Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Thaptology," a theology of funeralizing

Thaptology: Toward a Christian Theology of the Disposition of the Dead

I have long had a peculiar interest in dead people, cemeteries and burying. I could say that I was born that way, but more likely it is a result of education and environment. Dead people of history are precursors who explain something about who and why we are. Our ancestors speak directly to us. Cemeteries combine unique geographical spots with common and unique stones and epitaphs to further speak to us. No surprise that I should be interested in old customs associated with burying. My maternal grandfather was the community coffin maker, and my mother played with the off-cuttings of the upholstery used to line these boxes. I hope to combine this peculiar interest with my interest in the Bible and its teachings for a study of funerals and burial. Moral discussions of the disposition of the dead have been largely missing in evangelical Christianity until recently – probably because of the vast preponderance for burial among Christians. And even recent discussions only consider the moral ethic of burial versus cremation. In pre-post Christian America we are arriving at a cultural impasse between Christians and the unchurched on how funerals ought to be conducted, and how one group should respond to the needs of the other.  What does the Bible teach that would guide us in this area?

I propose to consider what the Bible says and does not say about conducting funerals, burying the dead, eulogizing the dead, and using church buildings for funeral services. Does the Bible say anything directly? There is much description, but little prescription. Are there implications from foundational truths? Bible doctrines that inform our views toward the human corpse are the dignity of the human body and the future bodily resurrection. How should the churches proceed?

Many sites purporting to relate funeral history contain a statement that “Funeral rites are as old as the human race itself.” Most of what takes place at U.S. Christian funerals and burying is based on law and tradition. The law mostly relates to the disposal of the body,  while tradition guides in what kind of services are conducted. For example, Texas law speaks to matters of determining death, embalming and where a person may be buried, and local zoning laws may also affect where a person can be buried. Interestingly, in Texas, "A relative, bona fide friend, or representative of an organization to which the deceased belonged may claim the body for burial" [Texas Health & Safety Code § 691.024. (b)] (i.e., a home or church conducted funeral is allowable, provided other requirements are met).

Christians are biblically exhorted to obey the law, assuming it does not require obedience to man over God. Traditions may or may not be good. We should expose our practices to the light of God’s Word for guidance and let that Word be the final arbiter of what we practice.

As we begin to look into God’s Word, it becomes painfully obvious that there is neither a “Thou shalt conduct funerals this way” nor a “Thou shalt not conduct funerals this way” command within the lids of the book. Accordingly, choices that Christians make are quite often based on traditional and pragmatic reasons – such as cost and transportation – with little concern for what may or may not be scriptural. What is the cheapest or easiest option isn't necessarily the path that follows scripture and glorifies God. To begin our journey, let’s consider some of the biblical records of the events surrounding death and the disposal of the dead body.

"Thaptology" is a word coined to stand for the study of burial and funeral rites, particularly from the Bible perspective. It comes from the combination of θάπτω + λογία [thaptó, to bury, inter; to celebrate funeral rites + ology, the study of. Forms of thaptó are found 11 times in the New Testament (Matthew - 3; Luke - 3; Acts - 4; 1 Corinthians - 1)]

More to come, Lord willing.
  • Thaptology, Part 2
  • Thaptology, Part 3
  • Thaptology, Part 4
  • Thaptology, Part 5
  • Thaptology, Part 6
  • Thaptology, Part 7
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