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Q: “Is it proper for a Christian to put into his or her will the desire to be cremated rather than buried?”
A: Years ago cremation was generally unheard of as a practice among Christians and was commonly associated with the deaths of atheists and agnostics. Atheists frequently have opted for cremation as a way of showing their contempt for the Christian belief of life after death and the resurrection of the body. Well-known skeptics have at times scattered their ashes in the wind over the ocean as a mockery to Biblical teachings, or as a testimonial to their nature worship. Obviously, in this context, cremation would never be an option for the Christian, for a bold confession of faith in the bodily resurrection would need to be demonstrated even in the manner of burial. At such a cremation involving any improper motives a Lutheran pastor could not with good conscience officiate.
Cremation today, however, has not always been associated with atheism or unbelief. The scattering of ashes still symbolizes a doubt in the resurrection, but the scattering is not a necessary (and certainly not a preferable) part of cremation. The reasons some Christians today opt for cremation – without the scattering of ashes, of course – are the following: more sanitary, less expensive, ease of transportation of the remains, unwarranted land use, and due to the body possibly being so mutilated at the time of death.
Scripture does not command what should be done with our bodies after death. Burial was used almost exclusively in Bible times and among the early Christians. Genesis 23 mentions the first burial ground in Scripture. Our Savior himself was buried. But we cannot draw the conclusion from this that cremation is therefore automatically wrong in every instance.
Practically speaking, cremation merely hastens the process of decay for the body. Genesis 3: 19 reminds us that no matter if the body is buried or cremated it will naturally return to dust, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Though it is not absolutely wrong for a Christian to stipulate cremation in his will, he will want to make sure that his reasons and motives for doing so are truly in keeping with our Christian teachings. The Christian will want his survivors to know even by the way he was placed into the ground that he was one who by faith in Christ’s atoning blood looked forward to citizenship in heaven – even bodily citizenship! “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20, 21 NIV).
After all is said, though, there are still two good reasons why Christians should consider burial as opposed to cremation. The first is the kind of “sermon” the deceased body preaches to those who attend the funeral service. It serves as an ever-present reminder that “the wages of sin is death,” but that Christ gives life and immortality to our mortal, decaying bodies. Somehow the urn full of ashes does not seem to portray this quite as well as the casket. Secondly, there is the matter of offense. Even though, as we said, cremation is not wrong in itself, there will be Christians attending the funeral service who will possibly never understand why the body of that person was cremated, no matter how much the motives of the individual or the family were in keeping with Scripture. The Apostle Paul said, “Everything is permissible for me – but not everything is beneficial” (I Cor. 6:12 NIV).