(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.