How are cremation and organ donation consistent with resurrection of the body?
Our Articles of Religion affirm the bodily resurrection of Christ in very strong language:
"Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature" (Article III).
While the Articles of Religion say nothing about the Last Judgment or the resurrection of believers (though the Scriptures and the Creeds both affirm this!), the Confession of Faith speaks of it in these words:
"We believe all men stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the last day. We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation" (Article XII).
Our doctrinal statements, then, affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus, indeed the resurrection of the same body that entered the tomb. But for believers, many of whose bodies over the past two thousand years may have entirely decomposed, if they were not burned, lost at sea, or otherwise destroyed, our statements speak simply of the resurrection of "the dead." This is consistent not only with biology, but also with the teaching of Paul in I Corinthians 15. There, Paul insists that resurrection is real, necessary, and more than a matter of revivifying dead bodies or remains. Instead, he speaks of a spiritual body that is raised of which our perishable, corruptible bodies are at most but the seed (see especially verses 35-49).
For all of these reasons, United Methodists do not insist upon burial as the only appropriate means of committing our earthly remains to God, and so are generally open to cremation as a viable alternative. In some places burial or entombment is simply not an option, either because of costs involved or because of a lack of cemetery space. Ultimately, this is a decision that will be in the context of the individuals, families, and cultural norms involved.
While United Methodists take no direct stand against cremation, we do take a very proactive stand to encourage organ donation. Our Social Principles state:
"Organ transplantation and organ donation are acts of charity, agape love, and self-sacrifice. We recognize the life-giving benefits of organ and other tissue donation and encourage all people of faith to become organ and tissue donors as part of their love and ministry to others in need" (¶ 162 (W)).
As a way to embody this stand in our corporate worship life, General Conference 2000 urged all United Methodist congregations to celebrate "Organ Donation Sunday" on the second Sunday prior to Thanksgiving week, which is recognized in interfaith circles in the U.S. as "National Donor Sabbath." (See Book of Resolutions 2012, pp. 439-440).
The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
General Board of Discipleship