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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, April 17, 2006
    Burying treasure and burning trash
    Cremation is my trade, so I read with interest No Casket, No Flowers, a well-written article by Thomas Lynch in the latest LRB. It's about the shift that made the burning of dead bodies palatable to Western Christian cultures...

    That societies accustomed to burying treasure and burning the trash have given way, in the space of a hundred years, to landfills and crematoria, required the remarketing of fire. Once associated with destruction, damnation and waste management, fire has been transfigured into something cleansing, purifying, spiritually freeing and corporeally 'clean'. Eastern metaphor has met Western myth. Hellfire has become the funeral pyre.

    This is fascinating, and thoughts spin off from it in all sorts of directions. About links to the demise of hellfire preaching in our times, about environmental theology, about the trash traffic on our rivers and oceans. Opponents of crematoria in the early years warned that 'the substitution of burning for burial would be a falling back from Christianity to Heathenism'. It's not that, but it's interesting to reflect how the people's faith has been reshaped by a decision which was largely forced on the grounds of public health and public economy.