Book Review: Schmidt, Alvin J., “Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes,” Regina Orthodox Press, 2005.
A friend recently asked me to read and comment on this book about cremation. The book’s argument is that the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition both make it clear that cremation is not a God-pleasing option for humans. From my perspective, the argument was quite unconvincing.
Schmidt assumes from the beginning that cremation is simply pagan (his term). Then, in a classic case of begging the question (i.e., using the conclusion as the premise, so that you start by assuming your conclusion), he finds “evidence” to support his assumption.
That cremation is more common outside the Judeo-Christian tradition is easy enough to see, but that the tradition determines the morality of burial rather than cremation is not valid. Tradition must always be examined and re-examined in light of Scripture. Therefore, though at least three fourths of the book is devoted to Christian traditions in contrast to pagan traditions, the only chapter of real substance would be Chapter 6: Biblical arguments against cremation.
Chapter 6 may be entitled “Biblical arguments,” but there is very little biblical material to be found in it. Nearly all the chapter is merely reiteration of the observation that Christians traditionally have not practiced cremation. There are a few biblical references in the chapter to note.
Christ was buried, not cremated, therefore (says Schmidt) we ought not to be cremated either. No biblical evidence is given that Christ’s burial is normative for believers. We do not follow Christ’s example in all ways. We do not dress as he did or walk from town to town as he did. Many conservative Christians won’t even drink wine as he did. So we cannot cite Christ’s example as normative unless we can specify how to distinguish between the normative and the incidental examples.
Schmidt is convinced (absent any hint in the biblical text) that Joseph of Arimathea hurried to get Jesus’ body off the cross and into a tomb because the Jewish leaders were going to have the body cremated.
In Psalm 140:1 David prays for protection against men of violence. Cremation is violent. Therefore we ought not to be cremated. Such is a typical argument for Schmidt. It matters not to him that David was praying for protection in this life or that rotting in a casket is its own kind of violence.
The biblical writers sometimes speak of death as sleep. A body being buried looks more like a sleeping person than does a pile of ashes. Therefore, cremation goes against our belief in a bodily resurrection. With such an argument, Schmidt shows that his real concern is with the psychology of cremation, not with biblical or theological concerns.
And though he affirms several times that God can resurrect a burned body as well as a buried one, when he reaches the conclusion of chapter 6, he writes: “One of the present chapter’s primary arguments asserts that cremation undermines the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body. This can hardly be denied.” In other words, though he knows better, Schmidt adheres to his belief that God prefers resurrecting rotted bodies to burned bodies.
This book is not worth the short time it takes to read it, unless a friend asks you to comment on it.