the bottomline

To Cremate or Not to Cremate
Sunday, July 15, 2018 by Dan Allen

We almost left grandma at the Airport.

I’m not proud about this. At first we were very careful to make sure she made it through every stop and turn. But in the end, if it had not been for another passenger, she might still be sitting by a seat in terminal C.

Vonnie’s mom was cremated. Her ashes were placed in a wooden urn which had a cross carved into it. It was actually quite lovely and, unfortunately, was only going to be seen by a few and then just for a few minutes before being lowered into the ground encased in a fiberglass–type vault. She was to be buried in the same grave of her first husband (Vonnie’s dad) in Tucson, AZ. He had been stationed with the Air Force (career man) in the Grand Canyon State when he was diagnosed with cancer and died at the young age of 39. We thought they had two plots—were disappointed to learn otherwise, but happy that with cremation she could be buried in the same grave, above him, and have her own marker. No extra fees were required to ship her body and we could bury her when the entire family was able to gather.

“Cremation is the hottest trend in the funeral industry” so titled an expose by NBC. And it has to be due to the costs which are one–third to one–quarter that of a traditional funeral with casket and burial vault. If you go the non-burial route, spreading the ashes of your loved one in some exotic or memorable place, it’s even cheaper.

Yet, there are some Christians who oppose this form of handling the deceased. They charge it’s a devaluation of life perhaps harkening back to Old Testament days when children were burned in pagan sacrifice. From a historical standpoint, Christians opposed voluntarily burning a dead body out of a reaction against pagans who would do this “as a form of ridicule and denigration.” Non-Christian religions also did this as a way to release the spirit. Besides, laying the body in a coffin where it will rise again at the resurrection seems, to some, more appropriate. The body is laid face up so that it will rise. Rather symbolic reasons.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I solicited the wisdom of two friends who are experts in their fields to assist in understanding two things: how are the ashes from cremation different to that of burying the entire body and how does this all relate to the resurrection?

Dr. Rebecca Radcliff (Pathologist, Major in the U.S. Army, Medical Director of Autopsy and Cytology at Womack Army Medical Center, NC) and my niece (I take great pride in that), was tasked to compose the tracking of the decomposition of a body. She noted that the body starts to decay immediately upon death. “Individual cells, deprived of oxygen, stop functioning.” “Native bacteria grow until their food source is devoured” giving the body “a lovely shade of green and a rather distinctive smell.” Internal organs rapidly decompose. Skin, muscle and bones go at a different rate. “Full body decomposition depends very much on where the body lies and what has been or has not been done to it.” In the heat and humidity of a tropical climate, an exposed body will decompose within days. In a dry climate, like in the middle east, you’ve got mummies and bodies that will remain relatively intact for centuries. So it goes within an extremely cold climate, like on Mt. Everest, where the body will be frozen in time. In fact, there are more than 200 climbers who never made it down Everest. Their bodies remain completely intact right where they fell as a solemn warning to those who follow.

Dr. R. Todd Mangum, (PhD, Professor of Missional Theology, Director of ThM Program at Biblical Seminary, Hatfield, PA) and my last seminary professor who gave me the best grade I ever received (I’m quite proud of that), was asked about the resurrection of the body when Christ returns. 1 Corinthians 15 talks not only about Jesus’ resurrection and appearances (vs. 1–11), but likens our resurrection to His and reveals the mystery of the resurrected body (vs. 12–58). He added some perspective as to traditional orthodoxy in regard to reasons many Christians do not cremate their loved ones. These were noted above.

He writes: “The relationship between the ‘old body’ and the ‘new body’ is like unto an acorn and an oak tree: i.e., starts with the ‘same stuff,’ but what comes out of the acorn may look and feel a lot more glorious.” And, truly, our resurrected bodies will be so much more glorious at the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrected body is the only example we have and there’s some question as to if our scars and battle wounds will remain in our new bodies as the nail prints in His hands and feet. Todd noted that he doesn’t “want to have tooth fillings in my ‘glorified body’!” And, he assumed that when John wrote he saw “those ‘beheaded,’ presumably, that’s not because they still don’t have their heads.” I immediately pictured in my mind a person holding his or her head in their arms. Glad that’s not the case!

Todd agreed with Rebecca that given enough time all bodies, even those carefully prepared, will end up “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Even those who were cremated “or worse, say – devoured by a shark or a lion” and “even if digested first and excreted through an animal.” He continues: “no matter how horrifically ‘disintegrated’ or ‘incinerated’ a body may be, God will reconstitute that body at the resurrection into a corporeal being that ‘shines with such radiance and beauty,’ it will be a marvel to behold.” How cool is that?!

From a purely practical standpoint, Rebecca notes God will not have a problem with the body no matter it’s condition. She noted: “I have always found it interesting how some people seem to believe that keeping the body intact is essential for resurrection. As if God has the power to raise the dead but only if the body is somewhat put-together. I’m pretty sure God can work around cremation or an animal attack or detonation of nuclear weapons. Last time I checked, He was pretty powerful.” Indeed, He is!

Theologian and pastor John Piper has written against it. In fact, he suggests the church financially assist those who, for economic reason, would go the cremation route. But he did not put it as a mortal sin either.

This may not end the debate in your mind whether cremation is acceptable for Christians. All I know is that the last four people, all related, who have preceded me to glory, await their ashes to be reconstituted on that resurrected day. Singing: “What a day, glorious day that will be!”


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