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Burn or Bury – Christians and Cremation
From his column Younger Than I Used to Be

With the world economy in an uproar and persons looking for ways to save money, it makes sense that they might set their sights on the price of death—or, more accurately, the costs associated with funerals. Warehouse stores like Costco offer discounted caskets and urns—even for pets.

But, for some, the issue regarding the body after death is more than a financial matter. Questions arise, is it “okay” for Christians to be cremated? Does the Bible speak to this issue? What does Christian tradition tell us? Perhaps this article will help you decide for yourself.

Cremation is the burning of a corpse at temperatures of 1400 to 2100 degrees. The residue is put into urns of ceramic, plastic, or marble. The “remains” (or “cremains”), may be kept on the knickknack shelf, entombed in a crypt, buried, divided among relatives, or scattered on the deceased’s favorite hiking trail.

The popularity of cremation is rising—fast. In the United Kingdom in 1960, cremations ran 35 percent; today 75 percent of the dead are cremated. The cremation rate in the United States was 26 percent in 2000, 32 percent in 2005, and likely will rise to 51 percent by 2025.

But, is it “right”? Wisely, the Church of the Nazarene has not declared a “correct” way of dealing with the mortal remains of the dead. You as a pastor, and the families you counsel, have thoughtful choices to make about whether to “burn or bury.”

Cremation Has a Past

The burning of mortal remains has been around since the Stone Age. By the Bronze Age (2500­1000 B.C.), cremation had spread throughout Europe. By the Mycenaean Age (1,000 B.C.), this mode of disposition was dominant in Greece. The Romans took it up around 600 B.C. However, when the Roman Empire became Christian, cremation was outlawed, and for the next 1500 years, burial was the accepted mode of body disposal in Europe. Burning was reserved for “witches and heretics.”

An Italian scientist developed the first modern cremation chamber in 1870, and a cremation movement surged. In 1886, the Roman Catholic Church banned cremation. Then, in 1963, they lifted the ban, and, in 1997, permitted the funeral mass to be said over “cremains.” The Catholic Church today requires that “cremains” be buried or entombed, not scattered or divided.

Most mainline Protestants accept cremation as a choice. Conservative Christians are more likely to frown on the practice.

Why Some Christians Resist Cremation

1. Old Testament Tradition

In Old Testament times, the Jews buried or entombed their dead. Burning was reserved for heinous criminals, savage enemies, pagans who fostered idolatry, and flagrant sexual sinners such as any man who married a mother and her daughter (Lev. 20:14). Cremation intensified the death penalty.

Though the Bible neither forbids cremation nor prescribes burial, the cultures from which the Bible sprang preferred burial or entombment.

2. Early Church Practice

Christians believe the Incarnation hallowed the human body forever. Early-Church Christians called their cemeteries and catacombs “sleeping places,” and with reverential care they buried the reclining body to await the resurrection. The body was, after all, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and should be honored, not burned like rubbish. Further, Jesus Christ had been entombed and raised.

Not just anyone could bury a believer. A minor order of clergy, the fossores (fossorii), dug and decorated Christian graves. They painted tomb frescoes depicting streams, flowers, fishermen, shepherds, doves, peacocks—and the occasional Cupid or Psyche. Often a document was left on the Christian’s chest avowing the deceased’s baptism, good character, and regular attendance at Holy Communion. Thus, the deceased was ready for the next world and a resurrection body like Christ’s.

3. The Practice of Non-Christian Religions

While Christians strongly affirm an eternal “embodied existence,” some non-Christian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism for example, deny resurrection of the body and practice burning the mortal remains. For them the body is trivial, maybe even vile; it’s the spirit that counts. As Eastern thought has spread, so has acceptance of its notions about cremation. It views body burning with a finality that makes many Christians uncomfortable, as if there were a grinning Buddha behind every cremation.

Why Some Christians Choose Cremation

1. Cremation Saves Money.

According to a Cremation Association of North America (CANA) poll, the first reason people choose cremation is money. A traditional funeral costs three to five times as much as cremation. Many elderly feel they have cost the family too much already, and opt for cremation.

2. Cremation Saves Land.

Burial space problems and ecological concerns about saving land finished second in the CANA survey.

3. Cremation Is Simpler.

Death usually brings a chaotic time of emergency travel, funeral arrangements, financial decisions, etc., for family members. Choosing cremation may simplify the situation.

4. A Theological Matter

Some Christians talk as if God can provide a “resurrection body” only if He can readily find all one’s mortal remains in one place.

But others fully believe God’s ability to give them a resurrection body is not at all predicated on His assembling all their remains in one spot. He does not have to collect their “decayed dust” or their “ashes dust” to give them a new body. They ask, “What of the martyrs who were burned? What of those lost at sea whose remains were devoured by sea scavengers or deposited on distant shores by ocean currents?”

Therefore, some Christians select cremation in robust faith that God will give them a heavenly body whether their earthly body was buried, entombed, or cremated.

The formula for salvation is still “Repent and believe in Christ and you shall be saved.” No one has changed it to: “Repent and believe . . . and if your funeral is handled right you will be saved.”

We don’t know much about the resurrection body, but we do know that we will be like Christ (1 John 3:2). Perhaps that is enough.

Dr. Wes Tracy is the former editor of the Preacher's Magazine and the Herald of Holiness. His latest book is Younger Than I Used to Be.

(Editor’s note: It is with no small amount of regret that, with this issue of eNews, we bid farewell to the regular columns of Dr. Wesley Tracy, who is stepping aside due to pressing responsibilities. We will miss his erudite, uncommon perspectives on life and faith. All of us in the P&B office bid to him and wife, Bettye, every blessing.)

Created on Friday, 24 October 2008