What About Cremation?

cremationFox News posted this article last week about the Vatican’s response to cremation. So the question came up, “How does this compare with our Lutheran view on cremation?”

To summarize the update from the Vatican: “Cremation isn’t preferred, but allowable. If you choose cremation, don’t scatter the ashes. Instead, put them in a sacred place such as a cemetery for the sake of honoring the body.”

As the Fox article outlines, cremation has been a touchy subject for many years (and overall they outline the view fairly accurately in this case). Since it became more popular in society, the church has tried to decide how to respond to the desire of the people and how it compares to God’s Word.

So, how do we talk about this as Lutherans according to Scripture? We stand in a similar place as what was stated by the Vatican in this article. There are some who would say, “Cremation is completely wrong and should never be done…ever!” Others would say, “Circumstances may necessitate cremation for one reason or another so there could be an argument for it, but the ‘why?’ is the big deal in the conversation.”

Dr. Alvin Schmidt has a very thorough treatment of this in his book Cremation, Embalmment, or Neither? He provides a detailed Scriptural and Historical account of the discussion. However, be forewarned, he’s very repetitive and comes down with a heavy “never, ever, ever” stance. He provides a lot of historical evidence but doesn’t budge on the issue at all. I have it in my office if you’d like to take a look through it.

Despite his intense statement on the matter, some would argue there is some wiggle room. Why is there “wiggle” room? Well, there’s no direct statement in Scripture that says, “You shall not be cremated.” There is, however, a ton of evidence to suggest that we should not purposely destroy the body, especially if our hope is in the resurrection of the body (and a lot of passages, historically, that place the burning of bodies in a negative light rather than as a good option for how to handle those who have passed away). As Christians, our hope is in the resurrection of the dead, so why would we purposely destroy our bodies? Here are Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica,

1 Thessalonians 4
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Beyond our Christian hope, there was a point when cremation was a form of rebellion. It was a “try to put this back together, God!” At this point in time, I don’t know of many who would request cremation as an outright form of rebellion against Christ, but I’m sure that motivation is still alive and well somewhere. How could that be a form of rebellion? Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 in Luke 4:12 (Don’t put God to the test) when the Devil tells Jesus to jump off of the temple so that the angels will catch him. God tells us not to test His power; so why test God by purposely destroying our bodies? The Christians in history were unique because, despite common cremation practices, Christians respected the body that God created and didn’t subject it to fire and other destructive forces willingly. Certainly, God can put us back together. That’s not the point. The point is the motivation of the practice and what those actions relay to others about our view of the body.

We aren’t “gnostic.” That means we’re not the people who say, “This body is just a shell…the important thing is really my soul.” No! Instead, God created us body AND soul and in death, the two are torn apart. It’s a horrible and tragic thing, but it’s the reality due to sin (Romans 3, James 1). However, our sure faith is set on Christ who will return and raise us to eternal life (both body and soul) as he is raised into eternal life in a new and glorified body (1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 14).

Does this mean that Christians who have been cremated are going to hell? No, but we should ask the question, “why would we purposely destroy our body?” The Vatican’s response is an attempt to say, “Okay, if you’re going to do this, at least treat the ashes with respect as you would a body and keep it somewhere set aside for the saints at rest instead of making jewelry and giving everyone a little bit of a relative for the sake of sentiment.” In our culture of instant gratification, we have a hard time patiently awaiting the resurrection in the face of death. Because of this, we too often mess up our theology with regards to death for the sake of trying to feel better right now. We put our hope in mystical ideas of spreading ashes to make the person that we’ve lost “rest easier” or to “keep them close to us” by making jewelry or keeping an urn with ashes in the home. Instead, we should take joy in the fact that our loved one is at rest in Christ and awaiting his return when we will all be reunited. Check out these words from Paul in Philippians 1.

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

If you ask people, you’ll hear a lot of strange and very unChristian ideas regarding what happens when a person passes away. There are even times when I’ve heard of people celebrating death rather than life. No! Death is horrible but, as Christians, we can have peace and joy because death isn’t the end for a Christian. Death is a reason to mourn, but we know that our Christian loved one is at peace and will rise as Christ has risen, and so in the midst of mourning we can have peace without being completely crushed by sorrow. Too often times, unScriptural beliefs trickle into our practices, and that can be dangerous as they remove our eyes from Christ and point them to ourselves (what WE think or what WE feel). While beliefs influence practices, our practices also inform our beliefs. When someone treats a body like an unimportant shell, then we start thinking that the body isn’t that important and isn’t worth taking care of. When we start destroying the body because it’s cheaper (which actually isn’t the case usually), or because we want to keep their ashes around us for our comfort then we start encouraging beliefs and practices that don’t align with God’s Word.

All of this is to say, “No, there is no direct mandate for cremation to be banned.” BUT!!! “As Christians, we must ask why we are doing this and what it proclaims to the world when we do it.” If we believe that our bodies will be raised, why would we destroy them? If we have hope in Christ alone and can have joy in the midst of mourning because our Christian loved one is at rest in Christ awaiting his return, why do we incorporate other practices that often take the place of our Christian hope for something that is more immediate but less eternal? Take joy in Christ alone that HE is our rest, our joy, and our peace. When Christ returns, the dead will be raised regardless of their physical state, and we will be together in a place where death is no more and joy is forever with our Lord and Savior!

This can be a controversial topic and emotional for many people, so if you want to chat about it more or have questions about what I’ve said here, feel free to send me a message, give me a call, or stop by the office.