Germany and the New “Alone-ness”

A curious problem faces Germans today. Cremation, once rare in a nation still stung by the horrors of mass cremations in concentration camps, has now surpassed traditional burial in number. But with this trend has come the transporting of bodies to other countries that have discounted crematoria, like France or the Czech Republic, for lower costs, a process some call “corpse tourism.” A recent article described the plight of a van full of bodies intended for cremation that was stolen en route to Saxony, with several weeks passing before loved ones finally were reunited with the remains, eventually found in Poland. Funeral directors now advertise low-cost options for post-mortem care of the newly-departed. Even burial has changed: “anonymous” burial is far more common. A lot of reasons have been proposed for why grieving is now done via the lowest bid and on a shoestring budget—and with a minimum of fuss. Among the more interesting is changing demographics.
Germany, like much of the first world finds itself with many more singles and, for those who actually marry, many who are childless or have very small families. The United States is itself on this path—the less-reported story of American demographics is not that we are becoming just more Hispanic or Asian or secular or urban; far more, we are becoming more single. The 2012 election offered strong proof of the significance of the single vote. For their part, Germans have less family to tend their graves. A trend toward “woodland burial,” where ashes are scattered at the roots of a tree, is partially a reflection of this demographic shift in Germany and the Western world. Traditionalists have lamented the de-stigmatization of cohabitation for decades, with little apparent impact on the wider culture for their effort. While some Christians cling to a romanticized or extra-biblical image of how “family” should work, nonetheless much sociological data tells us we must contend with the effects of its demise. Like it or not, as television like “Modern Family” illustrates, a heightened sense of personal autonomy allows our culture to self-define our relationships. If I can exist without family, or continually adjust just who will constitute my family, my level of responsibility for meeting the challenges and needs of my relatives will diminish.  Would someone feel greater responsibility to care for a mother’s aged male companion as he would the biological father he didn’t know well? Do we expect to find cemeteries full of singles buried miles away from their companions in fifty years? Culturally these are questions that speak to a deeper issue: what will be the impact of the diminution of marriage and family on our public and private ethics? A look at modern healthcare shows a trajectory away from “family helping family,” both financially and in direct caregiving. Who should decide, and who should be responsible?

Does the German story of “budget cremation” worry me that human life is cheapened in modern Western culture? Maybe. But the uproar over the Saxony-bound van suggests that even value-shoppers still place great import on the disposition of human bodies. Really I’m less worried about the message it sends about the value of life than what it indicates about demographic shifts away from the cohesiveness that marriage and family provide in life.

But I sense one other thing is happening in the West as we splinter apart into rugged individuals: we stop dying together. Yes, technology itself can hide death behind a curtain of tubes and machines. But when we let others go through the dying process alone, grandparents and cousins and aunts and sisters, in a place removed from us geographically and emotionally, we can hide away from it ourselves. I would like to think that spreading human ashes around the roots of a tree or “anonymous burial” reflects on the reality that our lives on this earth are not the whole story, that our ultimate hope is in eternity. But I fear that it is a marker that we have replaced a normal fear of death with a full-bore effort to ignore it entirely. Marriages and families were the principal means by which members of many cultures have lived well and died well, embraced life’s joys and faced the certainty of death in a way that offered a sense of continuity, safety and purpose, and that paradigm may be forever altered. We can lament it, cannot likely change it substantially, but absolutely can show what the Family of God looks like to a world that needs it. If we can marry well, live life well, and die well (none of which have been overwhelmingly consistent in the modern Western church), the world will take notice. For the historical church has never seen singleness as a problem but as the ideal, where the church creates rich families of newer and mature believers. And for others marriage is the means by which we understand Christ and the church, the means by which children have safety and security. I am hopeful that the church will reflect the ideal for marriage and singleness, that we have little to fear for “corpse tourism” among the family of God.

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Jay Hollman
Jay Hollman
7 years ago

I could not agree more. The core value of family relationships with responsibility is the strength of any culture.

John Kilner
John Kilner
7 years ago

Very thought-provoking, Jerry. Your primary focus here is not cremation per se. But do you think that the trend toward cremation is a problem in itself? Or can cremation be done for God-honoring reasons?

Jerry Risser
7 years ago
Reply to  John Kilner

Thanks for the comment. I didn’t really make any judgment on cremation, per se, but I have no problems with it ethically or theologically. The Bible says that we came from “dust” and will return to the same, whether by cremation or natural decomposition (the latter delayed profoundly by embalming as it is). We can be good stewards of our bodies after we die(organ donation or allowing our bodies to be studied by medical students) and of the Earth (less space needed for burial if cremated); neither is “traditional” burial.
My bigger concern in this blog was with what decisions are made after cremation, where I think the God-affirming (or other) choices are made.