Is it right to cremate your body or the body of a loved one at death?
How people plan to handle their body at death tells us a great deal about what they believe and how they approach life itself, especially their view of the body.
In particular, discussions about the body related to cremation rarely happen. It seems foreign to modern Christians to question the use of cremation to dispose of a Christian’s body. Most Christian churches or denominations have no position for or against the use of cremation leaving it up to the individual or family members to decide. Cremation is accepted as a valid method of disposing of one’s remains usually without much thought. Cremation is convenient, cost-effective, and not prohibited by scriptural edict. So, why not?
Arguments for Cremation
Cost is the #1 reason cremation is considered. The cost of a funeral with burial ranges from $6,000 – $12,000 depending on one’s choices. The cost of a funeral with cremation is $2,000 – $5,000 less. Emotions drive much of the cost as do the sales tactics of the funeral director. Be better informed by reading this article and this one, too.
Environmentally friendly. Land is growing scarce goes the argument. Placing an embalmed body in the ground also puts toxic chemicals there as well. (Natural burial is actually much more earth-friendly.)
Individualism: I have the right to choose. Any kind of tradition limits personal expression. Cremation allows a unique, individual expression even at the end of life.
For more reasons read this article (though I believe these arguments are very weak).
Reasons for Christians to Avoid Cremation
The body is sacred and should not be desecrated. The body is not corrupt or simply the prison for the soul (as Buddhists, Hindus believe). Our body has been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139.14) by God Himself. The body has been tainted by sin, but is still precious to God…and should be to us, as well.
It is an act of degradation to and devaluing of the body.
In life, the body and soul are united. Though the soul leaves the body at death, its lingering effect does not.
The body is the temple where God dwells. Is it certain that God abandons the body once the heart stops beating? Has God not shaped the body into something that should be honored?
God breathed His life into the body. The body is significant to God.
God dignified the human body by taking it upon himself. God, in Jesus, put on a human body like yours. In the incarnation, all flesh became what it was not. He honored no other creature like this. We should honor the body as God does.
Jesus was raised bodily. His soul and spirit were not the only faculties raised from the dead. It was important that His body be raised as well. The same is true for Christians.
The Eucharist makes the body the sanctified dwelling place of God. The body and blood of Jesus Christ is ingested regularly shaping our own bodies into His likeness. How can we destroy by fire what has been given the very life of God?
Cremation desecrates the body by burning it with fire. Hell is depicted as fire. This is not the picture Christians need to project.
The rise of Christianity saw an end to cremation, being influenced by its roots in Judaism, the belief in the resurrection of the body, and following the example of Christ’s burial. Anthropologists have been able to track the advance of Christianity throughout Europe with the appearance of cemeteries. By the 5th century, with the spread of Christianity, the practice of burning bodies gradually disappeared from Europe. (Wikipedia on cremation)
Christ was buried not embalmed or cremated. Jesus is our example in all things, including how to deal with the body at death.
Better and less expensive options are available such as natural burial.
Burial has been the Christian way of disposing the dead for almost two thousand years.
Burial corresponds with the belief in the afterlife and eternity. We will have bodies in eternity.
The NT talks about burial, e.g. Lazarus, Jesus (Matt. 8.22, Mark 14.8, John 12.7)
The OT talks about burial. For Israelites, to be denied a bodily burial was terrible (Psalm 78.3) and punishment for sinners (1 Chronicles 14.11, Jeremiah 22, 18.19). They took great care to prepare well for their burial. Children had the obligation to bury their dead parents, a sign of respect.
The body is returned “to the earth from which it came.”
Burial allows the natural process of decay to take place. Cremation is unnatural.
A buried body, awaiting the resurrection, is more in keeping with the image given us by Christ, who likens burial with the planting of a grain of wheat which later blossoms into a living plant (John 12.24).
St. Paul teaches that the body plays a crucial role in one’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.35-58). God has chosen what body we have which is to be “sown” (buried) as a seed so that it may die and be raised imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual. The analogy of a “seed” that is buried is lost by cremation.
Cemeteries remind us of our own mortality, playing a role in our spiritual lives. Ashes scattered in water or elsewhere do not have the same effect.
You might not agree with some of these arguments, some of them might seem too far-fetched for you. However, I’ll stack these arguments against any arguments supporting cremation that a Christian might give. At least I’ve tried to point you to Jesus and scripture. I’m far from convinced that one can do the same in support of cremation.
If you are thinking cremation is a viable option, allow me to challenge you. Considering the arguments already presented, what does your heart say? Can you honestly answer the question, “What is the right thing to do? vs. What is the economic thing to do?
Certainly God can raise the dead from ashes. However, as far as these arguments go, there is no good reason to turn a body into ashes to begin with.
The Cremation Process
It’s eye-opening, perhaps mind-blowing, and definitely heart-wrenching to become acquainted with the process of cremation. It does not present a pretty picture. I urge you to read this article and then watch this video as part of your considerations. Imagine doing this to your own body or the body of someone you love.
A Thought Exercise on Cremation
Imagine, as a young married adult, being able to build your dream home on a beautiful three-acre lot overlooking a pristine lake. You spend hours pouring over plans finding the right design that meets your needs with features highlighting your particular personalities and tastes. You research many construction companies and choose the one you believe will meet your unique expectations. Significant time is given to picking out just the right materials and fixtures to enhance the splendid house design. The house is skillfully built and you are ecstatic at the result. You envision many years of happy living in your beautiful home.
Now, occupying the home, you design landscaping and gardens that move the beauty of the home to a whole new level. The rooms are furnished with quality, well-appointed furniture. The colors are warm and inviting giving family and guests feelings of peaceful delight whenever they enter. It is an island of beauty and tranquility amidst the chaos and noise surrounding it.
Now, 25 years later, you’re still wonderfully comfortable in your home. Memories of family gatherings, conversations, and real life fill every nook and cranny. Maintenance is more difficult. But even so, you find something good for your soul and body in laboring around the place. Life is here.
Imagine then, as you come to the end of your time living in your dream, pouring gasoline on the floor and walls of every room then tossing a molotov cocktail into the living room through an open window. In a few hours what you lovingly gave your whole life to is completely destroyed by fire. Now, all you see is ash and destruction. The smell is nauseating.
It’s not that your home caught on fire by accident. You decided to destroy it yourself. You decided to destroy something beautiful in one of the most ugly ways possible.
People who do this kind of thing are called arsonists and are punished for their misdeeds. Someone who would do this to their own cherished possession would be called insane.
And yet, with the human body, which is sanctified and beautified by God Himself, many Christians have no qualms about this kind of extinction.
My words may seem harsh and distressing to read. Yet, our eyes need to be open to the reality of what takes place when our beautiful body is destroyed by fire.
Sadly, Christians who would fight tooth and nail to preserve a baby’s beautiful body at the beginning of life fail to apply the same efforts to preserving the identical beautiful body at the end of life. The argument that the fetus is simply a collection of cells and therefore of no value, doesn’t sit well with these folks. Yet, I’ve heard Christians say this about a dead body, “It’s just a bunch of cells. They don’t mean anything.”
They would rationalize, “But the baby has a soul whereas a dead body does not.” So there you go…that statement portrays a secularism and gnosticism that pervades modern Christianity. The body always carries the image of the Creator, dead or alive. They body is sacred whether possessing a soul or not. The body is not ours to do with as we please whether alive or dead. The body is to be respected and honored from conception through death. Where are we taught otherwise?
A Strong Viable Option
Most people accept the common and prevalent ideas surrounding the disposal of a deceased body. Many myths and fallacies accompany the funeral industry. Yet, it’s amazing to discover the realities of how to deal with a corpse.
For example, when my father passed away, my brother and I transported his body in a casket from Chattanooga, TN to Wellington, OH without a hitch. With documentation from the funeral home in case we were questioned about the body, we traveled across state lines with no problem. I had no idea we could do this (saving hundreds of dollars) until I researched the “post-death” process more deeply. This sounds a bit morbid. But, in our experience, it was anything but. Over the 10-hour trip we exchanged memories of our father and felt like he was right there with us (which he was).
Do you know that there are no federal laws requiring the services of a funeral director, embalming, caskets or coffins, vaults or liners? Everything needed for a proper Christian burial can be provided by the family and the church community. (Read the articles mentioned above as a start to your research.)
For those wanting to explore other options besides embalming or cremation, consider a natural or “green” burial. It can be less expensive, more environmentally friendly, and emotionally satisfying. A natural/green burial, according to funerals.org, “emphasizes simplicity and environmental sustainability. The body is neither cremated nor prepared with chemicals such as embalming fluids. It is simply placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud and interred without a burial vault.”
Here are some other sites to check out:
“Funerals: A Consumer Guide” – http://www.ftc.gov/funerals/
Final Passages, in-home funeral instructions – www.finalpassages.org/
Natural burial: www.ethicalburial.org
In Home After-Death Care: www.crossings.net (You might find this site a little “out there.” However, their “Resource” page provides links to good information for your consideration.)
(For this post, I appreciate the information and inspiration provided by J. Mark and Elizabeth J. Barna in their book, “A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition.”)
“Preparation of a corpse was so sacred to early Christians that they would rush to care even for those who had died even of an infectious disease. The corpse was treated as a precious treasure. They would embrace and kiss it, then shut the eyes and mouth and carry it on their shoulders to be washed and clothed in a baptismal garment or a clean shroud. The care for the body was meticulous, sacred, and respectful, giving great consolation to the bereaved family.”