The dispersal of remains - while not the most popular subject - is, in the end, relevant to everyone.
In "Purified by Fire," Stephen Prothero documents one particular trend in America: A growing number of people are choosing cremation over the traditional casket burial. This trend is fueled by an evolution in religious thought, social values, and even scientific knowledge.
Cremation has been practiced for thousands of years, but only in the past 125 has it been done in America, and it didn't really take root here until about 25 years ago. Now, roughly 1 in 4 Americans chooses cremation.
Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, gets to the heart of the thought-provoking issues involved in choosing to incinerate a body or to embalm and bury it.
"It touches on issues as important as perceptions of the self, attitudes toward the body, views of history, styles of ritual, and beliefs in God and the afterlife," he writes. "In other words, it amounts to a choice of worlds to inhabit."
"Do we owe our principal allegiance to the dead, to the living, or to the not-yet-born?.... Is the body a temple or a tomb? Am I my mind? My body? Or a messy mix of the two? Is there an afterlife? If so, is it for bodies or for souls? Or for both? And does it begin in all its glory immediately upon death or at some future moment of apocalypse, resurrection, or judgment?"
Burial, by far the most prevalent practice in the US, is rooted in the orthodox Christian notion that at some point there will be a day of resurrection for the faithful, and that the dead, who are really in a state of "sleep," will rise once again.
The argument for cremation - aside from costing a fraction of the price of embalming and casket burial - is legitimized by the notion that the soul exists separately from the body, or that death is the final stop, so it doesn't matter anyway.
One of the interesting themes explored by Prothero is that the choice between burial or cremation represents a choice between the old and the new.
American traditions help to maintain some connection between the living and the dead, he writes. Roman Catholics say prayers for the dead, and cemeteries - especially in the South - are often places of recreation, where families can commune with the dead and one another. These traditions focus on the past. They kindle a reverence for tradition, family, and community. They even tend to romanticize death, he says.
The cremation movement, however, tends to focus on the new - on creating meaningful rituals around death. It emphasizes the idea that the true self is spiritual rather than material. Families choosing cremation don't tend to pray to the dead or attempt to contact them, Prothero says. Many people feel that earth is for the living. The overriding value here is not on tradition but progress.
"Purified by Fire" offers an engrossing look at a largely ignored subject. While it's an academic approach, Prothero's style is energetic and lively. As a historian, he is thorough and conscientious. As a writer, he spins a good yarn. Which seems like the right way to treat this deathly subject.
Julie Finnin Day is on the Monitor staff.
Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America
By Stephen Prothero
University of California Press
266 pp., $27.50
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society