Ask The Pastor: Cremation

Real questions, from real people, with real answers.
The Question…
 
“Hi, Brandon–
 
I have a simple question that probably won’t have a simple answer.
 
A few friends and I got into this one on the way home from church on Sunday. Recently, the Catholic Church changed their position on cremation. What does the Bible say with regard to anything other than burial? My son and I have talked about cremation. We’re both willing to be organ donors. I’m considering donating my body for medical research (after I’m dead, of course). I’m epileptic, have been epileptic most of my life, and there might be something gained to help others by allowing it to be studied. But I don’t want to knowingly do anything God does not approve.”
 
 
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The Response…
 
Fantastic question!
 
In regards to cremation, and really our bodies in general, Christians have historically held that our bodies are meant to be respected, not revered. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul writes, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Thus, the body is not something to be neglected or defiled, but it is to be treated as a temple — and this is key: built for “the glorification of God”.
 
However, in Galatians 5:16-17, Paul goes on to add, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Now, the operating word that we must understand here is” flesh” or σαρκὸς (sarkos) in the original Greek meaning flesh, the body, or human nature. You see, for Christians, our “bodies” are not simply physical vessels but a mixture of passions and plasma, or quite simply a blend of body and soul; and when read back-to-back, these verses begin to paint a more precise picture of the Christian’s view on the body: respected, not revered. Hence, when it comes to the body and postmortem plans it is not so much a question of our actions but intent.
 
Interestingly enough, the Bible has very little to say about “cremation”. In fact, it doesn’t address it whatsoever. There are no Greek or Hebrew words that coincide with our English word or understanding of cremation; thus, one can argue that any “Christian stance” on cremation is purely historical and never Scriptural.
 
So then, what does the whole of Christian history have to say about cremation? Actually, a lot!
 
The practice of cremation itself dates back to the Pre-Canaanites of the Old Testament; however, cremation was fairly uncommon within the early Jewish sects, and only implemented under extreme circumstances.1 As Lewis H. Mates writes, “Even those who ordinarily shunned cremation occasionally regarded it as a solution to the disposal of the dead resulting from war or pestilence. In Greece, by 480 BC cremation was largely employed only after battles and for Athenian plague victims. In Israel in early Christian times, there were examples of corpses cremated during war or plague dispute burial being the normal practice. The early Catholic Church also adopted this position. Pope Innocent I maintained the Church’s opposition to cremation but allowed for dispensation to be given in exception cases such as epidemics or war.”2 Nevertheless, many of the early Christians were universally celebrated for their willingness to have their bodies martyred for the cause. On one instance, the famous Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was sentenced to be burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense to Caesar.3 According to the legend, Polycarp was set a blaze, but the flames did not touch him; thus, requiring that he be stabbed to death. While he was not technically “burned”, the point remains: throughout history, many famous Christians were involuntarily cremated. In 1431, Joan of Arc was “involuntarily cremated”,  martyred for heresy, only to later be made a saint by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.4 In 1415 the influential protestant reformers John Huss and John Wycliffe were both burned at the stake; along with William Tyndale in 1536; and Thomas Cranmer in 1556, and the list goes on and on.5
 
The real difficulty surrounding cremation and things of a similar nature only begins to emerge with the onset of the Gnostics in the 2nd century: who argued that all matter was inherently evil.6 For these individuals, the body was often viewed as a prison that required the soul or “divine spark” to be freed. It was because of the gnostic practices of self-mutilation and martyrdom that the Early Church was inadvertently forced into a firmer stance on issues like cremation; and even still, cremation (as we understand it today) would not be officially banded by the Church as a burial practice until 789 A.D. — under the rule of Charlemagne.For the Early Church, the gnostics highlighted not so much the question of cremation itself (the act of burning the body after death) but the contextual intent behind it: the body is “bad” and must be mutilated as penance or as means to escape the material world.8 However, as Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, our bodies are to be regarded as a temple — not a prison — and it is out of this period that the Catholic views of cremation begin to emerge.
 
The big question for folks today, however, is less about action or intent and more so about the afterlife. Today, for many, the concern is: what happens at The Resurrection if my body is cremated? Do I miss it, because I no longer “have a body to resurrect”?
 
Truth be told, it doesn’t matter if your ashes are sitting on a mantel or if your body is buried six feet under; when The Resurrection occurs everything is made anew. As John writes in Revelation 21:1-4, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’.” According to John, the resident expert on all things end times related, when The Resurrection occurs, the “former” passes away; meaning, that the old no longer exists whatsoever. Even heaven receives a makeover in John’s vision, which seems to suggest that nothing is exempt from God’s reconstructing touch.
 
So what happens at The Resurrection if your body is cremated?
 
Quite simply, you get a new one — we all do. In 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 Paul writes, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” You see, our bodies are not like roll over minutes on a cell phone plan — they don’t follow us into the afterlife. How could they? If we can’t take our material possessions into the next life, why then should we expect our material bodies to be any different? 
 
Our bodies were made to naturally decompose over time; thus, implying a certain level of finitude. Meaning that, if our bodies did carry over with us at the trumpet’s call, we would look more like zombies than heavenly beings! Sure, one could argue that God possesses the power to restore our bodies, and that is entirely true and therefore possible, but let’s just use the second leg of Wesley’s Quadrilateral (reason) for a moment: to what state would God then restore us? Our most perfect state? Which would be, what? Our 20’s, 30’s — infancy? How do we even begin to define the characteristics of a “perfected” bodily state? Even still, our current bodies would require a complete transformation, and if God is going to the trouble of creating a new Heaven and Earth, why would we expect God to suddenly stop recreating when it comes time for us? Never mind the fact that, God clearly tells Adam in Genesis 3:19 that he will die and “return to dust”, meaning that God’s plan from the very beginning (or at least after The Fall) was never to preserve our bodies for The Resurrection. Hence, the fear of cremation leading to a “bodiless resurrection” is nothing more than that: a fear.
 
When it comes to cremation, the most important thing is not what you do with your body postmortem, but how you honor God in that event. If you want to honor God by donating your remains to help scientists better understand the miracle of God’s handiwork, go for it. If you want to honor God by respecting His initial wishes of “and to dust you shall return” through cremation, go for it. If you want to honor God by preserving the body as one preserves a valuable work of art through a traditional burial, go for it. As long as your intent is in the right place, your soul/body will end up in the right place.
 
 
Peace & Blessings,
 
___________________________________
1 Devlin, William. “Cremation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.
2 Davies, Douglas J., and Lewis H. Mates. Encyclopedia of Cremation. Ashgate, 2005.
3 Wace, Henry. A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the 6th Century A.D.: with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies ; in 1 Vol. Murray, 1911.
4 https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=295
5 Foxe, John, and William Byron Forbush. Fox’s Book of Martyrs: a History of the Lives, Sufferings and Triumphant Deaths of the Early Christian and the Protestant Martyrs. Lightning Source UK Ltd., 2010.
6 See Marcionism for further information on basic Gnostic beliefs.
7 Bregman, Lucy. Religion, Death, and Dying. Praeger, 2010.
8 Tertullian. On the Flesh of Christ. Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

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A Fleeting Farewell to the Family Church

I have many fond memories of the family church where I was raised. On our best weeks we were a hundred and twenty strong, but our average attendance usually hovered around the mid-nineties. At one point, our congregation grew to a regular attendance of over two hundred; although, by then I was miles away in college. Still, for three generations, my family had gone to the exact same location on Sundays, sat in roughly the exact same spot, and more or less shared life with the exact same people. For me, it was more than a church — they were my family.
 
However, the days of the “family church” are fleeting: the ones where (like on Cheers) everyone knows your name, the ones where your children’s children grow old together, and the ones where congregation members faithfully serve for a multitude of generations. It’s no surprise that denominationalism is on the decline, since the Apostle Paul in the mid-first century firmly speaks against such divisions in 1 Corinthians 1:10. However, the sort of “church” that I am talking about has very little to do with denominationalism or congregational loyalty whatsoever; rather, the sort of church that I am talking about has everything to do with a mentality.
 
We live in the age of the megachurch, in the age of multiple church services, and in the age of weekly attendance statistics. Today, churches are live-streamed via the internet, broadcasted on television, and transmitted on radio stations across the country; hence, I often find it humorous when I hear a person say that the Church is dying at an alarming rate  not because they are incorrect, but because they are correct for all of the wrong reasons. The church is declining, just not rapidly. The truth is, Christianity in America has diminished by roughly 7% in the last eighty-four months, averaging less than a 1% drop in membership per year.1 Instead, the Church is in the process of being reordered and redefined, and it is through this process that we are truly dying.
 
As a recent Pew Research study suggests, the landscape of Religion in America is changing.With the steady rise of the “nones”, or those who do not claim any religious affiliation, the Church has been thrust into a defensive position where the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest” forcibly shuts the doors of “family churches” with relative ease. According to studies, the average congregation size within the United States is roughly seventy-five, with the largest 10% of congregations containing nearly half of all churchgoers.3 We are not losing believers in droves, as some would lead us to believe, we are simply “trimming the fat”, or more accurately closing our doors and moving to “bigger and better” churches. For every door of seventy-five that closes, seventy-five are added to one that remains open; but is this actually a good thing?
 
In a lot of ways, the current state of the Church sounds eerily similar to that of the never-ending saga of Walmart and Local Business. On the one hand, Walmart has everything you need. In fact, it even has the things that you didn’t know you needed. On the other hand, Walmart is single-handedly destroying local businesses around the United States.
 
In college, I lived in a small town that fervently fought against Walmart. They fought tooth-and-nail and ardently petitioned against the plans for a new Walmart down the road, why? Because they hated convenience? Because they hated low prices and great deals? Or perhaps, because they hated change and the very thought of progress? In all actuality, they resisted because they understood the ramifications of a Walmart. They recognized that a Walmart in the area ultimately leads to “going out of business” signs in the windows of the very same stores that they for generations labored to build, while the community replaces them for a more efficient one-stop-shop. Which is actually quite ironic, because I recently overheard a Walmart employee tell a shopper, “I don’t know where that is. I don’t work in this department”. Nevertheless, Walmart eventually won the war. While the town won the initial battle, Walmart simply moved a little further down the road and the fatal blow was dealt.
 
Vision Sunday Red Mountains Church Website Graphic
 
So, how exactly does this apply to the Church today? We live in a consumer based society, where size equates to success. Obviously, the Church of seven thousand is doing more effective ministry than the church of seventy-five. Obviously, the church who can afford more full-time staff, state-of-the art technology, and multiple sites is making a greater impact on the world and their community than the simple church of seventy-five. Obviously, the church who has multiple services is superior to that of the church with only one… or is it?
 
Here, my friends, is where the Church is really dying. While, I am in no way discrediting the ministries of large churches or the effectiveness of megachurches, or even their necessity, I do question their quality. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands his disciples to, “therefore go and make disciples”. Now, we must take note here, as it is imperative for us to understand the verbiage of this text. Jesus uses the word μαθητεύσατε (mathēteusate), meaning disciple; which differs from the word μιμηταὶ (mimētai), meaning imitators or followers. They are two separate words, with two distinct meanings, and this is crucial.
 
It is probably safe for us to assume that Jesus was familiar with both μαθητεύσατε (mathēteusate) and μιμηταὶ (mimētai), and possessed the capacity to use each in the correct context; hence, meaning that — as always — Christ is intentional in calling his disciples to “make disciples”. But why does this matter? Wasn’t Jesus essentially saying the same thing? Not in the slightest! Following is proximity based, discipleship is intimacy based. I can follow the St. Louis Blues, but that doesn’t make me a disciple. Sure, I know the coach’s name, the owner’s name, and I even know the names of every player on the team, but I have never spoken to any of them — let alone shared a meal with them, been consulted by them for roster moves, or sat with them at the hospital before a career altering surgery. I did, however, once see our star right-winger while stuck in traffic, but the point still remains.
 
Discipleship is rooted in relationship. It is intrusive. It’s messy, it’s time consuming, and it’s life-changing. During the life of Christ, thousands followed Jesus, but only twelve were given the title “disciple”, and in this lies the problem for the Church today. While the megachurch is undeniably effective at attracting believers, it is notoriously ineffective at keeping them. As one recent study suggests, 68% of those who attend megachurch congregations have only done so for five years or less, while 45% of all other church congregations state that they have faithfully attended for at least ten years or more.Additionally, the study shows that while three quarters of megachurch members identify as “long-time committed followers of Christ” (remember: for every door of seventy-five that closes, seventy-five are added to one that remains open), on average they report a slightly lower frequency of attendance when compared against all other churches.Thus, it is certainly safe to say that megachurches are undeniably effective at local church growth, but the verdict remains less clear when it comes to Kingdom growth and  Jesus’ command to make disciples.
 
I once stood looking confused, holding my one year old child, in the foyer of a large local church as multiple people wearing the church’s shirt passed me by. I hadn’t the slightest clue where to drop my child off or who to ask. It was as if I was back at Walmart and everyone was saying: “I don’t know where that is. I don’t work in this department”. Eventually, I did figure things out on my own, and to the church’s credit, the woman who helped sign-in my child was very informative; however, nothing about my experience screamed discipleship. During the greeting time, my neighbors politely said, “hello”, shook my hand, and turned back around. At no point in the evening did a single person attempt to reach out to me whatsoever. After service, the congregation quickly flooded out of the doors to make room for the next service. No one invited me back, no one thanked me for coming, and when no one seems to care, it becomes quite difficult to “make disciples”.
 
Sadly, this is not an anomaly. Since I am a pastor and “work” on Sundays, I will visit larger churches in the area from time to time to worship and to hear a word from someone other than myself, and with each visit I make to every church, I encounter the same results: I leave spiritually fulfilled, but never relationally filled. I am simply another face in the crowd;  which, in truth, is why I choose to attend the larger church services in the first place. On these occasions, I am a consumer, and while I have yet to be disappointed by the service or message, never once have I been invited back to join with the members in a true discipling relationship.
While the Church is not dying at an alarming rate, our intimacy is. No longer are we making disciples, but merely followers who vaguely know each other. We have reduced our relationships to systems, classes, and shallow times of greeting in passing. No longer are we life-givers, advice seekers, or accountability partners, but consumers looking for our spiritual fix. Perhaps, we are not losing numbers like we once thought, but we are losing something far worse: our sense of relationship.
 
Of course, I am in no way advocating for a mere church of seventy-five. I am not advocating against progress or against making changes to more effectively reach the lost. We all could certainly learn a thing or two from our megachurch brothers and sisters, and I would personally love to see nothing more than millions of souls won for the Lord and the Kingdom of God increase; however, I am advocating for a shift in our mentality and how we approach our notions of “Church”. I am advocating for a church community who knows names and recognizes new faces. I am advocating for a church community where my children are raised with other children for generations to come. I am advocating for a church community where people aren’t simply reduced to followers or consumers, but disciples who will pray for you by name at the altar, offer advice and correction when you are lost, bring meals to your home when you are sick, personally fix your car when it won’t start, open their doors when you have a need, and love you through hell or high water.
 
Forgo the farewell, I am advocating for the Family Church.
 
 
Peace & Blessings,
 
 
______________________________
1, 2 http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
3  http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSII_report_final.pdf
4, 5 http://leadnet.org/9-fascinating-facts-about-people-who-attend-megachurches/

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