3 Things to Consider before Choosing Cremation

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, April 25, 2022
3 Things to Consider before Choosing Cremation

3 Things to Consider before Choosing Cremation

woman holding cremation urn with white lily flower on dark background

We’re thinking about death differently these days.

The rise in cremation can only be called stunning. As the Washington Post recently reported: “It’s now more popular than a traditional casket burial, and twice as common as it was two decades ago…. Cremation is now America’s leading form of final ‘disposition.’” By 2040, it is projected that four out of five Americans will choose cremation over a casket burial. 

What Has Caused This Rise?

What is happening? Most would argue that it is the reflection of “an increasingly secular, transient and, some argue, death-phobic nation.” Or as Thomas Lynch, a funeral director of 50 years reflects: “This is the first generation of our species that tries to deal with death without dealing with the dead.”

But let’s consider the “secular” side to the rise in cremation. 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 scant references to it in Scripture—just Saul’s cremation (see I Samuel 31) and references in Amos (see 2:1, 6:8-10). None of these references denounce or forbid the practice, but it was far from normative, as burial was the standard practice. Again, this was in honor of the sacred nature of the body.

So where does that leave us?

Should Christians Be Cremated?

While few Christian denominations or groups denounce it, I would argue that there should at least be thoughtful reflection before embracing it if for no other reason than the rich Christian tradition and meaning surrounding it.

As R.A. Peterson notes, from the beginning – contrary to the Greek and Roman practice of cremation – Christians usually buried their dead. Cremation was not forbidden, but burial in the earth was always preferred. The corpses were treated with great care and respect because of the conviction that the physical body was also the temple of the Holy Spirit. In other words, even after death, the body wasn’t just a body.

Early on, Christian burials were marked by joyous celebrations due to belief in bodily resurrection. This is why gravesites became known as coemeteria (cemeteries), which means “resting places,” because of the deep belief in the resurrection. The earliest Christian cemeteries near Rome were first filled with martyrs, making them hallowed ground and places of devotion and meditation.

If you want the real secular drift, consider that Christian funerals were initially occasions of joy in light of the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and eternal life in heaven, and those present always wore white and conducted the funeral during the day. By the eighth century, as more nominal Christianity took hold, funerals became marked by grief and people in attendance wore black.

Instead of saying, “Do the math,” perhaps we should say, “Do the theology.”    

3 Reasons People Choose Cremation

I sense the real reason for the current rise in cremation is three-fold: 1) it’s vastly cheaper; 2) those left behind find it easier to deal with the body; and 3) there are fewer people connected with churches in order to conduct a formal burial service. 

So should someone embrace cremation or a burial? For the Christian, there is certainly freedom. While Christian tradition, as well as the narrative sections of Scripture, clearly favors burial, nowhere is cremation forbidden or condemned. 

And there is nothing about 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 every bit as much as the person buried in the ground. Even if buried, our physical bodies will decompose and what will be resurrected will be anything but a carefully preserved corpse.

3 Considerations before Choosing Cremation

But speaking pastorally, having presided over countless funerals over the decades, I would offer at least the following consideration: First, in most cases, it helps the grief process to view the body. It brings a sense of finality and reality. That does not necessarily mean an “open-casket” funeral, but at least a time of viewing for the immediate family.

Second, though we live in an increasingly transient society, that’s all the more reason why “place” matters. An actual burial site creates a sacred space that serves those connected to the dead. As Elisa Krcilek, a funeral home vice president in Mesa, Arizona, put it: “We’ve got to do a better job informing people that there’s a time to say goodbye and a place to say hello. The moment you scatter someone, you’re done. People need a memorial, to be remembered.”

Yes.

Third, there is much to be said for what takes place with a Christian burial. Meaning the symbolism of being buried in view of rising again, the prayers, the reading of Scriptures, the gathering of community. There is something lost without a small “b” baptism of the body into death that had been baptized into life while alive.

So, practically, if cremation is chosen, perhaps the body could be viewed beforehand, with even the cremation itself witnessed. The ashes, rather than simply strewn over the water or in the wind, could be entombed or buried, with some kind of marker or memorial. And there should most certainly be a Christian service of some kind surrounding and embracing it all. 

Because the goal is not simply to dispose of a body, much less to save money. The goal is to serve the grieving at the time of death, and also to serve them weeks, months and even years down the road in terms of remembering, celebrating and memorializing the life that had been led and the role that person played in their life. And to honor the body that truly was the temple of the Holy Spirit, and will one day be…

… resurrected.

Sources

Karen Heller, “The Stunning Rise of Cremation Reveals America’s Changing Idea of Death,” The Washington Post, April 19, 2022, read online.
R.A. Peterson, “Christian Burial,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Serezniy 

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.