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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






04 October 2006

Burial Disagreement Brings Family Discord


Q: My parents have been in their graves for more than 20 years. Both were lifelong Lutherans. My brother-in-law has died recently, and been cremated. My sister wishes to bury his ashes in the plot where my parents are buried. Her reason is to save money. My brother-in-law was not a Christian. I understand that his ashes would be buried either between or on top of one of the graves.

Consenting to this troubles me and I am not sure why. If I refuse to write a letter of agreement to allow this, I am going against four older siblings who have already agreed. Is there an official Lutheran position on the practice of “double burials” or “over and under burials”?


HearseA: I don’t envy the position in which you find yourself. Death and burial have torn apart many families who previously were close-knit. As your question reminds us, distribution of the estate isn’t always the primary reason for post mortem family fights. Varying understandings of what is the “right” burial practice may get mixed up with differences in faith.

Preserving our memories isn’t always congruent with living in the present or rising into eternity. Pastors hear all sorts of requests for special music, memorials, or rituals at funerals. At times, these may collide with the solemn yet joyful nature of a Christian funeral service. We sometimes come off as “uncaring” or “unfeeling” because we must deny some of these requests in order to be faithful to Christ. At other times, while family choices aren’t the best testimonies to the Christian Faith and the beliefs of the departed, pastors allow them to stand without argument because what’s “better” theologically isn’t “best” in our ministry to a grieving family.

While it might make planning and conducting funerals easier, there’s never been a blanket policy for all of Lutheranism. Generally, we’ve done as have most churches in Christendom, opting for decency and good order and occasionally adapting some of our practices to suit local customs and practices. Even those congregations having strict written burial policies often allow some leeway for peculiar circumstances.

For instance, in low-lying coastal areas with groundwater near the surface, underground burials are impractical, since the coffins might float their way upwards. In such places, most people utilize above ground crypts and mausoleums. Many military cemeteries, because of space restrictions, only allow one plot for husband and wife. The first one to die is buried; when the second passes away, the grave is opened and the second coffin placed respectfully upon the first.

UrnIn addition, debate continues among Lutherans and other Christians over cremation. Some Lutheran cemeteries won’t allow the burial or scattering of ashes while others have specially dedicated areas to either house the urns above ground or bury them in the soil.

Multiple burials of themselves aren’t frowned upon, if space or financial circumstances warrant such actions. From what I’ve read, parts of Europe end up with numerous generations layered in their cemeteries. Markers are kept for a while, then removed and changed as the newer people are placed in the site. Many of these latter burials are not even related to those previously buried. While it’s not something to which most of us in the United States are accustomed, many European churches follow this practice without reservation, so long as they are allowed to bury their dead with dignity and in a Christian manner.

You don’t mention a few things. First of all, why, besides the financial reasons, does your sister want your brother-in-law to be buried with your parents? I’ve seen children interred beside or atop parents’ graves. However, unless your sister also plans to be buried above or between your parents, why would she leave your brother-in-law in such a place? Is this at least partially responsible for your conflicted feelings?

Also, is this a Christian cemetery or is it owned by private parties or a governmental entity? I ask because many Christian churches don’t allow the burial of manifest non-Christians in their cemeteries. They may have a dedicated area just outside the main grounds where those who gave no evidence of the faith can be buried near believing relatives. Probably most of those interred in these sites were suicides, since many believed that every person who killed himself was forever condemned. However, anyone else not deemed suitable for the hallowed ground could also end up there.

TombstoneHis faith (or lack thereof) may be a large — even the primary — reason why consenting is so difficult. You sound like someone who wants to live as a child of God and not do anything contrary to His will. Could you be troubled because you see a tremendous contrast between the faith of your parents and that of your brother-in-law? Could the mechanics of the situation (a double-burial) be obscuring what you should examine with the eyes of faith (Christian and unbeliever lying together in the grave)?

I pray that you’ll be careful in your discussions and prayerfully make a decision with which both you and your siblings can live. Make sure that your disagreement — even if informed by God’s Word and in line with His will — doesn’t cause others to enter into sin. Take care in deciding that someone else is truly an unbeliever, since Christ warns, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)”

Be certain of your diagnosis of unbelief. Even if sure, your choosing to mention obvious differences in belief could throw gasoline on a smoldering fire. Your sister my not be comfortable looking too closely at her late husband’s lack of faith. She might feel guilty that she didn’t “try harder” to get him to believe. She may also may be struggling with her own faith as she tries to reconcile salvation through Christ alone with thoughts of Him judging her husband on the Last Day.

In his First Epistle, Saint Peter said, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (4:8)” He reflects similar thoughts from Proverbs 10:12 (“love covers all offenses”) and 17:9 (“Whoever covers an offense seeks love”). Sometimes, the most loving act is resisting a majority so they don’t continue in their sin and risk eternal condemnation. At other times, we show the greatest charity by keeping silence, knowing that the wrong done by others is much less that the pain we could cause by speaking.

Judgment DayHow will you “keep loving” your family “earnestly”? What decision will cause the least discord, contribute to the truest peace, and bring the most blessing to your family? What decision most honors the God who loves you and the Savior who gave His life for you? Would your parents be more offended by being buried with an unbeliever or by knowing that their children were fighting bitterly? Remember that Christ lay in someone else’s tomb (see Matthew 27:59-60). As Isaiah prophesied would be done to God’s Suffering Servant, “they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death. (Isaiah 53:9)”

You must resolve in your own heart and mind how much it matters where or with whom our bodies sleep in death. Ashes, earth, and waters will all yield their dead and all believers will rise again. As you heard at their committals, you know the “sure and certain hope” with which your parents lived, in which they were buried, and by which they will rise. Focus on this hope and the Savior who is its source. Pray for His peace in Your life and ask Him to lead you to a decision which gives honor to Him while, if at all possible, also brings peace to your family.

NOTE: For a bit more on the burial of Christians and unbelievers, I invite you to read a previous post, Whose Funeral Do I Officiate?

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Kirken said...

I am taking my Funeral Directing and Emblaming courses and have recently did some things to do with burials. There are cemeteries that are now allowing 6 burials per plot. One embalmed and placed at 9 feet another embalmed at 6 feet and then 4 cremated remains on top. This is so the cemeteries can save space. There are quite a few cemeteries that have a place to spread cremated remains and most places allow that as well. This would not cost if they were spread on private property. There would be a cost for her sister to have the grave opened to place the cremated remains into it.
This course has been difficult for me as a Lutheran because of the emphasis on the funeral being solely about the person. There is very little on Jesus and what he did for us.
The last few funerals that I have worked have been in the United and Anglican churches and I am saddened to listen to their ministers stand up in the front of the church and preach not about Jesus but mainly about the person who has died. It seems that because they are in the church that they have to say a couple of readings because of where they are.
The funeral is not to be about the person who has died but about the living hearing about Jesus and what He sacrificed for us so that we could have eternal life with Him in heaven.

24 October, 2006 00:42  

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