Christians and Cremation

June 18, 1995


Christians and Cremation

We had a funeral recently for a dear friend of this church who was cremated, and several of you who liked that idea asked if I would say something about how different religions have felt about cremation. I realized suddenly that the last time I spoke about cremation from a pulpit was 13 years ago, and those of you who requested this morning’s sermon were not around. Some of you, I’m sure, grew up as I did in a church where no one even considered cremation, but it has been a popular practice in different parts of the world for centuries and it seems to be gaining more and more favor in the United States. I was a minister for many years before I did my first memorial service for a person who had been cremated; I do them now on a fairly regular basis.
What I say this morning is meant to inform rather than to persuade. Billie and I and the children have all chosen cremation rather than burial in the ground, but that is incidental to this sermon and I have no great interest in being an advocate for the practice we have chosen. I should tell you that years ago in a research project at Wichita State I asked a group of students to interview morticians, observe a cremation if possible, talk with ministers about their feelings, and read assigned magazine articles and books on the topic. Some of their research appears in my sermon, including that of Dr. Ted Mason who is now married, twice a father, and a member of this congregation.
I like a question and answer approach to this topic, so let’s begin with a question often asked: What is the history of reducing dead bodies to ashes instead of putting them in a coffin to be buried six feet deep in the ground? As I’ve said already, there is nothing at all new about cremation. The ancient Babylonians used both cremation and burial, and two of their crematoriums have been found by archaelogists. Disposal of a body by fire has such an ancient history that the very word “funeral” is from an old Sanskrit word of northern India that literally means “smoke.” Cremation was practiced in both Greece and Rome, with the Romans doing a rather odd thing at times which they called a “resectum,” in which part of a finger would be cut off and used as the focus for funeral ceremonies after the body was burned. Wealthy people could afford to buythe high quality fuel that made big, generous flames, but poor people had to skimp, and so after a while it became a great insult to call someone’s ancestors “half-burned”; the phrase implied generations of low social rank. (There is no connection, I think, with our use of “half-baked” but I couldn’t follow that phrase through the underbrush of linguistic history)
Slavic tribes were cremating in the valleys of the Dniester and Dnieper rivers in the last Stone Age, and by about 800 years before Christ there were urn fields in parts of Europe to prove that cremation was fairly common. But the Jews, and the Jewish Christians who wrote the Bible, had been influenced by a long tradition of burying in caves or in the ground, so no other practice seems to have occurred to them. Custom is king in such things, as a great Greek historian once said, and as most of you found out a long time ago. People were convinced at one time that they must bury stone instruments and pottery with their dead, in case – somehow – they need to use them. Some African tribes went a little further to serve their dead: they slaughtered wives and slaves and the cattle of dead kings so that their souls could continue to serve his majesty’s spirit. The Vikings, early on, put their dead in boats, set the boats on fire, and pushed them out to sea. India, early on, burned the dead and threw the ashes into the sacred river Ganges. The practice known as “suttee,” where the widow throws herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband, was common until forbidden by the British government, and still happens once in a while in remote villages.
In terms of Christian history, there is more than enough confusion to go around. A local minister told one of my students that “the Bible does not say much on the matter of cremation, but I believe it is a pagan practice.” In fact, the Bible says absolutely nothing, pro or con, about cremation, but early in the history of the Christian church a strong antipathy arose to the burning of bodies. A primitive understanding of the resurrection caused enemies of Christians to to think that if they burned and scattered Christian bones they would frustrate their hope of being raised from the dead, and in reaction Christians gradually turned earth burial into an item of faith.
During the Middle Ages, Christian resistance to cremation increased, and in 789 Charlemagne called cremation a pagan practice and ordered punishment by death on those who followed it. This mindset will help you understand why the church’s Council of Constance in 1428 ordered the body of John Wycliffe dug up 44 years after his death, cremated, and the ashes thrown into a river. Wycliffe is a hero now in Christian history but in those rigid days he was a heretic, and to dig up and burn his bones was considered the supreme insult. The symbolism was obvious: there would be no way this heretic’s moral body could be gotten back together. You may be wondering why a God who could resurrect a body that had first been eaten by worms and then had moldered into dust could not with equal ease raise a body turned into ashes, but the faithful were not much given to logic in the Middle Ages.
The church did occasionally have to face this problem when Christian martyrs were burned at the stake. Theologians assured them that in such a case God could resurrect a body from scattered ashes as easily as from dust in a grave, but the masses for hundreds of years could not even imagine someone choosing to be burned rather than buried. Occasionally, in the last few centuries, cremation would come to the attention of the Western world. In 1822, for example, when the English poet Shelley was drowned, the Italians burned his body to protect against the plague. It was exceptional, but like other such cases it set people to thinking. In England, the surgeon to Queen Victoria tried to promote cremation by telling people how much their health was at risk from the unsanitary condition of English cemeteries, but hardly anyone listened.
In recent times cremation has become extremely popular in some countries. In Japan, where land is scarce, 80% of the dead are cremated, and in England, where there has been a dramatic increase since World War II, 70% are cremated. The percentage is much smaller in America, but has been growing steadily — particularly in heavily-populated areas on the East and West Coasts. With so many people far from their birthplaces, California leads the country in cremation despite efforts by some cemeteries to sell two-foot plots in which bodies could be buried vertically to conserve land. Although I no longer have eager young researchers to run around and dredge up statistics for me ,I have a strong sense that cremations have become more and more popular in the first half of the 90’s. I base that on three things: the frequency with which I do memorial services after a cremation; the entrepeneurial spirit of certain mortuaries in Wichita that once had no crematoria and now have them; and on the kind of simple, prosaic, ordinary event that happened a day or so ago when a woman from across the street walked over with two small wooden urns to ask the neighborhood minister and his wife if they seemed nice enough to hold her aunt’s ashes. Times have changed a great deal in my lifetime.
Formal religious opposition to cremation has diminished remarkably over a single generation. For centuries the Catholic church held that the body was not for burning, and when cremation was legalized in northern Europe during the last century the Catholic church suspected an atheistic plot to discredit belief in resurrection. The Roman Inquisition, in fact, declared (in 1886) that Catholics who cooperated in cremation were guilty of sin, and the prohibitions were repeated in the 19l7 revision of canon law. But nearly 50 years later, on June l0, 1964, an announcement came from Rome that canonical penalties would no longer be imposed in connection with cremation, citing such things as national customs, economics, and hygiene. According to one Vatican officials, the Holy Office sent out the letter “because there has been a change in attitudes toward burial and cremation around the world.” The new ruling was a great help to bishops in predominantly Buddhist countries of Asia were burial in the ground is regarded as a revolting and disrespectful custom. The director of one of Wichita’s three crematoriums told a student that while most cremations are chosen by well-to-do and well-educated liberal Protestants, ten of his cremations in the past year had involved Catholics.
Cremation remains unpopular in small towns, and with morticians in those towns who do not have enough volume to build an expensive crematorium and who lose business when a family insists on that option. One of my students was told of a small town near Wichita that had never had a cremation, but when a Wichita mortician performed one, soon had nine more in quick succession. It would appear that education tends to encourage rather than discourage cremation. (My friends, Dr. Paul and Peggy Magee, called from Dallas this morning, and in the conversation he wondered what I was preaching about. When I gave him the title he said, “You should call it ‘Bake and Shake’ but I thought that might be pushing things a bit). He said, “Well, at least you must tell the good people at UCC what Peggy’s mother Opal says about cremation. Opal is 85 and lives in a quaint and lovely little hamlet called Shirley, Arkansas on a bluff overlooking the Little Red River….and Opal’s world view has not changed very much in the last 70 years. When her son told her not long ago that he planned to be cremated, she said: “O my goodness, Robert, why that’s just like suicide.”
Some answers now to very specific questions about whether one must embalm a body which is to be cremated, whether one must purchase a casket, and how one may dispose of the ashes. A body does not have to be embalmed if it is cremated within 24 hours after death; otherwise, state law requires it. I can tell you that if you feel that burning is disrespectful of a dead body, you have never witnessed the embalming procedure. A casket is not necessary. A body may be cremated in a simple wooden box, in cardboard, fiberboard, or any combustible material. One mortician told a student that a simple tray can be used. But it is necessary to know this in advance, because some brochures contain statements that may be misunderstood. For example, I read one which said, “After appropriate funeral services or memorial observances, the casket is placed in a cremation chambere….” A casket is assumed in that remark, as it is in another which I read: “Since a cremation funeral service is the same as any other, the casket is used in the same manner and for the same purpose.” Statements like that, when they occur, are obviously driven by financial incentive. Most people in favor of cremation are now concluding that it makes no sense to buy a casket to hold a small box or urn of ashes, and there is no law or convention that requires a casket if one chooses to cremate.
My most intensely personal experience with cremation came when a Wichita morturary did it for my mother several years ago. It was in the midst of a frigid winter, so I kept her ashes until a beautiful Spring day when I drove down into Oklahoma and placed them next to where the body of my father lies. My son had driven down from Oklahoma City for this goodbye to his beloved grandmother, and late in the evening, with birds singing around us and no others present, we spoke of our love for her and said a simple prayer. It is as fragrant a moment in my memory as anything I have ever done. My mother and father live intensely in my memory, and I do not travel to a tombstone or a plot of ground to feel close to them. I know that for some of the best people on earth that is an extremely important and comforting consideration, and I respect their feeling that they recreate most intensely the presence of their loved ones by touching the gravemarker or placing flowers. We will likely be divided about such things for a long, long time. It may be of some slight interest to you to know that one of my students viewed a cremation in progress during her research, and told me later that nothbing she witnessed altered her own intention to be cremated.
You read constantly nowadays about all sorts of ways for disposing of ashes: strewing them in a favorite trout stream, dropping them from a plane over snow-covered mountains, scattering them in the ocean — the varieties are endless. One popular method in England is to strew the ashes on a consecrated rose garden con-nected with the crematorium. A memorial plaque may then go up in the garden, or on a wall, or the name may simply be registered in a book of remembrance. This rather appeals to me, but it profoundly disturbed a Mr. Philpott at a convention of funeral directors. “How long do you think it will be,” he asked them, “before the cemeteries on this continent offer the English method of working cremated remains into the soil of a rose garden?” I find that not as appalling as I am meant to find it. Having been a bit of a thorn most of my life, I would rather welcome the chance to blossom into a nice yellow Peace rose!
Mr. Philpott’s fears seem to be shared less and less by morticians these days, but there has been some real bitterness in the past. Some years ago Marin County, California, home of the hot tub and the Cuisinart, was cremating an amazing 50% of its dead — about 5 times more than the rest of the country. I understand how distressing that can be to a magazine like Mortuary Management, which rather snappishly said in its September issue of 1979: “It is only logical that the state which gave us….Jerry Brown would also give us one of the most alarmingly high rates of cremation of any state in the country.” You can decide for yourselves whether that comment grew out of religious conviction or economic concern.
Wichita, with some of the finest morticians I have ever met anywhere, is probably typical of what will happen for the foreseeable future: a combination of conventional funeral services, along with the crematorium for those who choose cremation. You can have better discussions of these things now than you could have had 20 years ago. The ultimate criterion, of course, is what those who are left behind wish. Some, as I said, feel the need of a tangible memorial, a place to stimulate their memories, where they can visit, bring a flower, stand in silence. Others genuinely wish to symbolize the unity of life with all of nature by blending the ashes into the natural elements of the earth. They are quite happy with a small bronze plaque or an inscription in a book, and need no more. My sister’s grave is north of Chicago. I have never returned to it since the day I watched the rain fall on the pink flowers, and perhaps I never shall. I could hardly have loved her more, and the memories never leave me, but all that matters to me is in my mind. I have no need to travel to find her.
I am too deeply bitten by the ministerial bug to resist giving you one small piece of advice, even after I said I would try not to. Know what you want before hyou have to make a decision quickly in a time of grief and confusion. If a sermon like this moves you to think seriously about what you want, and to be firmly decided, so that such mundane matters do not intrude upon your sorrow, then the sermon will have been worth doing.

We are meant, God of love, to be helpful to each other in this
community of faith. May we have been so this morning, through
the words which have been spoken and the friendships which
have been enjoyed, through Christ our Lord. Amen.