Saturday, November 1, 2008


(painting: Joseph of Nazareth with the Infant Jesus
Guido Reni
I do not believe Lutherans (even confessional Lutherans - like the Missouri Synod) have a fixed position regarding cremation. Likely, because Pastors in general do not want to battle this one or as the saying goes "die on that hill" (no pun intended) Nobody wants to say Grandma Betsy got a bad deal with God because she had a cremation. Many Pastors or theologians would call cremation "adiaphora" - which means it is a theologically neutral issue. I however, would not teach cremation as adiaphora and would gently encourage a traditional Christian burial. Historically it has been a pagan practice - today practiced by the occult and Hinduism. The neo-pagan philosophy surrounding cremation is that the body during one's life had been trapping the soul - which upon burning, now releases the soul back into the energies or mother earth etc.

Even in the western world we inherit some of this thinking, though maybe not explicty expressed, is subtly infused even into the minds of Christians. This we even get from Plato at the old ancient greek symposiums who saw a complete separation of body and soul. Gnosticism as well split the soul from the material world and saw the human form as a prison cell which had to be desposed of prior to communion with God. With this kind of thinking, it would seem that treatment of the body (dead of alive) wouldn't have any relationship with that which is divine, spritual, and eternal.

Christianity, the true evengelical catholic (lutheran) faith however does not see this separation of body and soul. For the Christian the same bodies we have now are destined to rest and recline before God's face in heaven. Though they will be heavenly bodies in the likeness of Christ's they will nontheless be ressurected bodies from the ones we have today. Moses was given an earthly buriel. Our Lord, the incarnate God, who redeemed sinners, most importantly was buried with his pierced body in a tomb. In this way we should look to our Lord in whose death we share in which he bore our sins and in his bodily ressurection.

The traditional burial is also a profound corporate confession and rite regarding the teaching that death is a mere sleep until the ressurrection of all believers in Christ. We rest in our tombs as members of one body. The traditional funeral rite is a testament to this which is often not properly taught. This is not to say that God is incapable of ressurecting ashes and grinded bones - for he surely can. Yet I think bodies ought to be treated with reverence, respect, dignity, and careful meditation whether dead or alive. There is also many blessings that come from the funeral rite with the open casket. When a loved one passes from this earthly life at the funeral we can say to a son or daughter, "this saint believed in Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God who was crucified died and buried, and ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almight. He believed in the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the ressurection of the the body and the life everlasting. As they now lie here (we point to his resting body/hands/face/eyes/mouth) our Lord delivered him in baptism and has sustained him through His holy word. This body, though sleeping, with be ressurected with all believers in Christ, with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. And we too share in this eternal life and salvation with this dearest saint who confessed this."

In this way we can teach the faith best. For a mere abstract soul is not ressurected but indeed the body. For we were given bodies by God in paradise in his very likeness. This likeness has been restored in Christ, and we are resurrected in soul and BODY. I believe viewing the body, even touching is a needed ritual for dealing with death. Death is unnatural, and a consequence of the fall. Its horrifying, painful, the cause of immense suffering. I believe there needs to be an encounter with the physical body for a healthy psychological and physiological separation. Denying family and friends this initiation, and rite of passage I suspect may not be healthy. There must be closure. There must be a physical encounter with all the senses with a dearly departed saint. This may be a sensitive discussion with family - for it is appealing to many. There is no law, or imperative regarding the tradition Christian burial. However, upon reflection of our Lord being laid in a tomb and ressurected on the third day we should see our own lives in his and his in ours. I think the traditional burial is better psychologically and physiologically in terms of letting go. And I think it is the better choice sacramentally, catechetically (for teaching), and is a final confession of bodily rest in Christ who makes all things new - who creates a new heaven and a new earth - and brings all saints into his kingdom (with their bodies) on the last day.

Dr. Alvin Schmidt writes the following in the August, 2008 Lutheran Witness:

In my research, I could not find a single Christian denomination (liberal or conservative) that ever conducted a single theological study on cremation. Instead, they all, with the exception of the Greek Orthodox Church, capitulated to a very pagan practice. The early Christians resisted cremation so consistently that by the end of the fourth century, even the pagan Romans ended it. Then for almost 1,900 years, cremation was a Christian taboo in the West until atheists, universalists, and agnostics started to bring it back in the late 1800s. And now more and more Christians in ignorance are imitating these non-Christians.

In the Old Testament, whenever cremation is mentioned, it never has God’s blessings. Often it reflects God’s curse. See for instance Joshua 7:15, 25–26. Then there is Amos 2:1–2 that shows God punished the pagan king of Moab for having burned the bones of Edom’s king. God punished him by cremating him. He did not even tolerate cremation for pagans.

There were several reasons why the early Christians rejected cremation. They wanted to be buried because Christ had been buried; they did not want to give credibility to the pagan argument that cremation makes it impossible to resurrect the body; the knew cremation had no biblical approval in the Old Testament, and they remembered St. Paul said the Christian body was the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 6:19). They could not envision their Christian bodies being cremated.

Yes, God can raise a cremated body. But that is not the question. For what God can do, and we may do are two different things. When the devil tempted Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and God would give him a soft landing, Jesus responded, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12). Jesus did not doubt God’s power, but it was not for Him to test Him. It is similar with cremation.

Also, let’s not forget the many comforting Lutheran hymns that promise departed Christians a peaceful sleep in their graves. Cremation contradicts these hymns. Will we soon cremate these hymns, too?

Finally, research shows that today more and more Christians only believe in the resurrection of the soul, but no longer the body. The growing practice of cremation reinforces that unbiblical belief. Thus, for Christians to be counseled and to practice cremation is indeed very sad.

I have written more on mourning death HERE

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