And the Pastor said, “Cremation is a sin and anyone who is involved with cremation is a sinner.”
This is what I was recently told by a Pastor who was scolding me for offering cremation to our customers. He was dead serious. I — as per my usual self — attempted to lighten the somber mood with a witty joke by saying that all the bodies I burn are dead, unlike the bodies of the heretics that the Church burned back in the day. The pastor didn’t appreciate my wit.
In a roundabout way, he may have been hoping he’d find me sympathetic to his anti-cremation stance. There’s a number of funeral directors who conveniently, albeit privately, believe that cremation is wrong. Those private beliefs become public when their customers ask. See, cremation is much cheaper than embalming and cuts into the funeral home’s bottom line and therefore the funeral director’s pocket; couple that ulterior motive with the folk belief that cremation destroys God’s creation and you have a recipe for an anti-cremation funeral director.
This pastor, though, didn’t find a sympathizer in me. So the pastor and I sat in silence for what felt like a couple minutes until I took a different approach to the conversation.
The view that cremation is wrong isn’t uncommon among pastors. I’ve had more than a handful of pastors tell me cremation is a no-no. But it’s not only pastors who take this stance; two of the major world religions and some branches of Christianity also disallow cremation.
For instance, Jewish law is unequivocal that a body must be buried. Those of us who aren’t Jewish have a lot to learn from Jewish burial practices, specifically as it relates to home funerals and green burials, but most of us, like myself, simply don’t believe that burning a body is violating G-d’s creation. The heart of this prohibition against cremation is that humans are created in the image of G-d and so we shouldn’t intentionally harm the body, dead or alive.
Islam too believes that cremation is wrong, but for different reasons and with a much higher level of “no-no”. Islam believes cremation to be haram, which is something that is expressly forbidden by Allah and entirely sinful. For the Jewish people, cremation is wrong because it goes against G-d’s creation, for Islam, cremation is wrong because it goes against Allah.
Christians, like my pastor friend, are a mixed bag when it comes to cremation. Eastern Orthodoxy believes that cremation is wrong for the same reason Jewish law forbids it.
The Catholic Church was anti-cremation up until about fifty-years ago. Now, the official position of the Catholic Church is this:
“The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”
And that “nevertheless” was only added in the mid-1960s during Vatican II. Before that, cremation was a seen an abandonment of the hope of resurrection, and, like Judaism and Orthodoxy, abuse of the creation of God.
After the pastor and I sat in silence for a couple minutes, the Pastor piped back up:, “I feel so strongly about this topic that I’ve preached a sermon series on it.”
At this point, I realized that my witty joke had probably done more harm than good. I love pastors because I’ve seen how much good they do during death and dying. For the most part, pastors are generous and loving during death, and this pastor was no different. I honestly didn’t want to ridicule his beliefs and I didn’t want to say something that would jeopardize our friendship.
So, here’s what I said with as much good will as I could: “Pastor, for most people in our area, cremation isn’t a theological issue, it’s a practical issue. People who choose cremation aren’t attempting to disrespect God, nor are they denying the resurrection, nor do they believe that our bodies are toys that we can abuse. Most people choose the less expensive cremation because embalming, buying a casket, buying a grave, buying a vault and paying us funeral directors to organize the whole thing isn’t in their budget.”
He sat in silence, so I continued.
“I’m not a pastor, so I’m not going to share my views on God, but I know a lot of folks without insurance or an irrevocable burial reserve who would have to take out a loan to pay for something other than cremation.”
I stopped there because I didn’t want to sound like I was lecturing him. But, if I had kept going, and I would have shared my views on God, I would have mentioned that my belief is that God values everything in life, but God seems to specifically value love and community … that death creates community, whether it be an embalmed body or a cremated body. And that God doesn’t’ want us to mortgage the house for a full burial and that God certainly doesn’t want us to feel guilty when choosing cremation.
And this, my friends, is the bottom line: funerals are to bring us together, not tear us apart. If we guilt and shame cremation, I don’t believe that helps us, nor does it help to create community. Community, love, and shared grief is what makes a good death, not your method of disposition.
If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):