A few weeks ago, I posted the following Twitter survey on cremation:
Historically, the church rejected cremation in recognition of the value of the body and anticipation of the bodliy resurrection. Today, however, many Christians cremate. Forgive me if this is too forward, but what are your posthumous plans?
— Randal Rauser (@RandalRauser) February 2, 2018
Of course, the scientific value of my Twitter surveys is zero (within three percentage points, 19 times out of 20). Nonetheless, they do serve to get a conversation going. And in this case, the conversation is this: should Christians cremate?
To begin with, we should be clear that the question is not whether God has the ability to resurrect a body once cremated. If God can resurrect a body at all, he surely can resurrect a body that was once cremated.
The question, rather, is whether the symbolic value of resurrection obliges the Christian to seek resurrection, even when doing so is impractical and even costly.
As I note in the question, the church has historically said, “yes”. And that includes notably, the church in Rome where Christians excerpted enormous effort in building catacombs to house the dead and honor their hope in the resurrection of the body.
Today, however, attitudes are changing. My anecdotal experience in speaking to Christians about their posthumous plans bears out this fact: many Christians tell me they plan to cremate. So what should we say? Should these individuals be censured?
I will say that there are bad reasons to seek cremation. For example, some people I have spoken to say they prefer cremation because they don’t want their body to rot. They don’t like the thought of maggots and bacteria consuming their mortal coil. I share their aversion to the thought, but I don’t think that is a sufficient reason to reject the church’s traditional position in light of the symbolic significance of the body in anticipation of the resurrection.
Having said that, I do think that reasonable grounds for preferring cremation are readily available. In 1992, I backpacked through Hong Kong and I still remember the dizzying experience of block after block of forty-story buildings packed together with teeming hordes of people crowding the streets. Needless to say, one would need to be very wealthy to pay for a burial plot in Hong Kong. Should the Christian church in Hong Kong divert resources that would otherwise go to feeding the poor toward financing burial plots for Christian members?
Absolutely not. There is no way I could justify that use of resources. And as a result, it seems to me undeniable that practical factors like economic cost could override the symbolic significance of traditional burial and thereby even require one to seek cremation.
However, rather than conclude that we are simply giving up any symbolic valuation in the body after death, it would be preferable, all things being equal if there is a viable way to theologize the act of cremation (that is, to interpret the act symbolically in accord with one’s theological beliefs).
And I think there is: as one of my students recently suggested, cremation could be viewed in the terms of the refiner’s fire (e.g. Malachi 3:3; 1 Corinthians 3:15), a posthumous symbol of fire as a purging/cleansing agent. As the physical body undergoes the fire of purgation at death, so the individual will undergo a purgation prior to resurrection. Yes, this would correspond readily to the image of fire in the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but for the purgatory-averse Protestant, it could refer simply to the fact that nothing impure shall enter God’s kingdom (Revelation 21:27).
One more thing: we live in an extraordinary age in which a person’s organs can be used to give life to other people. With that in mind, I would suggest that the very best choice for one’s body is to become an organ donor (Matthew 7:12; Mark 12:31; John 15:3).