation, supported by deep scriptural understanding, of why Jews and Christians have always been marked out from their pagan contemporaries by their attitude towards death. The Jews of the Old Testament held fast to their unshakeable conviction of a “communion between dead ancestors and their living descendants”. As Hahn states, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph “knew there was more to life than this life.”
However, until the coming of Christ, they did not know what this reverent conviction actually meant; that the Incarnation “[gave] back to man what had been lost in the Garden [of Eden]: zoe” (i.e. the spiritual, divine life of the soul, different from “bios”, the physical life of the body.) Hahn is eloquent on the vital importance of this form of life, which we call sanctifying grace, received at Baptism, lost through mortal sin and restored by the sacrament of Confession.
He describes his young daughter, Hannah’s, one-time obsession with “zombies” (the living dead of science fiction) to remind readers that people who are “spiritually dead”, either unbaptised or living in mortal sin, are all around us, adding that it is this death we should fear. In an ironic inversion of this reality, today the opposite is true: “We strive to avoid the death that is unavoidable, but we don’t strive to avoid the death that is avoidable.”
Hahn suggests that although many people and other religions accept some form of spiritual afterlife, “most of us don’t really believe in the resurrection of the body”. Even Christians find it hard to believe that God will one day reunite our bodies with our souls, whatever the circumstances of our death and our bodily decay or annihilation. He reminds us that our bodies are sacred; we are not free to treat them as disposable objects; and that how Christians deal with death is a form of “witness” to others. The holiness of the body, he reminds us, has sometimes been manifested in the bodies of certain saints, through stigmata, bilocation and levitation – a foretaste of our hope in the body’s resurrection, which “enables us, as Christians, to face death with courage and joy.”
He is quick to admit that much of the afterlife is a mystery, not revealed to us. Nonetheless, alluding to the Gospels he emphasises that Jesus’ glorified body was both recognisable – if also to some unrecognisable – that Jesus could eat, drink, cook, was not bound by normal rules of time and space and was not a ghost or a spirit. Citing St Thomas Aquinas on the subject, Hahn describes our own glorified bodies. Even more important than the impassibility, subtlety, agility and clarity which we will experience is Hahn’s moving description of heaven as the home where our muddled, often misspent lives will finally make sense to us; we will see them as a whole, part of God’s providential design for each one of us. All this is inspiring and intriguing to imagine.
I only hesitate in my endorsement of this book in the passages where Hahn makes it clear that Christian burial is more “fitting” than cremation. It is true to say that the Church permits (rather than approves) the latter; that ancient Christian tradition endorses burial; and that cremation only became widespread following the French Revolution and the increasing religious scepticism of the 19th century. Militant atheism in the 20th century accelerated the practice.
Nonetheless, Hahn is so vigorous in his defence of burial that he cannot help but imply that cremations are “second-class” forms of interment. This is hard on those who choose cremation because they cannot afford the high cost of a burial, whose relatives have had to be cremated, such as in a pandemic, as has been widespread in Italy during the current Coronavirus, or for some other good reason that has nothing to do with disbelief in the resurrection of the body.
I think the Church has a duty here; either to step in and pay for cheaper burials, if that is what is fitting; provide proper catechesis on what the sacredness of our bodily remains means; and ensure that Christian cremation rituals always follow a church service, so that there is no suggestion that they are perfunctory, disrespectful or simply secular.
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