Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Christians and Cremation

In our church's monthly newsletter, I periodically respond to questions members have about various matters of biblical truth and Christian living. Recently, I have received questions about cremation several times. And even though I have pointed members to resources that I believe answer this question clearly, I decided to take a shot at it in our last newsletter. Here is what I wrote...

Is it proper for Christians to be cremated after death?

We arrive at the cemetery after a long, slow procession from the funeral service. And the mourners are usually in various moods at this point. Some are still grieving; others are quite jovial. I then have to quiet them down and get their attention as I prepare to announce the committal – a statement of faith in which we entrust the remains of the deceased to God’s sovereign care. The funeral director gets some flowers and gives me the nod. Then I began to do one of the most profound and distinctively Christian things I do as a pastor. In the midst of the apparent victory of death and the deep sorrow of grief, I declare: “In as much as it has pleased almighty God to take out of this world the soul of our deceased brother (or sister), we hereby commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust…” It always amazes me that even those in attendance who seem to have no orientation with Christ or the church are familiar with these words. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” This well-known but little-understood phrase seeks to cover the all the bases of how we arrive to our final “resting” place and what happens once we arrive. Earth returns to the earth. Ashes return to the ashes. And dust returns to the dust.

For more than sixteen years, I have stood at burial places and quoted this famous phrase to grieving Christians, perfectly comfortable with the fact that this phrase assumes that it is not against God’s will for Christians to be cremated following death. In fact, the committal goes on to say that be commit the body of the deceased to God, looking forward to the return of the Lord Jesus, when “the earth and the sea shall give up their dead, and the corruptible bodies of those that sleep in him shall be changed, and made like his own glorious body.” I say these words at funerals because I believe them. Of course, this committal is not scripture. But I believe it accurately reflects the message of the scriptures.

Cremation after death is directly mentioned in scripture. The most famous occurrence being in 1 Samuel 31:12, where soldiers cremated the dead bodies of King Saul and his sons to prevent them from being desecrated by their enemies. And, interestingly, they buried them after they burned them (1 Sam. 31:13). But scripture does not prohibit or commend cremation. In fact, it is never even mentioned in the New Testament, as burial is the clear pattern. The miracles Jesus performed in raising Lazarus (John 11) and the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7) from the dead describe burial. Theologically, the fact that Jesus was buried after his crucifixion is an essential point of the gospel that saves us (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). And the hope of the believer’s future resurrection is explained in relation to the burial of our bodies. Connect this pattern to the fact that scripture emphasizes the sanctity of the believer’s body (1 Co. 6:19-20), it’s no surprise that the Christian church has historically encouraged burial, rather than cremation.

But a Christian is not out of the will of God if he or she chooses cremation over burial. There is just no biblical warrant to tell a believer that it is a sin to be cremated. And either way, our deceased bodies will decay and deteriorate in time. But regardless of how it happens, nothing will prevent the miracle of the glorified bodies we will receive when Christ returns. Job understood this and expressed his faith by saying, “For I know that that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26 – ESV). More important than whether you are cremated or buried is the issue of whether you have run to the cross and put your faith in Jesus for salvation from God’s wrath and the gift of eternal life. If you are in Christ, you can know that when these earthly “tents” (our bodies) are destroyed, we shall receive a “building” from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).

We who hope in Christ can rejoice in the mystery and victory of our future resurrection and glorification. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 says, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of any eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” So if I was counseling a person who wanted to be cremated, I would ask some questions to help clarify their understanding and intentions. Why do you want to be cremated? It is merely financial? (A good reason, maybe.) Is it because you think that will shorten or limit the grieving process for your loved-ones? (A questionable reason. Cremation will not help your loved-ones overcome their grief. Only God can do that.) Or is it because you are concerned about the earth and the ecological consequences of burial? (A bad reason. If we can find places to keep building suburbs and shopping malls, we can find places to lay our loved-ones to rest without hurting the planet). But if this is a matter that has been prayerfully considered along with the input of your family and loved-ones, I would not discourage a believer from being cremated if that is what he or she wanted. And I would encourage the to face these life, death, and burial issues with faith in the Christ-centered perspective on these matters as recorded in Philippians 3:20-21: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”