We think about death differently these days.
The increase in cremation can only be called dizzying. As the Washington Post recently reported: “It is now more popular than a traditional casket burial, and twice as common as two decades ago…. Cremation is now the main form of final “decision” in America. By 2040, four out of five Americans are expected to choose cremation over casket burial.
What is happening? Most would say it’s a reflection of “an increasingly secular, transitory and, some say, death-phobic nation.” Or as Thomas Lynch, a 50-year-old undertaker puts it: “It’s the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without dealing with the dead.”
But consider the “secular” side of the cremation boom. While cremation is central to Hindu and Buddhist practices, Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam have historically resisted cremation due to the sanctity of body and spirit in death.
In truth, there is no inherent tension within the Christian faith regarding cremation. There are few references to this in Scripture – just the cremation of Saul (see I Samuel 31) and references in Amos (see 2:1, 6:8-10). None of these references denounces or prohibits the practice, but it is far from prescriptive, with burial being the common practice. Again, this was in honor of the sacred nature of the body.
So where are we?
Although few denominations or Christian groups denounce it, I would say that there should at least be careful thought before embracing it, if only for the rich Christian tradition and significance that surrounds it.
As RA Peterson notes, from the very beginning – unlike the Greek and Roman practice of cremation – Christians generally buried their dead. Cremation was not prohibited, but burial in the ground was always preferred. Corpses were treated with great care and respect due to the belief that the physical body was also the temple of the Holy Spirit. In other words, even after death the body was not only a body.
At first, Christian burials were marked by joyful celebrations due to the belief in bodily resurrection. This is why the burial places became known as coimeter (cemeteries), which means “resting places”, due to the deep belief in the resurrection. Early Christian cemeteries near Rome were first filled with martyrs, making them sacred places and places of devotion and meditation.
If you want the true secular drift, consider that Christian funerals were initially occasions of joy in light of Christ’s second coming, resurrection of the body, and eternal life in heaven, and that those present always wore white and led the funeral during the day. In the eighth century, as nominal Christianity took hold, funerals became marked with grief and those present wore black.
Instead of saying, “Do the math,” perhaps we should say, “Do the theology.”
I feel that the real reason for the current increase in cremation is threefold: 1) it’s much cheaper; 2) those who stay find it easier to care for the body; and 3) there are fewer people connected to churches to hold an official funeral service.
So, should someone accept cremation or a burial? For the Christian, there is certainly freedom. While Christian tradition, as well as the narrative sections of Scripture, clearly favor burial, nowhere is cremation prohibited or condemned.
And there is nothing in the resurrection of the body that is affected by whether the body is cremated or buried. God is most certainly able to resurrect the body of a martyr burned at the stake just as much as the person buried in the ground. Even if buried, our physical bodies will decay and what will be resurrected will be anything but a carefully preserved corpse.
But from a pastoral perspective, having presided over countless funerals over the decades, I would offer at least the following consideration: First, in most cases, seeing the body helps the grieving process. It brings a sense of finality and reality. That doesn’t necessarily mean an “open air” funeral, but at least a viewing moment for immediate family.
Second, although we live in an increasingly transient society, that is all the more why “place” matters. A real burial site creates a sacred space that serves those related to the dead. As Elisa Krcilek, vice president of a funeral home in Mesa, Arizona, said, “We need to better educate people that there is a time to say goodbye and a place to say hello. The moment you scatter someone, you’re done. People need a memorial, which will be remembered.
Third, there is a lot to be said for what happens with a Christian burial. Meaning the symbolism of being buried in order to be resurrected, the prayers, the reading of the scriptures, the gathering of the community. There is something lost without a little “b” baptism of the body into death that was baptized into life while alive.
So practically, if cremation is chosen, maybe the body could be seen in advance, with even the cremation itself as a witness. The ashes, rather than just scattered on the water or in the wind, could be interred or buried, with some sort of marker or memorial. And there should most certainly be some kind of Christian service surrounding and embracing all of this.
Because the goal is not simply to get rid of a body, even less to save money. The goal is to serve those who are grieving at the time of death, and also to serve them weeks, months and even years down the road in terms of remembrance, celebration and commemoration of the life that has been led and the role that person has played in their lives. . And to honor the body that was truly the temple of the Holy Spirit, and will be one day…
James Emery White
Karen Heller, “The meteoric rise of cremation reveals America’s changing idea of death”, The Washington PostApril 19, 2022, read online.
RA Peterson, “Christian Burial”, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, go to churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest news on church and culture from around the world, and listen to the Church and Culture podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and instagram to @JamesEmeryWhite.