Cremation and Embalming – body or soul?

17 Dec

Obviously death always includes the material need to deal with the dead body. But how this is done – with what accompanying beliefs, ulterior purposes, everything beyond the actual physical disposal – is where the question of “body or soul”, of material or spiritual, becomes relevant.

If the material disposal element is always present, what of spiritual elements? Are they altogether absent, as some would claim today? Can we even say definitively which practices and aims are material and which spiritual – and to whom are they that?

As we will see, these distinctions are not objective but personal and cultural in nature, since the very same act or object can have spiritual or material significance or both, depending only on the person or culture. Moreover, if we look carefully, below the surface, what seems at first a material goal or value might reveal itself as spiritual, and vice versa.  Body preservation and cremation are good cases for analysis.

Embalming and body preservation

The distinction between the physical and spiritual content of a practice is quickly apparent if we compare body preservation practices between modern North Americans, ancient Egyptians and fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

North America

Here embalming seems to concern only the body, whose appearance it preserves until the family makes its farewells; it also claims (falsely) to be an indispensable hygienic act. But at a deeper level, embalming in America is a non-material need, that is, a spiritual or psychological one. And this does not automatically make it a positive thing – on the contrary! For in our culture embalming maintains the possibility of a collective subconscious denial of death through the preservation of the body as if it were still living. Through embalming we can avoid looking death in the face – as if that were a healthy or desirable thing….

Such schizophrenia is a product of a materialistic culture and its fear of admitting to spiritual needs which cannot be satisfied materially – we pretend that we embalm for hygienic and aesthetic reasons, whereas in reality we do it to keep an awareness of our mortality at bay, to keep the pain of the absence of a spiritual solution to death at bay.

Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were far more self-aware and coherent on why they embalmed. It was explicitly for spiritual reasons, so that one of the many souls of the departed would have a permanent physical home to return to after its flights away from the tomb.  The purely spiritual importance of embalming for the Egyptians is underlined by their installation of symbolic facsimiles of the dead into the tomb, usually little statues. If the embalmed body did disappear in time, the soul would still have a substitute body in which to dwell. They evidently understood the embalmed body as a symbolic, not a literal home.

Clearly what seems a common practice may have nothing in common when the aims and world views of its practitioners are examined closely. If we were honest enough to admit that our embalming was actually an attempt to deny death – albeit a rather pathetic one – only then would we have something in common with the ancient Egyptians. But they wanted to survive death, we only try to deny it.

Fundamentalist and mystical Christians and Muslims

Fundamentalist and orthodox Christians and Muslims have something in common with the Egyptians because they also believe in preservation of the body for reasons of the individual soul:  the body must rest undisturbed and intact in the earth until the Second Coming and the body’s resurrection.

But within these groups we must separate the external similarities from the internal spiritual differences. For the most simplistic fundamentalist, the resurrection is literal, and so the body must be preserved for its miraculous rising in the flesh-and-blood from its grave. More mystically-minded Christians and Muslims understand it rather as a resurrection in a higher body – an “astral body”, a “gloried body”, the names vary -  in any case not the dead flesh-and-blood body. The attempt at preservation is symbolic rather than literally essential. Fundamentalists reveal themselves to be surprisingly materialistic in this sense.


Fundamentalist and mystical Christians and Muslims

For fundamentalist Christian and Muslims, cremation cannot be accepted, since it utterly destroys the body that is to be resurrected. For a higher mystically-minded Christian or Muslim, cremation should in theory be acceptable, since the body to be resurrected is not the one destroyed in the flames. The ancient Egyptians could also have accepted an accidental cremation of the body, since a symbolic substitute was made available to the soul.

Hindu Indians

For Hindu Indians, cremation has an altogether different meaning. Here it is clearly a matter of the soul, but paradoxically one that requires the material destruction of the body. The soul of the deceased, seeing the utter destruction of its former body by fire, understands with absolute certainty, that its old life and body are gone, that it must make a clean start into a new incarnation – or risk becoming a “hungry ghost”.

North America

Secular cremation in the New World appears on the contrary to be purely materialistic, a utilitarian matter of body disposal. It is a cheaper, less complicated and perhaps also a “greener” method of disposal. Yet spiritual elements are also present, even when they are denied by the most secular or atheist proponents of cremation.

For example, the common aversion to the idea of being eaten by worms or “going into the cold damp earth” reveals a spiritual belief which subconsciously may be similar to the beliefs of materialistic fundamentalists. If there is no soul or afterlife to be concerned about, then what does it matter what happens to the organic refuse that our body becomes after death? Or do these self-named atheists and secularists subtly believe in some kind of continuing life or significance of the body after death? And would not the “burning heat” of the cremation oven be at least as uncomfortable as the cold damp ground and worms? If the whole matter was a purely material affair, none of these confused though sincere feelings would even be felt. A subtle persistent belief in a spiritual element reveals itself in these self-proclaimed non-believers. *


It is invalid to justify materially-driven practices in one culture by their spiritual motivations in another. We cannot justify the spiritual nature of cremation in the west by using the ancient Indian tradition as proof.  Similarly, we cannot justify embalming by any comparison with ancient Egypt. There may be other good reasons for cremation or embalming in the West, but they have nothing to do with ancient Egyptian or Hindu practices.

We leave it to the reader to extend this “body or soul” line of analysis to other aspects of funerals and cemeteries.  We will analyze green burials this way in a future posting.

* Some proponents of cremation may claim that cremation is a return to cycles of nature, and thus a “spiritual” affair, a reincarnation of our matter. Physically, this is of course true – and beyond that, to see one’s marvelous integration into the eternal cycles of nature has a spiritual component. But this is a nihilistic spirituality which cannot tolerate the mere possibility of survival of the individual soul. Unable to believe this (and the consequent self-responsibility?), it opts for the only survival it can accept – a non-individual survival of its physical matter, dispersed to all corners of the universe.


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