Saturday, May 26, 2007

Burial or Cremation?

As summer approaches, you might think that cremation is a strange topic to cover. On the other hand, is there really any time that is appropriate to bring this up? I once asked a funeral director if business picked up around the holidays, after I observed that it seemed like I officiated at more funerals around Thanksgiving and Christmas. He replied, “No, we’re pretty steady all year ‘round.” So, I guess this is as good a time as any.

Not long ago I read a book that has made me reexamine my own thoughts about cremation. It’s entitled Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes? A Biblical and Christian Examination of Cremation by Alvin J. Schmidt (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2005). I’m still working through some of the things that Schmidt brings up. I encourage you to read this book. It certainly is thought-provoking and, whether you agree with his conclusions or not, it will help you to make some God-pleasing decisions about how our bodies are handled after we die. If you have been involved with a loved one’s cremation or if you yourself plan on having your body cremated, please don’t take this as an assault on your conscience. I simply want to address some issues surrounding the decision whether to bury or cremate our bodily remains.

Schmidt’s bottom line is that cremation is un-Christian and sinful because of the pagan origins of cremation and the violent way in which the body is disposed of in the cremation process. I’m not prepared yet to say whether all cremation is sinful, but I do agree with many points he makes in his book. However, I do think that it is important for us to treat with dignity and respect our bodily remains. The care taken with Christ’s body after his death can certainly be instructive for us. His body was placed in a tomb to await his resurrection. Therefore, since the days of the early church, burial has been the preferred practice of Christians. The words and actions at a Christian funeral—along with the presence of a casket with a body inside—can be a powerful testimony not only to the “wages of sin” but especially to the resurrection to eternal life of all believers on the Last Day. The absence of a body at a “memorial service” or a small box with ashes do not seem (and this is not meant to be glib) to carry the same weight. Likewise, if at all possible, the funeral should be conducted in the church, where the deceased regularly heard the Word of God and received Christ’s body and blood. At the funeral home, there are no symbols that point us to the cross of Christ, nor is there any font or paschal candle that remind us that the deceased was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.

Also, if cremation is decided upon in certain instances, the Christian family must make some important decisions about how to handle the remains of the deceased. Once again, we must treat them with dignity and respect. That will probably mean a proper inurnment and placement in a columbarium or mausoleum or other appropriate resting place that can be visited by the family in the future. My opinion is that the scattering of ashes is not an appropriate witness to others who may not be Christian. Some people choose the mountains or gardens or the ocean or the baseball field because, “Mom really loved her garden” or “Dad felt at home on the baseball diamond.” But if mom and dad were believers in Jesus, then they are certainly not in the garden or on the ballfield. Their souls are in heaven awaiting the resurrection. Christians know that. But others may not, and we give a false testimony about Christian doctrine concerning death and resurrection when we do or say such things.

Whatever decisions you make about how you want your body handled after death, make sure that they are ones which will give a firm testimony about your Christian hope...that because Jesus Christ died and rose for you and has forgiven you all your sins, therefore you have the promise that although your body is at rest in the ground, your soul is with Jesus in heaven, and on the Last Day, your soul will be reunited with your body, and you will rise to life again just as your Savior Jesus did, never to die again, and with all the other departed saints you will gaze upon your Living Redeemer, as Job said, “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:26-27)

What else should Christians want to be their parting message to all who will gather for their funeral but the wonderful Gospel message to which they clung throughout their life?

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