Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cremation

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Cremation:

Q: You mentioned in your last article that Christians bury the bodies of the dead. Does this mean that cremation is not an acceptable option for Christians?

Cremation is becoming a more and more common choice for Americans today, and even though it was also an option at the time the Bible was being written, there are no specific commands for or against cremation in the New Testament.

If there are no specific Biblical commands for or against cremation, we might wonder if it matters whether a body is cremated or buried. There are two things to consider when answering this: What do Christians believe about the body? What do our actions say to others about our beliefs?

In ancient times, cremation was practiced among those that did not believe the body would rise, either because they saw the body as only a temporary fixture or because they saw the body as an undesirable thing which acts as a sort of “prison” that the soul must endure during earthly life. At times cremation was also used in some places as a way of intentionally dishonoring the bodies of criminals, traitors, heretics, and other condemned persons.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that the body and soul together are God’s creation, which He intended to always exist together. Even though the two are separated for a time at death, they will be reunited to live as a whole person for eternity when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. Bodies are not buried and cremation avoided among Christians for the purpose of keeping to some religious law.

Instead, Christians care for and bury the bodies of the dead as a way of illustrating what we believe about Jesus—that He is coming back. Placing a body safely in a grave or tomb is a way of illustrating our belief that the dead are not finished with their bodies, but they are merely awaiting resurrection. Because Christians believe that all the dead will rise on the last day, they treat their bodies accordingly.

In Old Testament times, and among Orthodox Jews to this day, burial was considered the only appropriate means for attending to the bodies of the dead. Among the Apostles and the first Christians, burial was also the only way that the bodies of their dead were handled, and burial typically remained the only method for handling Christians’ bodies for over 1800 years after Jesus rose from the dead.

Around a century ago, cremation returned to use after several centuries because of unfounded fears about the sanitation of burying bodies, and was embraced primarily by those who chose it for the purpose of denying Christian teaching about the body or as a way of rebelling against society. A number of people in today’s society find cremation attractive because they are uncomfortable with the thought of their bodies decomposing, but the Bible teaches that when a Christian is in the presence of Jesus, they will not feel fear or sorrow, including over the condition of the bodies they left behind.

Keeping in mind that it is not a sin to choose cremation, because there is no command about it in the Bible, burial is the ideal way for a Christian’s body to be cared for after death, because of the fitting way in which it acknowledges the way Jesus body was first buried, then raised from the dead on the third day. For all who trust in Jesus, their bodies await a similar resurrection on the last day.

Since modern life presents so many financial and logistical difficulties, it may simply not be possible for all Christians to commence with a traditional burial, but in cases where cremation is an unavoidable choice, Christians do still have a way to portray the truth about Jesus resurrection and their own coming resurrection in their deaths. Rather than scattering the ashes or having them kept by the living, ashes can be buried just as a casket would.

Many pastors and religious leaders advise this as the best practice for Christians to follow for the ashes of those who have been cremated because it allows the family to progress in grieving much the same way they do at the graveside service when the body is buried. Additionally, it allows them still to exhibit the idea of putting their body away safely alongside the bodies of those who have gone before them to wait for Jesus to come for them.

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. I am a born and raised Lutheran and obviously....Christian. Since there are no commandments indicating that burial is "preferred", I don't see why one could not be cremated. If our God can create heaven/earth and skies and animals, plants and people, etc. He can "locate" our ashes and reassemble them to his liking. He can do all things and our bodies will be perfect when he takes us home. They will not even resemble what we have now. That is my belief. Cemeteries love to take our money and waste acres and acres of property. Such a terrible waste.

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    1. Cremation is certainly permissible for Christians since the Bible itself does not demand burial as a matter of law. However there are many beneficial and righteous traditions handed down through the generations which are followed among Christians, yet not commanded in Scripture. Christian Burial would be among these. Nearly 20 centuries of church history indicate a preference for burial among Christians because it is done as a witness to our belief in the resurrection and a respect for the fact that the body is part of our created identity and not merely incidental.

      In our present culture, cremation and burial are not a matter of confession as it has been at other times and places. In the time of the early Christians, the Greeks and Gnostics would cremate their dead as a denial of the resurrection of the body and a reflection of their belief that the body was evil and the soul now free from its imprisonment in it. As a result, the first Chrisians were conscience-bound to insist upon burial as a witness and confession against this false teaching. Christians in other parts of the world today are facing similar challenges in places like Nepal and Turkey, and facing persecution or even martyrdom for the sake of the right to bury their dead in confession of Christ's resurrection in opposition to the government's law regarding forced cremations.

      Ultimately, there is no law regarding the means of burial, and Christians are free to make the choices necessary to their own circumstances, but history is a factual witness to the preference for burial in pastoral practice and Christian theology over the centuries.

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  3. Rapid oxidation and the crushing of bones vs. slow oxidation and the erosion of the bones - makes no difference. Dust we are and to dust we will return.

    Death, itself, is disgusting, the product of sin and rebellion against God, who is our life.

    What happens to the body after death isn't nearly as disgusting as what happens to to body before death. What God created very good has become full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Oh, wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from the body of this (this one here and now, the one that is going on while we are yet alive) death?

    The Christian's hope has always been the one confessed by the patriarch, Job, And after worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh I shall see God, and by Paul: It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. Our hope has nothing to do with how we are buried after we die, but how we are raised when our Lord returns.

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    1. That is pretty much consistent with what I said above. The Christian's decision about burial has nothing to do with whether they can be resurrected, and contributes nothing to their hope in that Resurrection, but rather, it is about confessing that coming Resurrection to their neighbors. When we put the body away carefully in light of its coming resurrection, we portray to them what will become of it on the last day. When we cremate the body, especially if the ashes would be scattered instead of buried, we lose the opportunity to witness to the Resurrection and we may even reinforce a false hope that "x location is where grandpa will spend eternity." It's not a question of sin; it's a question of witness and confessing Christ - particularly His resurrection.

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