“As hellfire receded, there advanced the literal fires of the crematorium.”

So writes Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch in the concluding chapter of his massive Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. The

history ends with a chapter on “culture wars,” the ways Christianity is

experiencing change and tumult as it enters the twenty-first century.

In the conclusion, MacCulloch traces out many of the controversies one

might expect: from the challenges to Orthodoxy in a post-Soviet world

to the Anglican sexual debates to the American fights over abortion and

secularism and liberalism.

One of the primary changes in Christianity the historian sees,

however, would probably surprise most Americans as being a “culture

war” issue at all: cremation and burial.

Increasing rates of cremation in the West, MacCulloch writes, are

surprising because cremation “is the abandonment of a key aspect of

Christian practice since its early days.” MacCulloch demonstrates that

a primary feature of the early Christian church was as “burial club.”

He shows how “universally archaeologists are able to detect the spread

of Christian culture through the ancient and early medieval world by

the excavation of corpse burials oriented east-west.”

The historian also shows the roots of contemporary cremation in

protest against historic creedal Christianity, including, in its modern

form, by Italian liberal nationalists.

MacCulloch, no conservative, establishes that the unanimous voice of

the church, in every sector, was for burial over against cremation, and

concludes the traditionalist case (that cremation is a pagan practice

inconsistent with historic Christianity) is “unanswerable.”

For MacCulloch, there are several implications of the skyrocketing

cremation rates. The first is that the theological and doxological

claims against it, once held with unanimity, are not even discussed by

cremation proponents. Arguments instead focus on public health, cost

(and I would add the American evangelical response: “why not?”).

“The removal of a corpse’s final parting from a church, which is a

community place of worship, a setting for all aspects of Christian

life, to a crematorium, a specialized and often rather depressingly

clinical office room for dealing with death” is a liturgical evolution

of massive proportions, MacCulloch suggests.

Moreover, he argues, cremation also has profound doctrinal implications.

“Death is not so much distanced as sanitized and domesticated, made

part of the spectrum of consumer choice in a consumer society,” he

writes. “The Church is robbed of what was once one of its strongest

cards, its power to pronounce and give public liturgical shape to loss

and bewilderment at the apparent lack of pattern in the brief span of

human life.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I’ve written here in Touchstone and here in Christianity Today about why I oppose (with the twenty centuries of the great cloud of witnesses) the practice of cremation, and here (again in Touchstone)

about why burial is so essential to Christian witness.  I’m not

interested (right now) in re-debating that. I just find it interesting

that this new history marks out the cremation move as a significant

shift. I agree.

Sometimes the “culture wars” that really matter aren’t the ones

you’re screaming about with unbelievers in the public square; they’re

the ones in which you’ve already surrendered, and never even noticed.