We currently have this exhibition on at Sacred Trinity (http://www.hssr.mmu.ac.uk/hip/encountering-corpses/heavenly-bodies-art-exhibition/) and I’m being asked why we have allowed such gruesome pictures in church. Some of the pictures are quite challenging but many of them are very beautiful too. The central elements of the exhibition are 12 large prints of photos by Paul Koudounaris of decorated skeletons and Charnel Houses that he has found in various places around Europe. The skeletons are presumed to be early Christian martyrs whose bones were found and decorated by later Christians. They are beautiful but also profoundly disturbing.
The exhibition is an art exhibition but it also challenges us about our attitude to death and corpses. Some people don’t like us to have gory pictures in church and yet when this exhibition comes down we will be putting up some pictures of torture and execution, as it will be Holy Week and we will put up our Stations of the Cross. In the past churches very often had very gory pictures in them and frequently kept body parts of the saints. Today we tend to get squeamish about such things. Is this because we are more sensitive and respectful of the dead or is it because we want to avoid confronting the reality of death? I suspect that it is at least as much about the latter as the former.
How then should we treat the remains of the deceased? What do (or should) Christians believe about the body and about death?
I believe that the scriptural view is that a person is a whole person – body, mind & soul. The Greeks liked to separate out the idea of body & soul but this isn’t there in Hebrew thought or in the bible. The early Gnostics liked to argue that the physical world was inferior to the spiritual world but the prevailing view in the early church was that God created the physical world and it was good. The incarnation of Christ is seen as valuing our human, bodily existence. The biblical texts do not speak of an immortal soul but of resurrection. If we were honest about the New Testament accounts of life after death and heaven we would have to admit that they aren’t clear on the details. We are promised that we are inheritors of eternal life, which starts now and continues beyond death. There will be a resurrection and this is clearly seen in fairly physical terms but although it is related it is not dependent on our physical body now. (See 1 Corinthians 15)
So what should be our attitude to death? Death should not be feared but seen as moving into a new phase of our ongoing relationship with God. So death should be welcomed when it comes but until it comes we have work to do here. We should treat our body, whilst alive as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6). The New Testament had an urgency to it that sometimes makes it difficult to apply in our situation. For example there is no advice about how to bury the dead as it was considered that Christ’s return was imminent and there was no consideration of such long-term issues.
How then should we respond when encountering corpses? We should treat them with respect as the remains of someone who has gone before us, someone who is now, or will be, with God in resurrection form. They are a reminder of our own mortality, a challenge to the prevailing culture of death-denial. Most of all they are a reminder of the limited time we have and the need to use our time well.