Be the Tree

colson2If you have not decided how or where you want your remains to be disposed of, there is a company here in the Washington, D.C., area that has an eco-friendly proposal: The people at EcoEternity of Middleburg, Virginia, propose to make trees, not burial plots, “the final resting places for the ashes of the deceased.” For as little as $4,500, EcoEternity will place your ashes in a “bio-degradable urn” and bury them alongside a tree. As the urn decomposes, you “will become one” with your “personal” tree. Since up to 15 family members can be “become one” with a particular tree, the concept of a “family tree” will take on a whole new meaning. Wanting to spend eternity as bark and other fibrous material is not a new idea: It is practiced in Europe, Canada, and “parts of Asia.” Its appeal lies in the fact that cremation is “less noxious and resource-consuming” than traditional burial. What’s also true is that this idea could be possible only in a post-Christian culture. Christianity has traditionally regarded cremation with—at best—some suspicion. One of the ways the early Church stood out from its pagan neighbors was the way that Christians treated their dead. Pagans burned their dead. To early Christians, this was in keeping with the pagan denial of Christian beliefs about the afterlife, especially the belief in the resurrection of the dead. In contrast, Christians buried their dead. Christian teaching about the Incarnation and the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit led them to treat the body with respect. To this day, the Orthodox Church forbids cremation except when it cannot be avoided, like during epidemics or following natural disasters. While the Catholic Church permits it under more circumstances, it forbids cremation where the act “demonstrate[s] a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” It also prohibits the scattering of ashes or keeping them in your living room next to a bowling trophy. Given this history, it is not a surprise that cremation has become more popular as Christian ideas have become less influential. Nor should it come as a surprise that cremation is most popular in the part of the country where people are least likely to attend church or identify themselves as Christians. The treatment of the body is not the only pagan element to this story: Trees, you see, occupied a central place in pagan mythology throughout Europe and the ancient Near East. Folklore is filled with references to sacred groves and trees. These groves were the sites of sacrifices, both of animals and humans, and were said to be the places where the gods and spirits dwelt and communicated with their worshippers. Not surprisingly, trees play a central role in revivals of paganism today. Now, I doubt that any of this occurred to the people at EcoEternity. That only goes to show how post-Christian societies can drift backwards toward paganism without even being aware of it. The way that the West treated its dead was tied to what it believed about Christ. But absent those beliefs, it was inevitable that in death, as in life, people would find themselves as plant food or—dare I say—lost in the woods.  
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For Further Reading and Information
Kendra Marr, “Green Memorial Concept Growing in Virginia,” Washington Post, 8 October 2007, D01. Jeff Diament, “Catholic Parishes Yield to Cremation Trend,” USA Today, 27 May 2007. Read what the Orthodox and Catholic Churches say about cremation. Diane Singer, “To Cremate or Not to Cremate?The Point, 21 February 2007. Russell D. Moore, “Grave Signs,” Touchstone, January/February 2007. BreakPoint Commentary No. 980121, “Cadaver Art: A Chamber of Horrors?


Chuck Colson



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