30 September 2009


Here's a topic for blackbird consideration: cremation.

At first, this seems like a no-brainer. I completely agree with the premise that burial is far better, that cremation can send an unintended message that the body will not be resurrected, that it has Pagan origins, and that, by contrast, a body laid out in a casket is both a testimony of the law, and tangible evidence of the Gospel in the form of bodily resurrection. The body of a Christian is a holy relic, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a vessel sanctified by physical washing of Holy Baptism and the physical consumption of the body and blood of Christ.

However, one of my members (a former funeral director) threw me a curve-ball.

He argues that the modern method of embalming (which also has roots in Pagan Egypt) is itself a desecration. This is obviously something most of us never see. Blood is drained and thrown away. Parts of flesh even end up in the garbage. The body is filled with harsh chemicals. And all of this is to avoid the process of decomposition (Gen 3:19) that was spoken by God to Adam as part of the wages of sin.

His argument is that cremation - by avoiding the chemicals, the draining of fluids, the removal of flesh, and the mingling of the Christian's flesh and blood with the garbage - is instead subjecting the body to a process that hastens the Gen 3:19 process, and is actually less of a desecration than embalming.

This does complicate things a little. Our funerary practices are not what they were 200 or 500 years ago. The funeral industry and the procedures for burial of the dead are heavily regulated by government.

So, is embalming really a better confession than cremation?

--- Rev. Larry Beane


+ Robert Wurst said...

Why not burial within 24 hours to avoid embalming and cremation?

The State allows that option.

Mike Keith said...

I would suggest that the funeral director's point is valid. However, Cremation is not the next logical step. I am told in some countries that when a person dies they are buried the same day or the next day - therefore there is no embalming, etc. The funeral is held some days after if need be.

I think embalming and creamtion are an issue. I don't have any answers...

The Watcher said...

My lay view: God is far greater than I and as he formed Adam and caused flesh to appear on dry bones in the valley, he can reassemble the atoms of a cremation.

+ Robert Wurst said...

I wish I could think faster . . .

Father Joseph was embalmed. The Israelites carried him out and buried him. (No mention of any offense taken at it . . .)

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

You ask which is a better confession - I would say neither is fundamentally a better confession. Both can be done whilest giving glory and thanks to God for the gifts He has given to the deceased and both can be done in expectation of the resurrection on the last day.

Neither practice now has an overt pagan overtone, so there is nothing we are confessing against by choosing the other.

My parents will probably be cremated for simple ease and expense, and the fact that in this way they can both be buried together eventually (and wherever that eventual ends up being). Ashes to ashes, I say. Dust to dust.

Reformationalist said...

I hold to cremation as that better testimony. I say this not because I never memorized, ""Ashes to ashes." Truth is I memorized both was, "ashes to ashes" (cremation) and "dust to dust" (burial). Best, I would say, is the quick burial with no embalming, but funerals cannot be put together that quickly in most cases.

I agree that method by which the body is put to rest is an adiaphoron. But with each such adiaphoron, it ceases to be such in the face of a confessing issue. And the issue that I face is the overwhelming view of dead (spiritally) Christians and pagans who believe that they are escaping God and His judgment by cremation.

The other reason I prefer the burial of the body is the confession (often ignored or disbelieved today) that we are both body and soul (and spirit), and the image and practice of the body, being honored -- to the extent that the law allows -- is more important that the image that we turn to ashes.

But, of course, it costs more, and that becomes the end of the story for more and more people.



Rev. Fr. Robert W. Schaibley, SSP

Reformationalist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
revmlk said...

As a former funeral director myself, I gave this precise presentation at the Higher Things conference in Michigan this summer. It is my contention the what most consider a "normal" burial is actually more invasive and idolatrous than cremation. Plus the expense is sinful in and of itself. Cremation is by far the purest form of decomposition aside from direct burial into the GROUND (not a vault, conrete box, or steel casket).

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

You guys all need to read Dr. Al Schmidt's book on Cremation. I guarantee you'll think differently.

I think it is interesting that whenever bodies are burned in the Bible, it is always a matter of God's judgment against them.

I have no problem telling people in my congregation that they ought not be cremated, because it is contrary to the first article: "I believe that God has given me my BODY..."

Why would we want to destroy (intentionally) that which God has created and made a temple of His Holy Spirit?

There is never a good reason for cremation.

revmlk said...

I have Dr. Schmidt's book and he and I have talked face-to-face and I still believe what I posted. If you look at the embalming/preservative art/funeral practice of today, it is nothing short of mutilation and idolatry. Cremation, as I posted, is a much more pure method of decompostion. Now, that being said, I didn't say it was theologically correct, did I? But in today's world where choices are extremely limited, it may certainly be the lesser of two evils.

The Watcher said...

Not to be pedantic, but shouldn't we then hew tombs out of rock, anoint the bodies with spices, and then collect their bones for ossuaries instead of burial or cremation?

Rev. Erich Fickel said...

I don't think that burial practices need to be fit into "dust to dust" so much as they need to be consistent with "sleep," "peace," "rest," etc. The One who is coming again in glory will raise our bodies from their graves. We are to think of the coffin as a soft bed or sofa according to Luther. I do not see how cremation fits neatly into any of this.

Our funeral rites all speak to comitting our departed brother's body to the grave or ground. Again, I don't see how cremation is consistent with those rites.

Modern embalming may not be ideal. Still, preserving the body and laying it to rest in a vault is completely consistent with idea that we are all waiting, including our departed loved ones, for the Second Coming and the resurrection of the body. It is consistent with the idea that they are not dead but sleeping.

I would like to be convinced, as I face the death of my mother and deal with her desire to give her body to medical science or be cremated.


Robert said...

When it comes to the treatment of of the human body, less is more. That is, the less unnatural, the better.

That burial customs today simply try to extend the "shelf life" of the corpse for a few days (years?) are themselves unnatural is no justification for torching it and grinding bones in a a bone crusher.

Yes, the bones of grandma, because the kids were too cheap to by a $1,000 pine casket online from some monks. The State of Georgia only requires a vault, and those can be had for $600.

Just as it was against contraception, the Synod was consistent in its condemnation of cremation until the last century.

Does no one care to ask Why? anymore?

Robert at bioethike.com.

orthodoxy hunter said...

Someone told me that there was no biblical precedent for cremation. ???

Was there a time when no Christian would have permitted cremation? If so, just because it has become the lesser of two evils, why should that now make it acceptable?

Rebekah said...

The reasons cited above make it clear that neither embalming nor cremation make the most orthodox confession. As usual, catholic Christianity is far more organic than what the world in its wisdom would contrive. Lutheran cemeteries should get in on the green burial trend, which was rightfully ours to begin with.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Rev. Fickel,

You do raise yet another option with your mother (you and she have my prayers) with the donation of the body to study/ organ donation and the such. I would say as long as such an action is not done to spite God and does not cause undo distress to the family, I see no reason why it cannot be a loving, charitable act.

Also, you and others have mentioned the rites of burial. Does this become a chicken/egg sort of matter? Are our rites this way because they were developed at a time when burial was the only option (or even a confession over against pagan cremation in defiance of God), or are our rites this way because this is the way that they must be, and this in term shaped the approach.

I think it is more that as burial was the predominate custom, the rites took on much more of a burial focus in language.

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

@ Rev. Brown,
When you say,
"Neither practice now has an overt pagan overtone, so there is nothing we are confessing against by choosing the other."
and further, when you say,
"Are our rites this way because they were developed at a time when burial was the only option (or even a confession over against pagan cremation in defiance of God), or are our rites this way because this is the way that they must be, and this in term shaped the approach."

I want to know - why do you speak as if cremation is no longer a confession against paganism?

Alvin Schmidt shows quite clearly in his book that the modern cremation industry arose from pagan atheists and agnostics thumbing their nose at God and at the Resurrection hope of Christians. Not to mention that I note that many of the world's pagan religions still burn their bodies!

I for one am totally convinced by the Biblical witness of the burial and rest of God's saints in the ground, not to mention that Jesus Himself was buried as opposed to burned (as were the bodies of most crucified Jews - this is my recollection of perhaps Schmidt's book - I can't find my copy when I need it!), and by the need to continue to confess the hope of the Resurrection as opposed to the pagans who burn their bodies and the pagans who thumb their nose at the Resurrection and at God Himself.

Now - what do we say to those whose loved ones have been cremated? Well, they have not sinned as long as it has not been done out of spite of God and His doctrine; and most importantly, God can and will raise these dead as well as the buried dead. No one can deny that. But the BEST thing would be to pay heed to God's Word, to confess in our actions what we believe: that body is important, hallowed ground, a place where God dwelt, and where He will again create new life. Why burn and pulverize something God has sanctified?

So why do we always do what only seems convenient and less costly, in the meantime compromising our clear confession of what we believe and who we are in Jesus Christ? We are like bugs attracted to blue light sometimes...

BalaamsAss51 said...

Layman here. This topic came up a few years ago when my father-in-law died and before him my mother-in-law. They were "dead" set against cremation. Why? because they had been taught to think that way by Lutheran pastors, no exception allowed.

Ok, so they were buried, not cremated. But personally I really don't see the difference. How we dispose of a dead body ia adiaphora to me. Treat the God given body with dignity and you may assign any meaning you want to the method. Burial? Sure the body looks intact but you know it isn't and will not stay that way. Cremation? Just speeding up the process of discintegration.

Again, this symbolic assigning of a confessional statement to the method, and trying to make a certain way express more than another way leaves me cold. Preach the truth, preach the assured ressurection of the body (which as The Watcher posted will all turn into atoms anyway), and calm the fears of the LIVING with the Gospel.

Enjoy this blog very much.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Rev. Sutton,

Yes, there are places in the world where the pagans cremate today -- and there are neo-pagans who celebrate winter solstice -- but that doesn't mean I feel I need to abandon a Christmas tree in order to confess against them. And yes, there are neo-druids running around, but I'm not going to smash every jack-o-lantern I see either, because these are no longer expressions of pagan belief by the vast majority of culture but things people do.

As such, mandating no cremation isn't really confessing anything -- a confession should be clearly obvious and not have to be overtly explained in detail. If there is no public controversy, if there isn't a public denial of the truth, then the act isn't fundamentally confessing.

If we all have to read Al Schmidt's book before its a matter of clear confession, it isn't ever going to be a matter of clear confession, cause the people in our towns and neighborhood aren't reading the book.

As BA says, the way we handle our funerals, be there a body present , or be we laying to rest mere remains (either due to cremation or bodies that have been lost).

And in response to Rev. Beisel's question "Why would we want to destroy (intentionally) that which God has created and made a temple of His Holy Spirit?" - here is my answer.

It already is destroyed. That's what death is.

Even with all our efforts to preserve, the body is already destroyed. Dead is dead. Dead is wrong, unnatural, unclean. Dead means this body will not live, will not breathe, will not move until the day the Lord makes it to live again, a day when the driest of bones or the dustiest of ash will be no hindrance to the Word of the Lord.

But death already has destroyed the body. There was a reason no one wanted to carry a bier, there is a reason Jesus touching the bier of the widow of Nain's son would have been so shocking. Dead bodies are unclean.

Now, we ought not show disrespect to the remains, for we do look to the resurrection - but I can't argue that cremation is fundamentally disrespectful, or that donations to science or health care are disrespectful.

Let the considerations of the family guide what happens. If they are such as that they need to see the physical remains intact - let there be burial, even if the body must be embalmed to be preserved (especially if some of the family must travel). If there are financial considerations and they wish to cremate, so be it. If burial is to be delayed or at a far location (i.e. to be buried with a spouse who is/will be buried in a different location) - let the remains be transported in whatever fashion.

And let us who are pastors be especially reticent to burden consciences over this, especially when we don't know what the family has done before. The last thing we should do is let our own personal piety shake a family by unintentionally saying, "What you did for grandma before I got here was wrong and sinful."

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

A clarification:

"As BA says, the way we handle our funerals, be there a body present , or be we laying to rest mere remains (either due to cremation or bodies that have been lost)."

Let's add - ". . shows the clear confession of our faith and our belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."

Jonathan said...

I suppose it goes without saying, then, that cremation and scattering of ashes in lieu of some sort of in situ committal should be strictly verboten? Or would sprinkling over a limited area, say, rose garden, be acceptible? Or, is it the spirit or intent or the act, again, that drives the conclusion?

Fr. Matthew J. Uttenreither said...

Than you, Fr. Beisel. Seriously read Dr. Schimdt's book. Pages 22-23 describes what happens to the body during the cremation.

Chapter two of the book gives a brief history of cremation's pagan origin.

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

Dear Rev. Brown,
Thank you for your reply. Obviously, you have a very entrenched position, based no doubt on your own personal experiences. I will leave you to that position and wish you God's blessings in your ministry.

But I want to say to you and to "BaalamsAss51" that I for one am not suggesting making "no cremation" a dogma or "symbolic confession" or a "burden of conscience" - of course, no matter what a family decides to do, we preach the comfort of the resurrection to them. NEVER would I imagine a Christian funeral without such a message.

I DID say that burial in the earth of the body is the BEST practice and has the history of the Christian church behind it (as opposed to pagan and atheistic practice and belief). If my members or other Christians ask me for advice, then I will (AND HAVE) strongly teach, from an informed (yes, even with Alvin Schmidt's book as my guide) and Biblical point of view, what is BEST, knowing that even "second-best" is still going to be resurrected at the last day.

The funeral homes here will bring the body, even if scheduled to be cremated, in a pine box for a traditional Christian funeral. That is a happier compromise.

One thing that is happening a lot down here in Texas is the preoccupation with getting rid of the body as quickly as possible - either burying the body first, and then having a "body free" "Memorial Service" - or instantly sending the body away for cremation and having a "Memorial Service." I wonder how much of this is because people are uncomfortable with confronting death and don't want to see a dead body or to have their dead body seen. Lutherans down here, whatever the reason, are giving their practice over to that of the surrounding Reformed/Evangelical churches - by wanting it to be a "Memorial" Service instead of a "Funeral" Service they are saying something whether intended or not. By God's grace, whether one or the other, I will preach the same comforting Gospel. But the attitudes behind this concern me. Christians ought not be afraid of death or of the dead, nor offended by the dead.

Reminds me of arguments against having a crucifix with a corpus, actually.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Rev. Sutton,

I think the service with a "rental" casket for the body prior to a cremation is a fantastic idea (and one that I would suggest as well to any who wished to have cremation as the ultimate option for the remains). Indeed, in terms of simple spiritual care actually "seeing" the body brings home the reality of death -- we have heard of the heartache of family members when the remains are never found.

And I do recognize that you are not attempting to mandate - however, you did say, "So why do we always do what only seems convenient and less costly, in the meantime compromising our clear confession of what we believe and who we are in Jesus Christ?"

To that, I say I don't see that cremation is fundamentally a compromising of that confession (anymore than the eating of meat was fundamentally compromising of the Christian faith).

Indeed - I think the issue of a "memorial" service is much more a matter of confession - for the purpose of a funeral is not simply to remember the one who is deceased but to proclaim what God has done for this person through Baptism and the preaching of the Word and the gift of the Supper, and also what God shall do on the last day.

Five hours north of up (up in Lahoma, OK), we don't deal with that - I just have to beat down Funeral home directors who want to "reopen" the casket after the Funeral. . . however we place the remains in whatever form, let God be the One who reopens them!

This does touch to something. I'm from Chicago. My dad's served in Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, and now Oklahoma. I vicared in California and am now here in Oklahoma. The practices in each area are so diverse -- I think this is something that affects my thinking on this - it is not so much that I am set in my way, but that I see so many different ways all over the place that I hesitate to denote a "best" -- I'll never get to see it.

:sigh: They don't even have a family visitation here - just a body in state at the funeral home.

Kenneth J. Bomberger said...

Let us not forget the impact the film industry has upon our children and youth. I love a good battle flick. However, two popular(ish) movies, Troy (2004), and Beowulf (2007), have portrayed burning bodies with a distinctly pagan overtones.
Granted, I would not allow my own children to view these films for other obvious reasons (nudity & violence), but the world is crafty and subtle. The practice of cremation today may be based in finance. But how is it portrayed by some of the biggest influences upon our society?

revmlk said...

As I have high regard for Al Schmidt, his book is not Holy Scripture. There are scriptural references where burning of bodies isn't "pagan". There is scriptural reference to fire being a "refiner's fire"...something that purifies.

Again, as a former funeral director/embalmer, I wish I could describe or show you what is accomplished during the preparation of a body for a public funeral. I could find scriptural references all over the place to condemn what is done during that process. But we condone IT! Why? Just because a body is present?

Then look at what we do with the body after it is "prepared". We place it in the front of the funeral home's "visitation room". We surround it with flowers, plants, pictures, but the body remains at the center, where an altar should be, and is adored, dare I say "worshipped" in some instances? This is nothing short of idolatrous actions. Yet we condone it because a body is present?

Then we do not put it in the ground, we put it in a steel, copper or concrete "vault". No natural decomposition takes place there. A body sealed in a steel casket inside of a sealed vault does not decompose, it putrifies.

We do these things, not because it is "meet, right and salutary", they are done out of love for the deceased, guilt, or some perverted sense of keeping the body from being wet, dirty, wormy, etc.

My argument here is that you cannot just condemn cremation and say that our burial practice is ok because a body is present and we speak the right words at our services. You need to take it further than that.

The Orthodox Jews have it right. Bury the body in a wood casket within 24 hours of death with no embalming. You don't need a body to hold a funeral service. If you are waiting for out of town people, the funeral mass can be held after the burial.

Al Schmidt's book alone does not convince on cremation and it certainly takes no look at today's burial practices.

One brother stated earlier regarding those who have already been cremated, "they have not sinned as long as it has not been done out of spite of God and His doctrine; and most importantly, God can and will raise these dead as well as the buried dead. No one can deny that." So if cremation is chosen not out of spite for God, but in faith that no matter the condition of the body, God can and will raise from the dead, it isn't sinful. You can't have it both ways.

This is good debate, Brothers, but we need to look at the big picture and not just at what we know as "customary."

Thanks for allowing me to comment....

Cecil The Sea Sick Sea Serpent said...

I recommend viewing the motion picture with something to offend everyone … “The Loved One” starring Robert Morse and Jonathan Winters and a host of other well known stars such as Rod Steiger, Tab Hunter, James Coburn, Robert Morley, Liberace, etc. © 1965 by Warner Bros. (MGM originally)

Elephantschild said...

I'll echo what Rebekah said above regarding "green" burial.

Embalming is a violation of the body, and sends portions of the body down the city drains. Anybody who thinks an embalmed body is "intact" is fooling themselves.

I'm not thrilled about cremation, either, but it does get the physical body back to earth in a much commonsense way, and with much less expense and fuss. Still, I think there's a third way.

The deceased loved one can be cared for at home for a day or two and then buried either directly in the ground (state laws vary, of course) or in wooden caskets that are prepared so that they decompose along with the body.


Pastor Foy said...

I am greatly disturbed by much of this conversation by "pastors" and the obvious lack of understanding by the laity who have been poorly taught by the "pastors".

The seminaries have failed to teach of this and have discussions to prepare "pastors" for this issue in the Church which is constantly battered by the world's unrighteous ways.

Ok Pastor Brown, the entire world will not read Schmidt's book so let's forget it. The whole world won't read the Bible either. Hmmm

There are good practices, better practices and best practices. We have no right to teach and desire anything but the best for we always have received the best from our Lord.

We confess, "I believe one holy, Christian (catholic) and Apostolic Church." They never cremated as cremation was the way of pagans who believed that fire released the spirit from the body into the spirit world. Pagans had all manner of beliefs about after life, eternity, reincarnation and the like but cremation was their way. Not so the Christians.

Expense is not a relevant issue as the least expensive casket, no imbalming and burial is no more expensive than cremation. The absurdity of being "green" is the ridiculous buyin into creation more important than Creator, all other creatures more important than man. This is also the root of animal rights coupled with abortion rights, euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc.

Again, pastors must have the courage to teach, make a stand but do so understanding that the people have not been taught and careful not to cause offense to those who have cremated loved ones.

Cremation does horrible violence to the body. Bones are not organic and do not burn. Roman vases containing bones were at least as big as the femor, I believe, as it is the longest bone. Ever see a cremation box, as small as 10x10x8. Bones are crushed and ground and more often than not mixed with the remains of the last person and so it goes.

We take forever to have funerals like we take forever to have Baptisms. Everything else in life is more important than "new life" and "eternal life"! Pastors must teach, encourage, facilitate more timely burial and funeral.

I must admit, I am so tired of pastors hiding behind the parishioners favorite misunderstood term, Adiaphora. Not everything that is free is good or edifying to the body of Christ.

Come on brothers, put some eberhard faber in your backbones and go boldly forth to lead those whom you are to love and CARE for as the Church has always done and not as the world does or Rome has capitulated to in Vatican II.

Burial has ALWAYS been the practice of the Church, don't change it. If you can squeeze it into your busy schedules, read Schmidt and then have a class on it.

Lord have mercy on us all.

Rev. Jacob Sutton said...

Pr. Foy,
Amen and Amen again. You said what I was poorly attempting to say. Thank you for the clear teaching and encouragement to do and teach what is right.
Pr. Sutton