Cremation and a theology of the body
Of all the questions that I get as a pastor, there is one that comes up more often than I ever would have thought or expected before being ordained: “Pastor, is it okay if I’m cremated after I die?”
This is an important question, one that touches on several aspects of our life in Christ. Since I’m asked it so often, and since Sunday’s liturgy was all about Jesus’ victory over death, I thought I would offer just a few brief thoughts here—inspired by one of the most profound prayers in the Christian tradition.
The Rite of Committal is when the remains of the deceased are “committed” to the earth. Dust we are, and to dust we shall return. This fearful promise is kept in the Committal.
The climax of the rite comes as the casket (note well—a casket is assumed) is about to be lowered into its grave. The pastor places his hand on the casket and prays thus:
May God the Father, who created this body; may God the + Son, who by His blood redeemed this body; may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be His temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh.
This lovely little prayer offers a kind of “theology of the body” in a nutshell. And as I reflect on the question of cremation, this is where I think we need to start: with a proper understanding of bodies. So let’s briefly ponder each of these phrases:
“May God the Father, who created this body…”
God made your body. It is no accident that you live an embodied life, as though the body were an unexpected outcome for your Creator. By no means. Flesh and blood are part of God’s design. The body is part of the world that God made and deemed “very good.”
Not all people everywhere have agreed with this assessment. Many Eastern religions, as well as some Christian heresies (most notably Gnosticism, which we’ll discuss more in an upcoming Bible study), have taught that the body is evil. From this perspective, the soul is the untainted seat of divine likeness and the corrupt body holds it prisoner.
Absolutely not. God made you, soul and body, spirit and dust.
“May God the + Son, who by His blood redeemed this body…”
We can look at the body not only through the lens of creation, but also of redemption. If the body itself were evil, would the Son of God have assumed a body in order to save us? The Incarnation is the reaffirmation of the Father’s original declaration at Creation, and the Resurrection demonstrates His intention to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1.20).
Once again, some will denigrate the body by assuming that Jesus simply came to save souls, and that bodies are at best a throw-in. This is patent nonsense. Jesus did not “die and go to heaven”; He died, His flesh laid in the tomb, and on the third day came back to life—not as a ghoulish apparition but as a glorified body. So He will do on the Last Day for all the baptized who trust in Him. And so the prayer continues:
“May God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be His temple…”
Finally, we can’t consider a theology of the body without appreciating the role of the Holy Spirit. This phrase from the prayer alludes to 1 Corinthians 6:
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. (6:19–20 ESV)
God has seen fit to make our bodies His dwelling place. That fact alone ought to lay to rest (pardon the pun) any debate about the goodness of the body. And note Paul’s concluding exhortation: “Glorify God in your body.” Your body is not incidental to your discipleship, but instrumental to it.
“…keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh.”
So in good Lutheran fashion, let us ask: “What does this mean?” It means that your body is not a useless husk to be cast aside at death, like peanut shells at a ballgame, much less an evil opponent to God’s purposes.
To be sure, your body—just like your soul—is implicated in sin and in need of redemption. But this is precisely God’s promise; these “remains” are being kept, like a family heirloom, until the resurrection of all flesh. As Job hopefully professes, “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26).
Can God resurrect one who has been cremated? Absolutely! So also those who are lost at sea or otherwise meet a tragic end in which their body cannot be recovered, we need not fear for their ultimate destiny: God can and will raise them to life on the Last Day as easily as He can the remains buried in the nearby cemetery.
Is this not a matter of Christian liberty? Indeed, it is. We have no “thus saith the Lord” regarding cremation. But once more St. Paul’s words are apt:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. (1 Corinthians 10:23 ESV)
Though cremation may be “lawful,” it may also send a message that we believe something about the body contrary to what the Scriptures say about it, or even lead the living to degrade what God has called “very good.”
I realize that cremation may be desirable to some for several reasons, including economic. I would simply encourage you to reflect on the value of the body, as God’s good creation that He has redeemed, renewed, and will yet resurrect. While cremation is permissible, in my opinion it does not give the strongest confession of our faith in the gospel.
This is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive answer, but perhaps it will provide some food for thought—and as always, if you’d like to discuss it more feel free to drop me a line or set up a visit.