This is the third in a series on the topic of death, in which I address some of the most frequently asked questions I get as a pastor, including what happens when we die, and whether or not people become ghosts or angels after death.
Oddly, I think the question about whether or not cremation is “okay” is the one I might get asked most often, actually. I absolutely believe that cremation, like burial, is an acceptable option for a Christian. But it’s not universally agreed upon, so I do want to take some time to talk about it here. Let me start by sharing with you what my church body has to say about it:
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has no official position on cremation… It is therefore beneficial, as we face such occasions and the decisions they involve, to seek our pastor’s support, advice, and counsel regarding the entirety of the funeral, including the question of cremation. However, this is a matter of Christian freedom, and no Christian who chooses to have a loved one cremated rather than buried should be led to think that such a decision is sinful or in opposition to the Word of God.https://www.lcms.org/about/beliefs/faqs/lcms-views#cremation
If you do a deep dive into LCMS literature, you will find similar language, but a strong recommendation against cremation, as you will find in other church bodies. The primary reasons I have found for advising against cremation are these:
- Biblically, fire is associated with judgment.
- Historically, cremation has been adopted by cultures which denied an afterlife. We believe in a bodily resurrection, so destroying the body with fire could send an unintended message.
- Primary reasons for choosing cremation are financial, and we should not let fear or financial concern override our trust in God.
- Fire and Judgment
I want to address these one by one, beginning with the biblical association of fire with judgment. This is definitely true, but it is also true that fiery judgment is sometimes called a “refiner’s fire,” by which God brings His people into righteousness. I do not see any evidence that fire in itself is definitively strictly good or evil.
2. Belief In an Afterlife
We 100%, without doubt, believe in the everlasting life that God grants us by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And, we believe in a bodily resurrection – meaning we believe that when Jesus returns, the dead shall be raised. We recognize that we are both body and soul, intertwined – in fact, death is the tearing apart of body and soul, and at the resurrection, body and soul will once again be reunited. That means we treat the body with tremendous respect – whenever possible, a funeral service should be held for the sake of comforting those who mourn with the Word of God. We do not say things like “that’s just her shell,” or “that’s not really him in that casket.” It may not be fully him or her, but it is the body given to them by God, and the face by which we knew them – and we honor it as such.
So, having the body cremated could seem like we are not properly honoring the body, but who is to say that cleanly and efficiently burning a body and placing the ashes inside of an urn is any more or less respectful than placing an embalmed body in a sealed casket inside of a vault, buried six feet deep? I would argue that both are respectful, honorable and commendable ways to both honor the dead and proclaim that we believe God will raise this person up again on the last day. You may feel differently, and strongly prefer one over the other – which is my point, that it is a personal choice, and not a biblical mandate.
And yes, God can put us back together again, even if our ashes are scattered. Even the most carefully preserved bodies degrade over time, and there is no doubt that God can put back together – or more accurately, remake anew – a believer’s body under any circumstances.
3. Financial Concerns
It is true that finances should not be the sole decision-maker in our lives. We need to trust that God will provide. But does trusting God necessarily mean laying out $12,000-20,000 for a burial, especially when cremation can cost substantially less (even 25%) of that? We need to be mindful and respectful of people’s finances, and we need to be wise stewards of all that God has given us. Choosing arrangements solely for the purpose of saving money at the cost of honoring the life that was given would be sinful. Likewise, however, spending extravagantly out of a sense of guilt or in an attempt to glorify the person (a form of idolatry) would be equally sinful. In most cases, it should be kept in mind that spending ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ is an extremely subjective judgment, and comes down to context. I think it is most fair to say that finances are one of many factors to consider when deciding on someone’s final arrangements; they should not, however, be the sole factor.
Other Concerns to Consider
Not everyone lives in a place they permanently call “home.” Military families, pastors and others who move frequently may have difficulty in deciding on a final resting place, as relocation to another state would make it very difficult to come back and visit. For these, having a loved one cremated and keeping the ashes with them until a place is chosen at a later date can be a much more comforting choice.
Some people suffer from a fear of being somehow aware of either their body being burned or of being buried. These fears are irrational, and should be explored through counseling, to reassure the person that she or he will already be at peace with Christ upon death, and should have no more concern for what happens to their body afterward.
Many people mistakenly think that funerals are all about the person who has died. In fact, funerals are for the living. We honor the person who died as a part of that, but they are gone and really don’t care anymore about their final arrangements. So, even if Great Aunt Gertrude insisted that she have no funeral or that she didn’t want a big fuss made over her… with all due respect to Great Aunt Gertrude, you smile and nod – and then you do whatever you as her family need to do in order to say goodbye to her. And don’t feel the least bit bad about it.
To echo the statement of the LCMS above, choosing cremation or burial is a matter of Christian freedom. As such, no one should be made to feel as though one decision is more or less holy or sinful than the other. When faced with this decision, talk about it with your loved ones, and spend time in prayer over it. Better yet, pray and talk about it now, before you (or they) have to make the decision in the midst of grief and turmoil. It may be awkward, but it will give you peace – and you can always change your mind as your situation changes.
If you have questions or concerns, consult your pastor. If you find yourself suddenly in a situation where you have to make a decision for a loved one, please contact your pastor and ask him to help you through it. Most pastors are happy to sit with you, even as you meet with the funeral home director.
Above all, trust in God, and make the decision that is best for you and your family.
What To Say To Someone In Mourning