Question: "Soylent Green" is one of my favorite movies. It reunites two of America's great actors, Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson, bringing both full circle from their iconic roles in "The Ten Commandments" to a bleak portrayal of a dystopian future where corpses are converted into crackers. (Even a dumb guy like me knows people-crackers are probably not kosher!)
However, I just read that a crematorium in England plans to sell electricity derived from the burning of dead people. While I'm fully in favor of recycling and reducing our carbon footprint on God's green Earth, converting corpses into kilowatts seems pretty disrespectful, even though it's probably an efficient and economical method for all of us to light up our Christmas and Hanukkah displays. Any thoughts? — Flounder, via email@example.com
Answer: Thanks for a question I've never been asked before, and will almost certainly never be asked again!
As you know from reading my column regularly, I'm a staunch defender of in ground burial. Opposition to cremation is widespread among world religions, with the notable exception of Hinduism. Cremation is reluctantly allowed by the Catholic Church, but in ground burial is still "earnestly recommended."
Protestant tradition is more accepting of cremation, but it remains a minority option among Protestant denominations. The fundamental Christian theological reason, which is shared by traditional Jews, for opposition to cremation is the belief in the eventual resurrection of the body by the Messiah at the end of time. Burial preserves the integrity of the body for that eschatological hope.
Personally, I also favor in ground burial because I believe in the spiritual value of graves. A grave focuses our grief and our memories, as well as providing a visible and touchable history of our families that is useful in teaching our children about all the people who were responsible for the color of their eyes and the content of their characters.
I realize that the use of cremation has increased over the past half century, rising from about 5% to 20%. I understand some of the factors motivating people to consider cremation. In a transient world, with many families spread out all over the country, and even the world, fewer and fewer people ever visit the graves of their ancestors.
I know that the high cost of some funerals has driven families to cremation as a cost-effective choice. Most poignantly, I recently spoke to a grieving widower, who said of his wife, "I can't throw dirt on her!" Pain often resists the truth. The truth is that when we bury someone, we're placing earth on the casket, not dirt, and the spirit of the person we loved is now in heaven. It's only the house of the spirit that we lay in the bosom of the earth.
Your question adds another entry on my list of spiritual reasons to oppose cremation. The argument that in ground burial is ecologically unsound because it uses valuable land for cemeteries is obviously invalid (although the 98% cremation rate in Japan is, indeed, due to this fact). When you compare the massive waste of natural gas and the carbon emissions produced by running crematoria to the ecologically modest act of burying a wooden casket in the good earth, it's clear that burial is kinder to the earth than cremation.
However, the question of whether we should at least offset some of the wasteful energy use of crematoria, which are running anyway, by cogenerating electricity, is more complicated and spiritually subtle. My view on this is that we must move beyond the creepy factor to the more fundamental issue of using the dead as a resource rather than remnants of holy beings made in the image of God.
To me, using people, living or dead, for commercial use is a violation of respect and sanctity. Organ and cadaver donations to medical schools are meant to heal, directly or indirectly, living human beings. Using the deceased to power our toasters or computers crosses the line into the trivial and spiritually degrading use of the dead. We can find many green energy sources that don't involve cremation.
Respect for the living or the dead human body is the reason we rightly prohibit selling organs or cloning people for organ farms. Vegetarians pose a strong spiritual argument that even animal life should not be farmed just to provide us with protein that we could collect in more life-enhancing ways that honor God's creations.
That's the warning of "Soylent Green," in which dead people are turned into crackers (People-itoes?). People are either meat or mensches. I pick "mensch" (the Yiddish word for a good and holy person). People should not be used for food or fuel.
In the end, I can't improve on the outrage of one creeped-out reader of the article you mention, who commented: "I don't want to hear voices coming through my light bulbs!"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun