We live in the shadow of a tsunami. As of Wednesday, 28,000 have died in the US from COVID-19. The bodies pile up so quickly that those who care for the deceased cannot keep up. Last week, New York City Councilman Mark Levine tweeted the news that coronavirus victims will temporarily be interned in city parks to help morgues, hospitals, and cemeteries cope with the death toll (currently more than 10,000 New Yorkers have died due to COVID-19). “Trenches will be dug for ten caskets in a line,” Levine said.
This last week was predicted to be the “peak death week” for the US coronavirus outbreak, though various US regions and other countries have yet to face the foreboding summit. Worldwide, as of Wednesday, the coronavirus pandemic has taken 133,000 from our numbers and infected over 2 million. Projections show that as much as half of the world’s population could catch COVID-19 by August.
We also just celebrated Holy Week, remembering Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. In Christ’s life, we remember that divinity entered into a human body, which shows us that bodies—even deceased bodies—matter. In his death, we remember that our bodies are fragile, mere organic matter like all living things. In his resurrection, we remember that our lives extend beyond a mere physical reality into the age to come.
In this season, as in any natural disaster, death norms have been upended. Evangelicals typically prefer burial to cremation, according to a theological journal. But the pandemic has disrupted how everyone deals with their dead—in New York City and around the world, with cremation emerging as a more practical option. In Wuhan, China, the ground zero of the outbreak, hurried cremations have left the mourning without closure, and relatives wait in long lines to receive the ashes of the departed from funeral homes. In Italy, the center of Catholicism, the number of dead has outpaced any theological stance. Such an influx of the dead and dying left one Catholic priest officiating solitary funerals and storing coffins in his church, each one awaiting cremation instead of burial as the Vatican would prefer.
Furthermore, whether people die of COVID-19 or of other causes amid this time of restricted gathering, they might die alone, their deceased bodies needing services from strained morgues and funeral homes.
In the US, death norms had already been shifting before the coronavirus pandemic arrived. In 2019, the cremation rate was nearly 55 percent, while the burial rate dropped to 39 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Looking ahead, many fringe options have emerged: In Washington state, people can now opt to be composted after death. Others plan cryonic freezings or look to launch their remains into outer space.
Whether the pandemic will permanently change the way we inter bodies is unclear. But funeral homes have already become more flexible, giving families more say than in previous generations.
Traditionally, a delay occurs between death and burial, so bodies due to be buried are embalmed (bodily fluids are replaced with chemicals) or are refrigerated in a morgue to preserve and prevent decay for the sake of a later funeral service.
As forensic researcher Melissa Connor told CT, “We [humans] try hard not to [be] just part of the [natural] world—the point of embalming is to not decay and to keep our bodies ‘lifelike’ for as long as possible. There are many ways that humans are different from other animals—intelligence, opposable thumbs—but the physical aspect of death is not one of them.”
In cremation, a deceased body is burned within a combustible box in a large metal chamber at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for 1.5 to 2 hours, and any bone remnants are then pulverized. The powder left behind is delivered to the family.
Funeral directors have long adapted to a family’s wishes—for example, services are held without or without caskets, and even cremated remains can be buried. Yet during this pandemic, grieving relatives may not have the opportunity to view the body of the deceased before putting it to rest. Will death linger on without closure? Will they receive comfort from viewing the corpse, so unlike the body of the person they knew?
In the era of coronavirus, Martha L. Thayer, program chair of Arapahoe Community College’s mortuary program, said funeral directors are using video conferencing to help grieving families say goodbye to a loved one’s body, regardless of its destination.
But Thayer pointed out that choosing burial or cremation does not fundamentally change the way a family experiences a loss. “No one can outrun grief. Cremation doesn’t fast-track, and burial doesn’t prolong it,” she said.
A tricky point for some Christians, and a position held throughout church history, though, is that burial is the preferred way of laying to rest deceased bodies, even as cremation has become the preferred method in the US.
On one side, believers struggle with cremation for its seeming disregard for the body. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, “There is no question that God can and will resurrect all human bodies on that day … [but] without … the Christian hope, the dead human body becomes just one more object for disposal.” John Piper, Russell Moore, and others have expressed similar concern with cremation.
Yet others do not see cremation as a spiritual issue at all, including Focus on the Family and John MacArthur. Billy Graham, founder of Christianity Today, pointed out that Hebrews practiced both burial and cremation during their history. Ultimately, he counseled families to make the decision together: “Whether burial or cremation best expresses that appropriate respect [for the body] is a very personal decision. At the resurrection it will not make any difference whether a person’s body has been buried or cremated.” (It should be noted that Graham himself was buried upon his death.)
However, discussing the morality of cremation or burial is a luxury, as health care workers, materials, time, and even gravesites are in short supply. It’s not so much a question of cremation versus burial, but of death: Are we ready to face it when it comes?
Kathleen Tallman, a professor of biology and chemistry at Azusa Pacific University who works with deceased bodies in a cadaver lab, explained how the disciples of Jesus anointed his body and wrapped it in linens. In light of Jesus’ own death, Tallman seeks above all to respect the cadavers in her care. She wrote, “When I work with cadavers, [I try] to care for them as Joseph and Nicodemus cared for Jesus.”
Even though we honor the gift of a body donated to scientific discovery, most of us feel disgusted by a decomposing body. Starting from four minutes after expiration, the body bloats, drains, rots. The skin turns green, then red, then teeth and nails drop, remains liquify, leaving behind only a skeleton.
As Thayer said, “The dead body is a symbol of the essence of the person who lived in it and where their soul dwelled. While the soul has clearly left the body, the physical vessel remains, albeit temporarily, and remains a source of comfort. …I greatly admire people who move toward their discomfort and allow themselves to cry and feel and fully grieve the loss of [what] that body represents.”
In the case of Jesus’ body—crucified on Good Friday, embalmed, and then entombed—he never made it through the stages of decomposition so neatly. When the angel met Mary at the tomb to declare, “He is not here; he has risen,” (Matt. 28:6) Jesus appears to her in a new body. The mystery of that glorified body has befuddled theologians across centuries—Jesus’ body held enough substance to be scarred but passed through locked doors; he ate fish grilled over a fire but disappeared from rooms in an instant.
Though we cannot explain its anatomy, Jesus’ dead and then resurrected body resounds with meaning in the life of a believer. Our God became flesh and experienced the indignity of death, like his creatures. As Tallman put it, “In the anatomy lab … we see on a daily basis the wonder of Jesus’ creation in the human body, the imago Dei. We know that the cadavers we are learning from also had loved ones who miss them and mourn them. We are reminded anew of the sanctity of all life and the source from which it comes.”
We mirror Jesus not only in our bodies; imago Dei means we also share his spirit. As Eugene Peterson said in his memoir, “Resurrection does not have to do exclusively with what happens after we are buried or cremated. … We practice our death by giving up our will to live on our own terms. Only in that relinquishment or renunciation are we able to practice resurrection.” We know the body matters in this life, yet our spirit must experience death, even as our bodies live. And even in physical death, we await the promise of bodily resurrection. For those who believe, death does not mean our end but our beginning, life in the shadow of death.
Liz Charlotte Grant is a freelance writer and Christian speaker in Denver. She has writing published at the Huffington Post, Fathom Magazine, Image Journal’s blog, Ruminate Magazine’s blog, and Geez Magazine, among others. The Collegeville Institute awarded her a residency in 2019 and 2020. Find her at LizCharlotteGrant.com or on Instagram @LizCharlotteGrant.