The Surging Practice Of Cremation

Aug 27th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In the 21st century, one of the major developments within American Christianity is the growing practice of cremation.  Melissa Morgan Kelley of Christianity Today observes that “Surging cremation rates are upending traditional practices around death, as more people opt out of traditional church funerals and some skip communal experiences of grief altogether.”  Historically, burning the body was associated with pagan practices and was often rejected by the Christian church.  [This seems to be the point God is making in Amos 2:1.]  For centuries, dating back to the very early church, Christians have buried their dead and resisted cremation because of a high view of the body as God’s creation and because of the doctrine of the Resurrection.  Christians buried loved ones in the catacombs of Rome.  After AD 315, when Caesar Constantine legitimized Christianity and ended decades of persecution, Christians began erecting church buildings in which to worship.   They buried their dead in the church or in cemeteries.   Hence, many churches in Europe and in the United States have cemeteries, some quite large, around the church building.  It was a way to honor the dead with the expectation that when Christ returns the bodies of believers  will be transformed, the old body giving way to a new resurrected body –“ in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51-57).  Indeed, theologian Wayne Grudem writes that “Traditional burial of one’s body in a casket has the advantage of giving a more visible expression to our hope of the resurrection of the body—from that very spot in the ground—when Christ returns.”  Thus, the widespread practice of cremating the body of a believer is a break with nearly 2,000 years of church practice and tradition.

This all begs the question as to whether cremation is ethically wrong for the Christian and should not be practiced. The Bible does not give explicit direction about how we should treat a person’s body after death.  The Bible does seem to stress treating the body with dignity and respect (e.g., 1 Sam. 31:11-13; Mark 6:29; John 19:38-42, etc.).  However, cultural practices differ from civilization to civilization and it is difficult to make an absolute argument that cremation is inappropriate or ethically wrong.  Our bodies are going to disintegrate anyway and cremation vastly accelerates the process.  In the resurrection, God will raise our bodies from the dead and they will be transformed to a state of perfect health and eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:23, 42-44, 51-52).  So, I see cremation as a matter of Christian liberty and conscience.  Cremation does not violate ethical teaching sourced in the Bible.  However, whichever choice we make about our bodies at death, through the service and ritual of burial or what we do with the ashes, it is imperative to stress the resurrection and the glorified body that awaits Christ’s return.

What are the consequences of this surge in cremations?

  • Kelley argues that “If trends hold, more than half of Americans who die this year will be cremated, compared to just 4 percent in 1960. The proportion is expected to reach nearly 80 percent by 2040, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).  Families who chose cremation are less likely to gather together with others: 38 percent do not host a service, compared to 35 percent who offer a memorial service and 27 percent who provide a casket and viewing prior to cremation. ‘There is a myth that if you have no service and move along, the grief will go away,’ said Randy Anderson, who serves as president of the NFDA.  But like the widow with the delayed funeral, people need to grapple with death alongside fellow mourners. ‘Grief shared is grief diminished,’ he said.”
  • Many choose cremation for economic reasons: An average funeral with burial and viewing is $7,848 compared to a direct cremation at $2,300. It’s also more convenient, as geographically dispersed families need flexibility to delay the service or to gather in a different location. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated trends toward cremation and eliminating funeral services.  And just as fewer Americans marry in churches, fewer are choosing to be buried in church graveyards. Cremation continues to grow in popularity as America becomes increasingly secular.  “These changing demographics are impacting the traditional role of the funeral for Christians, as a rite of passage to mourn the dead and to place individual lives within a larger, hope-filled narrative: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.”
  • Kelley concludes that  “As Christians’ views on cremation are evolving, so are cultural views around death. Previous generations were surrounded by death in ways that modern generations are not. They lived before antibiotics and open-heart surgeries, saw high rates of childhood mortality, and observed the cycle of life firsthand on farms. These were the generations that washed and prepared their dead, laid them out at home for a wake, and later carried them to the church for a funeral and burial.  But in recent decades we have found a way to keep death at arm’s length, according to Tim Perry, a theologian in the Wesleyan Church who authored the book Funerals: For the Care of Souls.  ‘In the past humans learned to deal with grief by dealing with the body,’ he said. ‘But since the 1950s, we have figured out ingenious ways to not deal with the body, and as a result we are not good at dealing with grief.’”  Wisely, Perry advocates that churches incorporate the reality of death into worship and life more regularly. This could include teaching a biblical theology of death in Sunday school, hosting an All Souls’ Day service where congregants who died in the past year are honored, or inviting a funeral director to talk about funeral planning.  “We should make this universal experience a part of our common life so it’s not the thing we are surprised by,” said Perry.
  • “One challenge cremation presents is how to create a permanent marker of remembrance for the departed. Though urn gardens, columbaria, and burial are options, many forego creating a permanent resting place for cremated remains.  This can be a missed opportunity, according to Steve Bezner, senior pastor of Houston Northwest Church in Texas. “In Scripture, tombs are significant markers that say, ‘This was an important place in the life of this person.’”  Though churches and cemeteries are historically intertwined, it is now more common for cemeteries to exist apart from churches. “The divorce of the cemetery from the church building proper has precipitated this change [of minimizing permanent markers],” said Bezner. “When they are connected, it tells you that your death, if you are a believer, is inseparably tied to your faith.”   “The two most important places to do ministry are the hospital room and the funeral home,” argues Kentucky pastor Brian Croft:  “That’s where people are confronted with their humanity and mortality, the things we spend most of our lives pretending don’t exist.”  It is there that pastors are able to engage their members and reach people beyond the church’s doors, a necessary task within a culture that shrinks at the thought of death. Whether grieving families choose cremation or burial, pastors offer the same hope–that Christ has defeated death.   “Though death is our common enemy and our common destiny, it is God who writes the first and last word over our lives,” says Perry. “This is the good news of the gospel.”

Whether one chooses burial or cremation, Grudem offers prudent counsel:  “. . . when a believer dies, no matter if he or she is buried or cremated, it is important not to imply that you think there will be no resurrection of the very same body that was buried or cremated.  When Jesus rose from the dead, his very same body was raised up, and ours will be too. When Christ returns, our very bodies that have been buried or cremated . . . will be raised from the dead and transformed . . . .”  Such wondrous truths provide comfort for the grieving and hope for all believers.

See Wane Grudem, Christian Ethics, pp. 632-634; Melissa Morgan Kelley, “More Cremations Mean Fewer Chances to Grieve Together” in (18 July 2022).

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