Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Did You Know? Cremation is Unchristian

(November 2009 St. Paul's Newsletter article)

From time to time it’s necessary to expose the unchristian elements of society which masquerade as Christian.

Among the more successful of such masqueraders is the practice of cremating the dead. A recent District Pastors’ Conference dealt with this topic in some detail, and I thought it might be good to recount here some of the discussion.

The origin of cremation is unques-tionably pagan. It is no secret to historians that the practice of crema-tion has been prevalent in many pagan societies dating back to 2000 BC, and remains a major practice associated with disposing of dead bodies among the Hindus and others to this day.

But contrast, the people of Israel never engaged in it, in spite of its use by nearby nations. The burials of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives are recorded in Genesis. Joseph’s burial is recorded in the last verse of Genesis. The burial of Moses by the LORD Himself is recorded in the final chapter of the Pentateuch (Deuteronomy 34).

So also in the New Testament, burial is assumed to be the proper means of treating the bodies of the dead. The body of John the Baptist was buried by his disciples (St. Mark 6:29), and the burial of Lazarus is well known, for Jesus called him out of the tomb (St. John 11). The graves of many saints are mentioned in St. Matthew 27. There is not a single instance of cremation of an Israelite or Christian throughout all of Scripture, in spite of the widespread prevalence of the practice elsewhere.

The incarnation of our Lord is at the heart of the Christian religion, and His sanctification of human flesh by His own union with it is at the heart of Christian respect for the body. The bodies of all saints have been honored by virtue of the fact that Jesus is God in the flesh.

Upon Jesus’ own death, the women bought spices to anoint Him, determined even in their grief to treat His holy body with dignity. His bodily resurrection from the dead is all the more reason to count the body as a sacred thing.
St. Paul consequently enjoins us, saying, your body is “the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you” I Cor. 6:19), and therefore exhorts, “Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Cor. 6:20). This certainly applies to the respect for which our bodies should be treated even after our souls have left them, and is the reason the Christian Church has historically forbidden cremation.

Only in very recent years have any Christian churches permitted cremation. Until the twentieth century, in all of Christendom cremation was strictly forbidden.
Some people today think cremation is an acceptable way to deal with the bodies of the dead for several reasons. These reasons should be considered and answered.

First, cremation tends to be cheaper, and so, the reasoning goes, it’s less burdensome on loved ones who remain.

Second, people say life is spiritual, and what’s spiritual about a dead body? Who needs it?

Third, bodies decay over time, and eventually end up just like ashes anyway, so, they say, what’s the difference?

And finally, people reason that the earth will run out of room for burying the dead.
These objections might be well-intentioned, but they are ill-informed.

The reference to savings of money is nothing new, and we recall the scorn with which the woman was treated who anointed Jesus with expensive ointment which “might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor” (St. Mark 14:5). Just as our offerings are in part used to honor our place of worship, so we ought to be willing to provide funds for the proper treatment of the bodies of Christians.

Secondly, “spiritual” Christian life does not mean anti-material. After all, the Christian faith is centered in the union of heaven and earth in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is improper to think of material substance as inherently evil.

Third, the fact that bodies decay over time does not provide us with reason to dishonor them.

Finally, any funeral director can tell you that there is abundance of room for proper burials; the notion that we’ll run out of space is not informed by actual statistics.

So when you plan to consider your own funeral, be sure above all that you do not agree to cremation. Though many have agreed to it in the past, and may have done so in complete ignorance of these matters, it is better to be well-informed and to let your faith be guided by the best in Christian tradition. Always remember the dignity of the human body. Always say no to cremation.

In fact, the best of Christian burial traditions includes having the funeral at the church, the very place where the Christian received the body of Christ.


Kaleb said...

Another reason some Christians think cremation is okay, is that they are under the mistaken impression that the only "Christian" objection is a superstitious notion that a cremated body might not be resurrected.

ToddPeperkorn said...

Heaven knows I agree with you on the critique of cremation. My problem is that the practice of embalming as it is practiced today is really little better!

Kaleb said...

At least the modern practice of embalming (as far as I know) doesn't imply the confession of pagan beliefs about the body--though admittedly there have historically been such associations.

David Clapper said...

I recall a story from one of the 19th century Norwegians, Koren I believe. He disapproved of another pastor's officiating at the funeral of a crematee (?). The pastor said, "Well, many martyrs were burned, weren't they?" Koren replied, "Not at their own request!"

David Clapper said...

Re my last comment ... I don't mean to be frivolous. I agree with you 100%.

I think this is just one more example of how our beloved Lutheran church has capitulated to societal norms.

Michael James Hill said...

I certainly agree that burial is to be preferred over cremation. However, cost is a very real problem for some.

Then there is the theological point that what is not explicitly forbidden (cremation)or commanded (burial) is left free for the Christian to decide.

All the Scripture you point to is descriptive, and certainly encourages burial. Still, I do not know of one passage that commands the practice.

In addition, as you note, cremation has been the practice among pagans. Nevertheless, Scripture no where condemns this practice as pagan.

Since St. Paul was dealing with real pagans, you would think that he would have something to say about this if it was a matter of confession. If he does not condemn it, perhaps we need to be a little more circumspect.

The appropriate pastoral practice should be to encourage burial and pray for the faithful who have been cremated.

Cremation Unchristian? No, I think that takes it a bit too far.

John said...

Father Eckardt,

Your usual impeccable logic has failed you this time. (Which I attribute to your advancing age and dementia. Speaking of which, have you seen my pants, I can't find my pants...)

First of all, a body, cremated or stuffed, will be buried, i.e. the cremated are not denied burial.

Point 1. Cremation is normally the choice of the person who has died before their death. If they desire to be thrifty that is no fault. It is those who criticize the extravagance of others that receives the dominical scolding. (Is one obligated to purchase the most expensive casket as well?)

Point 2. I have never heard this from anyone I have catechized, have you? Cremation is not necessarily a confession that the material is evil. Regardless, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, the reassembling of which is guaranteed regardless of the condition in which they are found on the Day.

Point 3. Isn't this a bit of a tautology? Cremation is dishonoring the body therefore to cremate is to dishonor the body. Sez who? (Making granny look like a trollop the way some funeral homes do is the real dishonoring!)

Point 4. Even if this argument is ill informed, though in some locales it isn't (cf. India, where ironically the confession issue bears great weight), it doesn't make the practice wrong. Just because someone foolishly thinks drinking good Belgian beer is bad for you doesn't mean they must drink good Belgian beer, nor should we force them to drink good Belgian beer, though in my case.....

The strongest argument here is the matter of confession and I don't discount it. But that is conditioned on what people are saying by it. The origin of the practice is cloudy, and though certain meanings may or may not have attached themselves to the practice in the past, those meanings are not prevalent today. Maybe your experience is different but the only reason I have ever heard from a congregant is "Pastor Schmidt said it was wrong." No Lutheran I have ever planted in their urn was thumbing their nose at the flesh or their Lord (i.e. were taunting Him "reassemble this!")

I, too, prefer burial whole (such as it is), and encourage it, but I would never make it a matter of conscience.

Forgive any poor logic in the above.

Fr. John W. Berg,
friend, colleague, Belgian Beer Buddy

Fr BFE said...

I'll grant that the reason I am becoming more inclined to make this a matter of conscience may indeed have something to do with the hardening of the arteries -- the older I get, the crustier I get -- but then again, when people resort to the "no Bible passage against it" argument, I'm led all the more to think I'm on the right road here.

After all, there's no Bible passage against urinating on an icon, either, etc.

One thing this discussion at the District Conference did for me was to get me thinking about the reality of bodily resurrection, so here's another angle: when we tell our people that cremation is not an option, we are implying that bodily resurrection is going to happen.

In other words, there is a much stronger link between Christian burial and the resurrection of the body than people tend to realize.

And no, burying the ashes is really not the same thing.

I'll grant that embalming practices are likely to leave me wondering, but I guess what I'm thinking about is the strong message that burying a body sends, and the strong contrary message that burning a body sends.

yourfuneralguy said...

Cremation does initially seem to be somewhat contrary to Christian belief.

However, The need for Christian burial can be satisfied by burying the ashes.

Embalming,including draining the blood from a human body can be looked at as extremely pagan.

As a funeral director I do both, and find both processes mitigating against Christian belief.

The Lord will resurrect in either case.

John said...

Fr. E.

You note "but I guess what I'm thinking about is the strong message that burying a body sends, and the strong contrary message that burning a body sends."

Couldn't agree more. Plus it goofs up the liturgy.

Fr. J. W. Berg

Cecil The Sea Sick Sea Serpent said...

Folks, before we go any further the following viewing is essential.

I recommend viewing the motion picture with something to offend everyone … “The Loved One” starring Robert Morse and Jonathan Winters and a host of other well known stars such as Rod Steiger, Tab Hunter, James Coburn, Robert Morley, Liberace, etc. © 1965 by Warner Bros. (MGM originally)

Fr BFE said...

The burial of ashes is something I have in the past insisted upon when I couldn't influence the party against cremation, but as I rethink the whole thing, I confess to finding it a very poor fix.

I know how prevalent the practice is, and so am not surprised to have caused some people to start, but I have come to believe nevertheless that it ought not be permitted by the Christian Church.

Now perhaps it'll take some doing to get us from A to B, but the first step is this acknowledgment:

Cremation itself has for centuries--centuries--been considered ugly, ghastly, and an offense to the Christian faith. We have forgotten this. The first step is remembering again.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm coming into this conversation late, but I have to ask...what about organ donations? Think this one over.


Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...

Fr. E.

I agree with you that the funeral should be in the church. In the early 1960's my grandmother died after a lengthy stay in hospital. She had only two requests - to go home and to go to church. Much to my parents' dismay I insisted that the viewing was to take place in the family home, and the funeral service was to be in church. This was done to honor her own requests. It is also interesting to note that this was the first church funeral in that parish for almost 50 years.

Now, with regard to cremation: I do have mixed feelings about this. I fully agree with your comments; but contrast these thoughts against the understanding of the church that holy things are usually disposed of by fire.

If the Blood of Christ is spilled and is absorbed with a paper towel, the paper towel is disposed of by burning it. If reserved Hosts become corrupt, they are also disposed of by burning. I would agree that burial of these items would be laudable; but there is less potential for desecration when they are burned. But then, you should properly bury the ashes.

Burial of the body is the preferred option. But I cannot declare that cremation is patently Unchristian.


Fr BFE said...

Remember that the notion that cremation is unchristian did not originate with me. There is some pretty palpable evidence that this was the settled opinion of all of Christendom throughout most of its history. Eusebius, etc.

Organ donation is really another subject, I think; I'm not inclined to believe that it's desecration of my eyes if I give them to someone else so that he can see.

Carl Vehse said...

In mid-2005, on her now-defunct blog site, "If you don't like it, just go away," Bunnie Diehl had a discussion of "Cremation vs. Burial," which also included excerpts from and comments on Alvin Schmidt's book, Ashes to Ashes or Dust to Dust. Thanks to The Wayback Machine, the several-weeks-worth of comments on Bunnie's blog can be read on the following archived files:

June 15a, 2005
June 15b, 2005
June 17, 2005
June 18, 2005
June 20, 2005
July 02, 2005
July 05, 2005

Carl Vehse said...

The comments on this thread opposing cremation parrot similar statements from Schmidt's book, which was not published by Concordia Publishing House (and subject to doctrinal review) but was published by Regina Orthodox Press, a producer of books on the false theology of the Eastern Church, which traditionally opposes cremation. In his book Schmidt claims:

“For Christians, cremation simply is not a God-pleasing option … Burial is the only God-given way of honorably disposing of the dead … Is cremation Christian? Positively no! It is of heathen origin … a barbarous act, also anti-biblical; therefore unchristian!”

Such claims are Stephanistic legalism and heterodox rubbish. Furthermore the false claim that cremation is "unchristian" contradicts at least four Lutheran church organizations (LCMS, WELS, CLC, and ILC), which on their official websites state either that cremation itself is not wrong or sinful, or claim no doctrinal position on cremation. For example, the CLC points out that some (but not all) motives for deciding on cremation may be sinful:

“But the bottom line is that cremation is a matter of Christian freedom. Burial may be preferable, but as long as the weak are instructed concerning cremation so as to avoid offense (See Rom. 14:15, 1 Cor. 8:9), and so long as the motivation is not unchristian, nor for purposes of greed, we cannot forbid it. Nor do we want to place man-made laws on our people to burden them (see 1 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 5:1).”

Anonymous said...

What should one do if they are appointed to handle the arrangements in the event of the non-Christian's death?

Fr BFE said...

I don't know in what capacity you are serving, so it's hard to answer.

Of course, if you're a pastor, you shouldn't be burying someone who is no Christian.

If you're the funeral director, you simply do what they ask you to do.

If you're a family member, you might have occasion to influence the decision making process, and even if the deceased is not a Christian, the opportunity could present itself for a discussion of respect for the body, decency, etc.