The God Squad: Some aspects of cremation spiritually unwise

Question: With all due respect, I felt that your response to a recent question regarding cremation might have offended some readers. Your opinions that keeping ashes in an urn on the mantel seemed "creepy," and scattering them in public places "slightly ghoulish," were very strong. I'm sure some people find great comfort in having their loved ones' ashes with them. As well, it must be very gratifying to most people who choose to scatter ashes. I have no personal connection or experience with cremation. Any thoughts? — L., Lake Grove, N.Y., via

Answer: Thank you for your concern about the feelings of those who chose cremation over burial. I said in my column that although it's not the encouraged spiritual practice for Jews and Christians, I do respect the religious right of anyone who chooses cremation.

My deeper concern involves not only the spiritual value of having a place in a cemetery where family members can come for generations to remember and pray and tell stories, but also the idea of separating places of death from places of life. There is a wise Jewish custom of washing hands when returning home from a cemetery so that not even a particle of dust from a place of death enters our homes, which are places of life. This separation is, I believe, spiritually wise. The process of grief work requires both memory and separation.

Memory honors the dead and separation honors the living. For that reason, placing an urn containing human remains on the mantel creates a very powerful death presence in the home. Also, when the owner of the house dies and the home is sold, what is to be done with the urn? An urn is not like Grandpa's watch. However, people must find their way to a spiritually comfortable solution to the problem of disposing of human remains.

Q: I'm very interested in the concept of "hell." Peter Townsend is a British theologian. He is a Christian, but he's not working in religion. He intelligently points out that hell was an invention of the church to scare or control believers. How do you view the concept of hell? — A., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., via

A: I believe in heaven and hell because I believe in ultimate justice, where goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. However, I try not to do anything good in my life just for the sake of boosting my post mortem application letter to God at the pearly gates.

The rabbis taught that we should not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of a reward. The philosopher Immanuel Kant taught the same thing about ethics from a secular perspective (even though Kant was himself a pious Lutheran). We should do good and avoid evil because good is rational and also because it is God's will. We should avoid evil because it is irrational, spiritually degrading and against the will of God. If this gets me into heaven, terrific, but that's not why I behave the way I do (or want to do).

I am, however, not repulsed by the notion that the idea of hell might serve to scare people into lives of greater moral virtue. It's a low-level ethic, but it's better to have people do good for low-level spiritual reasons than to live like corrupt hedonists. Driving at the speed limit is a good idea, even if you only do it to avoid getting pulled over by a traffic cop.

Doing good to avoid parental punishment is also the way many children first learn morality, but it must never be the last way. As rabbi Ben Azzai taught: "The reward of a good deed, is the good deed itself." Sounds good to me, even if it also prevents me from eventually being measured for an asbestos suit!


A re-birthday miracle

Miracle stories keep pouring in. From the Pearsons in Boynton Beach, Fla., comes this letter:

Our son, Garrett, was born in 1978 with a heart defect (a hole in the aortic valve). We knew of his problem through tests that our regular pediatrician did when he was young. He was too small and frail at that time for open heart surgery, and back then this procedure was not common for infants.

We waited until Garrett was 13 months old (he weighed 12 pounds) when the doctors and his surgeon thought he'd have a better chance of surviving the surgery. Afterwards, he was doing well, based on what we were told at the time. Later that day, while in intensive care, and with his pediatric cardiologist in the room with him, Garrett's heart stopped beating, as if someone has thrown a switch.

The cardiologist immediately started manually pumping Garrett's heart through chest compressions. My wife and I were out in the waiting room at the time and were unaware that this had occurred. The cardiologist, Dr. Grace Wolff, at the Miami Children's Hospital, kept pumping Garrett's heart, talking to him and telling him to come back. She did this for eight minutes when, as if another switch was thrown, his heart started beating again as regular as if nothing had happened.

I know that Garrett visited God then, and God said it was not his time to pass away. Garrett just turned 33, and each year we celebrate, as does he, his re-birth birthday. To this day, we keep in touch with Dr. Wolff, now semi-retired. Garrett has grown up to work with children and teenagers at a Recreational Center in Boynton Beach, Fla. We live only minutes apart. We thank God every day for sending him back to us. You have our permission to share our story to those who might not believe. God is in our hearts every day.

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