carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,
What About Cremation?
by Pastor Dave Barker
When JFK, Jr. died a few years ago, the family cremated his body and his ashes were scattered into the ocean off the sight of the family compound. They did that because those were, apparently, his expressed wishes. If the rather awesome attention and devotion that was given to him at the time of his death are any indications, we should also expect the growing popularity of cremation to boom. Christians also, understandably enough, have questions about this and wonder if it is appropriate for them too. And, as in many questions about life with which we wrestle, we must weigh Scripture’s truth against the lure of popular practice as well as against our own sense of economic pragmatism. No doubt about it, government regulations and funeral home expenses almost makes dying in America cost-prohibitive!
When it comes to death, God tells us there is more in view than just “honoring the dead”. As in life, so also in death, we are called to honor our Creator – and that with both our spirits and our bodies. God made the whole man in his own image and that makes the whole man holy.
What Is Death?
Our thinking must first start with a Christian understanding of death. Right there we must part company with how many in the world think. Death, we’re told throughout the Bible, is a product of God’s curse upon the sin of Adam and it is inherited by all of us. Death is not part of our design - it is an unnatural separation of the body and soul, a tearing apart of the whole. That is why it is always ugly and appalling to look upon. Death in whatever form it comes - old age, accident, disease, war – is ugly and horrible. It carries with it no ultimate honor, it must be seen for what it is: the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23) and it brings ruin upon the wondrous beauty of God’s holy creation.
Jewish practices of burial reflected a submission to this fact. The body was treated with respect in preparation for burial but the more radical attempts of her ancient near eastern and pagan neighbors were deliberately avoided. Those efforts were aimed at either preserving the body from decay through mummification – as if for immortality – or consuming it quickly and with display, such as by fire. It’s important for you to understand that both were done out of a religious perspective on death – either a pagan belief in the hereafter or a religious denial of any such thing. From the perspective of the truth of the Bible, both were seen to be attempting to defeat or override God’s will and his providence. “Dust you are and to dust you will return”, God said. This was not to be opposed but rather accepted: the body was to be modestly prepared for rest and then left in God’s hands.
To add to this, Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 15 that our bodies, just like our souls, continue to belong to God after death. When he wrote this he was opposing the popular Greek/Roman concepts of the day that worshipped the body during life and disregarded it after death. That is much the same as the thinking of our day and age. Paul insists that our bodies are not to be worshipped in life or considered just useless “shells” after death that have no continuing value and, therefore, may be disposed of in whatever fashion is most economical, practical or even amusing. In contrast, the Christian continues to honor God as the real owner of that body when we see to it that it is properly buried. Burial is not intended, then, to honor the dead but rather simply to avoid the shame that would come by leaving the body exposed to decay.
When Christians bury one another, they do so in the true hope and anticipation of the resurrection to come. Jesus’ own resurrection proves the point. The resurrected body of Jesus was absolutely transformed and perfected. But it was not an absolutely new creation, the old body was not left in the tomb. Instead it was resurrected and changed. When Jesus walked again on the earth, he was recognized by his familiar features. His resurrected body even continued to bear the scars of his death which tied his immortal life to his previous mortal one. Just as his personality remained the same after his resurrection so it was with his body. And so shall it be with us as well.
What that means for Christians today is that our bodies need to be regarded as God’s property and respected as such – first, most certainly in life, but then also in death. When we deal with the death of a Christian we are handling a body only temporarily left behind. We are preparing it for the day when it will be re-inhabited, re-united with its spirit, and called to life again.
A Christian Burial
For this reason, burial of the body still does and always will do this best. But it is not necessary nor even appropriate to provide an elaborate and expensive burial which “honors” and memorializes the dead in a way that overshadows the honor we are to give to God. When rich people spare no expense for their own funerals they are overshadowing the truth of the resurrection and even denying that, in that day, they too will stand naked before God. When the rest of us also are tempted to give the deceased “the best” we put upon ourselves an unnecessary financial burden and even waste money so that we may worship our pride or bury our guilt along with the dead. A Christian burial should be done simply and simply looking ahead to the resurrection. Alive or dead, this world does not provide us with a permanent home. Our funeral services should reflect that very important point of our belief.
It is for that same reason that Christians should not elect to “dispose” of the body simply for purposes of our own convenience. True, cremation, for the moment at least, is considerably less expensive than burial. So let us be on guard that instead of worshipping our pride we worship our greed. But more than that, cremation is deceptive. It may have the appearance of a neat and even sanitary solution but it is not at all a simple process and, all other things being equal, it is not evident how this can be done out of respect for the body as the property of God or out of a true hope in the resurrection.
Beside that, reducing the body to ashes makes the remains more subject to dishonoring manipulation. Occasionally, the ashes are buried but at other times they are retained by family members for reasons that often are not emotionally healthy. And the longer they are kept, the more subject they are to a lack of respect – to dust and decay, accident or even becoming the subject of jokes around the house. Still others dispose of the ashes by scattering them, either on land or sea. This may seem romantic and sentimental and even “right” at the time depending on the place chosen but such thinking is not Christian, it is pagan. We are creatures uniquely made by God and will always remain that way. Such uniqueness is to be preserved not erased. We are not “just one drop of water returning to the ocean of life”.
What To Do
Still, we must admit, there are times when the circumstances of a person’s death can make the choice very difficult. First, the laws of the land make burial of the body more expensive today. But Christians know this to be the case and should be planning for themselves and their families ahead of time. You do this for vacations, you should do it for death. Insurance, sufficient to cover such costs is not expensive. Or have a separate savings account set aside for just such a purpose. Just as procuring a will should not be put off, neither should such burial planning. And, as much as is possible, Christians should take it upon themselves to arrange for their own burials so that the burden does not fall to others when the time comes.
On the other hand, it can often be the case that Christians are called upon to handle the arrangements for others – family members or even close friends - who have not made such arrangements. At such times, financial considerations which were left neglected often move to the forefront and threaten to become an unwelcome burden. In those cases, respect for the dead not only includes the handling of their body but also the handling of all their affairs. At such times, the option of cremation need not be absolutely ruled out. Further, in cases where violence has already been done to the body, such as in war or accident, cremation could well be the a respectful way to handle what is left of the remains (i.e. Saul’s body in 1 Sam. 31).
The Bible’s message is hopeful and joyful and so is our perspective, therefore, on life, death and the resurrection to come.
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Ps. 139:14)
|David G. Barker