Lesson 1: Cremation

CremationOne of the most frequent questions asked throughout my ministry was whether cremation was acceptable. So when one of our participants suggested we look at it and other end- of- life issues, I welcomed the chance.

The issue centers on our belief in the Resurrection of the Body and illustrates how theological and practical issues intertwine. The discussion of this seemingly esoteric doctrine always had its roots in everyday life, dealing with the reality of death, the survival of the real person, and the love of God who overcomes our disintegration.

Christian theologians could have different ideas about how this happened, but they all agreed it was completely dependent on God’s power. Resurrection is not about an eternal human spirit surviving, but God’s love recreating.

They never thought cremation could prevent resurrection. It is silly to think you could avoid the Final Judgment by having your body cremated and the ashes spread over the globe. Nothing we do can block God’s love.

Somewhat related, much of the early discussion focused on what happened to martyrs who were eaten by wild beasts in the arena. It argued a kind of atomism where the whole person is found in each part. So God can take even one particle of the lion’s manure to recreate the individual. I find this fascinating both in its affirmation by modern science and its crude reality.

The earliest Christians opposed cremation for different reasons. They felt the doctrine necessitated respect for the body and cremation treated it too violently. They probably would have opposed autopsies, the scientific use of cadavers, and organ transplants for the same reason.

Today most pastors seem to see cremation as a matter of taste rather than doctrinal demand. The question has become practical rather than theological. It asks if a practice can be an appropriate way to proclaim the resurrection of the body. Because Christians have always asked this in terms of their situations, we are free to consider modern concerns, such as the problem of excessive expense, the lack of public space, and the influence of social custom.

With the tremendous mobility of our families as well as the prevalence of dying in clinical settings rather than the home, a new practical psychological concern has emerged. The funeral service might be the only opportunity for many to “say good-bye” to their loved ones, and many claim this is difficult when the body is absent. Although some see this as old fashioned superstition, many professionals acknowledge it is a real problem.

Christians should feel free to cremate or display the embalmed body according to the situation. The decision should always show respect for the body as it is an essential part of the person God created and loves. And it should consider the needs of the participants.

In the next weeks, I’ll examine three other modern concerns related to the resurrection of the dead: the inability to define a natural death, the meaning of the body, and finally, modern funeral practices.

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