I have to confess surprise and disappointment over most of the discussion about cremation in today’s church. As someone who speaks in churches on the whole topic of God’s final and complete arrangements with us (eschatology), it is a subject which I raise with some regularity, and it often produces some of the largest response. At a MINIMUM my plea, to follow Paul in Romans, is for each person to make up his or her own mind. In other words, think it through. What I regularly find with contemporary Christians is that they have no problem with cremation, but when I raise objections they cannot answer them. So please understand that I am writing this to encourage you think against me in the body of Christ. Cremation is a matter on which Christians differ with one another, but that difference is to be an encouragement to us to think more deeply about the subject. (I just wrote “we will gladly do the burial either way” and then I looked at it a long time and realized that “gladly” might be misconstrued! We will surely do your burial no matter what you decide).
Often the cremation question is formulated backwards. The question should be why should Christians do anything other than bodily burial? I wish to press this question by noting that it can be shown that as secularization increases, cremation increases. This ought at least to give us pause.
Bodily Burial should be preferred for at least three reasons. (1) Bodily burial best allows for honest grief. This is the least important reason, but it matters a lot in our culture which for the most part STILL lives into Ernest Becker’s book title THE DENIAL OF DEATH. In such a culture, it is all the more important to enable people honestly to face up to the reality of death. The whole practice of the “death industry” is in the other direction.
Think about it. A coffin looks like a person–the same size, etc. When it is lifted it FEELS like a person, and the weightiness suggests the weight of the gift of life God gave. When it is lowered into the ground it feels like we are burying a person-same weight, height, etc. Cremation takes us away from these things–an urn is not the same size or weight as a person, etc. Also, the whole symbolism of the pall (the white linen cloth placed over the coffin) as the resurrection body is altogether lost without a coffin.
(2) The whole symbolism of cremation is exactly backwards. Christians believe in bodily resurrection. They should therefore respect the body in every possible way–how does cremation achieve this? The images for hell are: destruction, punishment, and exclusion. Fire is a key element of the scriptural teaching (there is no evidence, by the way, for Gehenna as a garbage dump, as is continually alleged in the literature). If you say a prayer over a body in an English Crematorium as my doctoral supervisor Geoffrey Rowell did, you actually look into the fire as the body is disposed of. LOOKING INTO THE FIRE? What kind of symbol for resurrection is that?
In contrast, in bodily burial, we look to the Lord, we look to the future, and we confess our faith in God who will make a new heaven and a new earth.
(3) The whole structure of Christian theology ought to challenge us here as well. Creation-fall-redemption-glorification is a profoundly earth-affirming and bodily faith structure. We were made of the earth and given bodies in creation, Christ took on full-bodiedness in the incarnation and was fully bodily resurrected, and we await one day our new and glorified bodies. Certainly our belief in the resurrection of the body is a factor here, but there is more: the whole sacramental approach to life and faith is in view. Bodily Burial is an affirmation of our bodily creation, an affirmation of our bodily redemption, and a proper anticipation of our bodily glorification.
By the way, does anyone have a guess as to why most americans choose cremation? I find it often comes down to money. Cremation is usually less expensive. This speaks volumes about our culture.
We are not to be conformed to the spirit of this world. Apart from compelling reasons to the contrary, why should we depart from the norm of Christian practice through the centuries? The ball is in the court of those who wish to defend cremation, not the other way around.
–Dr. Kendall S. Harmon is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina and convenor of this blog