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Cremation, Resurrection, and Biology

15 January 2010

Some months ago, a friend and I were discussing his pickup, which was still going strong after a bunch of miles.  He had replaced doors, pumps, mufflers, hoods, windows, gaskets, manifolds, etc., throughout the years – even the block, at one piont – and eventually the question came around:  when do we cease speaking of that pickup as the same one he originally bought?  Eventually, if he replaces every single part on the vehicle with a new one, it’s not the same one any more; it’s a totally different one.  Yet he bought the one he bought.  So where is the threshold at which the pickup goes from the original one to the utterly different one, and on what basis do we establish that threshold?  Do we wait until the last rivet has popped until we say, ok, when we replace this last, original piece, the pickup suddenly transmutes from the original to the different one?  Or at some intermediate piont?

—–

N. T. Wright tells us in Surprised by Hope that this debate has been going on a long, long time.  Centuries.  Millennia, even.  Among the church fathers:  Origen, Tertullian, Aquinas, all of ’em.  Incredible.  There is nothing new under the sun.

—–

Let’s say qb weighs 100 kg.  (Wishful thinking, but it makes the arithmetic simpler.  Heck, let’s just redefine a kg as 2.5 lbs instead of 2.2, and we’re on solid footing.  Pass the guac.)  Current nutritional guidelines suggest that a guy my age should take in about a gram per day of calcium (Ca).  At any piont in time, qb’s body contains about 1 part Ca in 70, or 1.43%, which is on the order of 14.3 kg.  So qb’s body, in a real, biological sense, is a reservoir of elemental Ca that “turns over,” on average, about every 14,300 days, or 39.2 years.  That’s pretty slow turnover, but it does suggest that, assuming the turnover reaches every corner of qb’s Ca reservoirs (primarily the skeleton), qb’s body today does not have a single molecule of Ca remaining from when he was 5.8 years old.

Other elements turn over a lot faster.  qb’s a reservoir of carbon (C), also, with about 18 kg of elemental C in the body at any one time.  Assuming no weight gain (!) at a caloric intake of 2,500 kcal/day of simple-sugar equivalent, qb’s body has a C throughput of about 600 g/d.  The turnover rate of the carbon pool in qb’s body, then, is about 30 days.  Oxygen probably turns over even faster than that; I don’t want to spend the time calculating it.

So here’s the bottom line.  Except for obnoxious things like the mercury (Hg) qb ingests with sashimi-grade tuna and the cadmium (Cd) qb consumes in the form of sea salt, the statistical likelihood that any molecule in his body is an original one is about, well, zero.  My body is not what it once was…at many levels, but especially at the level of structural composition.

And yet, qb is still demonstrably qb, with a few notable exceptions and regrets.

—–

In biblical terms, resurrection, says Wright – and he calls on the biblical witnesses as well as the church fathers – is not a matter of some spiritualized existence apart from a material body.  It’s not a ghost floating on a cloud plucking a harp and passing through doors.  It is a solid, material body, utterly reconstituted by the Spirit of God after an extended period of death.  It is not revival, or resuscitation, which imply that death didn’t really occur after all; it is the overcoming of death, not the avoidance or skirting or fortunate evasion of it.  It is, quite literally, new creation from the elements of which life is made.

So to the question of “to cremate, or not to cremate,” we can confidently say this:  no matter.  Your body today isn’t the same body it was 30 years ago, and it won’t be the same body 30 years from now that it is today.  If God can create you in the first place by the agency of the Spirit hovering over the dark, brooding waters of Genesis, he can take the elements he needs to REcreate you from anywhere he likes.  The continuity between that old body and the new body is still a mystery tied to your identity, but not to the precise molecules that he cobbled together to form you in your mother’s womb.

Relax.  Burial?  OK.  Cremation?  Fine.  Scattering ashes into the river Rhone?  No problem.

qb

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One Comment leave one →
  1. jds permalink
    15 January 2010 4:44 pm

    Reminds of the joke about the ax that George Washington used to cut down the cherry tree… the fella bought the very ax that GW used, but of course over time both the handle and the head had to be replaced. But it was the same ax.

    My mom (who was an RN) always said that cremation didn’t matter, but based it less on theological and more on scientific grounds; cremation does in a few hours what it takes worms and bacteria many years to do, but the result is exactly the same.

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