Christians and Cremation

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Mollie Ziegler of GetReligion wonders why Christians are cremating their dead in noticeable numbers all of a sudden, despite 2000 years of commitment to burial because of a doctrinal conviction about future resurrection. I do realize that it's possible to have a metaphysical conception of what persons are such that you think persons will survive the cremation process and be reconstituted in a resurrection. I think most people's views would actually allow that. But I very much doubt the 2000 years of tradition that Christians bury their dead is largely out of worrying that God couldn't resurrect you if you were cremated. It's more simply a symbolic demonstration of the faith that God would raise the dead in the end, indicating by your refusal to destroy the body that you believe this very body will one day be restored.

It's really unfortunate that Christians are rejecting this important symbol of a key Christian belief, one that long predates Christianity, going even back to the patriarchs of Genesis. This is somewhat like deciding we shouldn't waste water and therefore deciding to baptize people by lowering them below ground level in a hole and then pulling them back up. You can maintain the belief, but you lose a key piece of symbolism that's not some later tradition but is actually in the biblical texts.

One commenter in that thread complains that this point would seem to require Japanese people to break the law requiring cremation. I didn't see anyone arguing that Japanese Christians should break the law (though perhaps they should be arguing that it be changed to allow for exceptions for religious reasons). What people are arguing is that something is lost in the Christian witness, something that is symbolized by burial rather than cremation. We ought not to go along with social forces that move in that direction without serious consideration for what we're abandoning, which is a symbol present in the pages of scripture that illustrates a spiritual truth. Symbols in scripture that go back to the patriarchs should receive a strong presumption. That doesn't mean they override the law, since there is no direct command to bury your dead, but it does mean we shouldn't make our decision merely on considerations that are less serious than those involving how we represent the gospel in our lives and deaths.

12 Comments

Thanks! I'd never thought of it that way.

I take your point, Jeremy, though baptism by immersion seems to be the more direct symbol of Christian belief in resurrection (Rom.6).

In the UK cremation is far more common than in the States, much of it having to do with space. Of course, I'm speaking of the general poplulation. But I suspect there is little difference among Christians here. Some prefer cremation, others burial. I've never heared theology enter into it, though. I can't speak to older English traditions which I'm sure exist.

There is also another distinction here; few caskets are open for viewing as in the states. Many of my English friends, including my wife, wouldn't think of it.

Cremation also becomes a more reasonable solution for people who live a long way from their family roots, which I think must be true for an increasing number of people. Shipping corpses thousands of miles is simply not practical and beyond the financial means of many families. This and the already mentioned lack of space probably explain the increase in numbers of people cremating their dead.

So, I really think it is more of a practical issue rather than a symbolic or philosophical one.

It's for practical reasons that larger numbers of people are cremating their dead, yes. That doesn't mean it's a practical issue rather than a symbolic or philosophical one. It just means that people are ignoring the symbolic or philosophical issues in their decision-making (or at least thinking that the practical matters trump those factors).

Hey Jeremy--do you know what happened to the Christian Carnival this week?

I'm guessing it just hasn't been posted yet.

I understand the tradition of burying the dead in anticipation of the resurection and its symbolism.I can also understand that cremation wasnt done because the heathens practiced human sacrifice. However,my view is this. If God can bring back dry bones(Ezekiel 37:1-14) He will have no problems with whats left after cremation since its obvious He had to provide muscle,tissue and skin to resurrect those dry bones.
I believe cremation can also be a statement of faith that my God is able to do anything and that traditional views can impede ones faith.Ask the Jews that missed the Messiah Christ Jesus because it went against their traditional beliefs.
A witness is better lived rather than buried.

If I agree with, Jeremy, it would be that this issue is for the living, for the impact the symbolism would or could have for them. Regarding the dead, I consider it a moot point.

On a personal note as a pastor, I sat in the food court of a hospital in Cardiff today, discussing the impending death of a wife's husband with her. He had refused to discuss the practical issues with her at all in the past or now. She said she has decided she wants cremation, as do her three grown children.

Of course, when she offered this I didn't recount what I'd read here. But at the time I did remember this post. So, Jeremy, you added to my life in a practical way today.

I think it is pure silliness to say that cremation damages your chances of being resurrected at the rapture.

The Christian witness is not damaged by cremating people. What if you do not have money to bury your loved ones? Cremation is cheaper than burial…and what about the saints burned at the stake and were martyrs?

There is no commandment in the Bible that says you must physically bury your dead. Burial was just used as a symbol for being resurrected with Christ (you are dead to your sins, but are now a new creature). Also, the Jewish people did not burn bodies, so it is natural burial is used as a symbol as becoming alive to Christ.

I am going add this to the forum at Catholic Connect- http://www.CatholicConnect.com ) to find out what more people think…

No one here or at the original GetReligion post is arguing about the chances of being resurrected. I assumed at the outset that God can resurrect someone whose body is cremated.

As I also said quite clearly, this is not an absolute argument against cremation. It's just a very strong consideration that can stand among quite a number of other considerations, some of which will be fairly weak, others of which may be fairly strong themselves. Poverty might be one such consideration. In the end the various considerations have to be weighed out, and a decision has to be made based on which considerations are most important in a given case.

So neither of those points really touches anything I've said, since I've already allowed for both.

It's very simple math.

World land mass:
1 AD and 2006 AD
basically the same (no new continents)

World population:
1 AD: .4 billion maximum
http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/worldhis.html
2006 AD: 6.5 billion+
http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html

Michael, I just noticed your comment in my "held for approval" list. I guess I hadn't checked that in a week. Sorry about that.

Your very simple math is simple only because it's incomplete. You've actually oversimplified and therefore conveniently ignored the complexities of the math that would be necessary to show what you want.

You need more than just an increase in population with no increase in land mass. If you've got a huge amount of land and a few people, you can increase the number of people greatly without even coming close to exhausting the land mass necessary to support the people. So increasinly the people without increading the land doesn't tell you much unless you can have some sense of how many people the land can support.

It's been demonstrated since the overpopulation panic of the 70s that what have been thought to be overpopulation problems really have nothing to do with overpopulation but have everything to do with population concentration and food distribution. Therefore, the mere total amount of people is actually irrelevant, at least at our current stage of world population. It's where the people are and how much space a localized population has. Since I already dealt with that issue above, I don't see how your "simple math" adds to the conversation.

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