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Ask the Pastor

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

13 July 2007

Another Question on Cremation

Q: My brother suggested that I read your previous comments regarding cremation to help ease my conscience — now troubled after reading a review of Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes by Alvin Schmidt. My opinion was that cremation was an option for Christians but this review gave me pause. I asked my pastor brother whether he had seen this book review and what he thought about it, given that our mother has expressed her desire to conserve funds that may be left after the Lord calls her home, so that she may pass on a larger inheritance.

I read your commentary and now wonder if perhaps you have read Schmidt’s book or have seen this review. Are you fully persuaded that the Lord’s judgment on Moab was due in part because Moab did not respect the dead? Do other passages in Scripture teach us that we should show respect for the bodies of the dead? Is it possible that this text in Amos actually tells us what God thinks about the practice of cremation?

I ask these questions sincerely out of genuine concern for what my brother and I should do for our mother. If I understand your thinking correctly, the reason for a burial practice is more important than the actual practice itself. While I would agree that good practices can be done with a false heart, I am not sure that sincerity of heart makes bad practice good.

Your argument seems to be that cremation is neither commanded nor forbidden. If so, then the reasons for using this option, along with avoiding giving offense to the weak brother, are the primary determinants. But if God is not pleased by the practice of burning the body, then our protesting that we did it with sincerity of heart won’t count for much.

Please consider my questions, especially Schmidt’s arguments. Either I am the weak brother with a stricken conscience or my conscience is correctly informed and the practice of cremation is wrong. Either way, I confess that our Lord will raise up me and all the dead and will give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.

UrnA: I haven’t read the book but did read the review (Concordia Theological Quarterly Vol. 69 July/October 2005) — well before I wrote the previous column. While I respect Dr. Schmidt’s education and have learned much from reading his books and articles, I still think that he was wrong to categorically condemn all cremations. Personally, I prefer the idea of burial but if cremating my remains becomes a necessity for my heirs, I don’t think they’ll sin by doing it to what’s left of me.

While no passage of Scripture specifically says, “Thou shalt honor the corpses of the dead,” a number of readings point toward respect and order during the whole funeral process. Cremation itself wasn’t specifically forbidden by Mosaic Law although it was used as judgment upon crass sinners (see Leviticus 21:9 and Joshua 7:25). Josiah, one of Judah’s truly righteous kings, likewise used cremation to punish priests who’d offered pagan sacrifices during the reign of Jeroboam. He dug up and burned the bones of the corpses and “sacrificed all the [living] priests of the high places who were there, on the altars, and burned human bones on them. (2 Kings 23:16, 20)” As for Moab, I’m certain that the condemnation was for their intent more than for their specific action because this nation wasn’t under the Law of Moses.

GamalielMy sources indicate that sometime around the time of Christ, Rabbi Gamaliel decried the excess spending at funerals. His dictate that the ornate and costly wrappings some used be replaced by simple linen garments remains part of traditional Jewish funerary customs to this day. Many Jewish funerals still include emptying a cup in Gamaliel’s honor at the post-burial meal.

Judea and Galilee both kept their burial places outside the cities, forbad using cemeteries as pastures, and ordered that no roads nor watercourses run through them. Hired mourners and flute players were quite common, as well. However, in Judea, they went before the bier; in Galilee, they followed. In most funerals, as we see so clearly in the procession at Nain (Luke 7:11-15), the women led the procession. This custom came from an ancient Jewish commentary that said women should go first because a woman brought death into the world.

The Raising of LazarusThe customs noted in the Gospels, such as the linen wrappings and face cloths belonging both to Lazarus (John 11:44) and Jesus (20:5-7) are likewise well-attested by other sources. So also the use of ointments and spices, both to honor the dead and to cover the stench of death in a time of no refrigeration or embalming.

Because contact with the dead made one ritually unclean, people wouldn’t casually come into contact with the dead nor with their burial places. However, carrying the bier was a privilege. A considerable number of people might serve as pallbearers during the procession, accepting the burden as an honor.

From Genesis onward we can read of burial customs, some which continued, others which fell by the wayside. For example, the preference throughout most of the Scriptures was to bury or entomb family members closely together. Normally, only distance prevented this and the family might later move the remains to a family plot.

Sarah EntombedWe see particularly in the family of Jacob how families remained together, even in death. Sarah and Abraham were both laid in the cave at Machpelah. Although he died in Egypt, Jacob’s remains were returned to the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 49:29-50:14). His son Joseph died in Egypt but made his family swear to take his bones with them when God took them “to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (50:24)” Over four hundred years later, Israel kept this promise. “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. (Exodus 13:19)” Under Joshua’s leadership, Israel took “the bones of Joseph” and “they buried them at Shechem. (Joshua 24:32)”

While specifics varied among times and places, God’s people almost always followed certain rituals. Showing respect and sorrow might include tearing one’s clothes, wearing sackcloth and ashes, loud crying, and musical dirges. Normally, burial was on the same day, but some bodies remained in state longer. Certain haircuts, beard trims, and the like which were normally forbidden were allowed to most mourners, save the High Priest and those under the vows of a Nazarite.

The Last JudgmentStill, however, all of Scripture contains no “now and forever” command for Hebrews and Gentiles to always act exactly in one manner when dealing with the dead. At the same time, our burial practices should confess to each other and to the world our belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead, just as the Small Catechism so clearly states: Our Lord “will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

You correctly note that we dare not sin against the “weak person” and afflict his conscience (1 Corinthians 8:11-12). If the thought of cremating your mother leads you to sinful doubts, then you should not do it. If you and your brother can do so in good conscience before God and the rest of your family, I still see no reason not to.

Meaning of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed quoted from Luther’s Small Catechism, © 1986 by Concordia Publishing House.

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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