People have many choices to consider about how to care for the bodies of loved ones who have died. Whether at the time of receiving or renewing a driver's license, or at the time of admission to a hospital, most Americans are now asked to indicate their preferences about organ donation should they die. And while burial has been widely practiced for most of the history of The United States, funeral homes in the U.S. have reported that, as of 2015, cremation has overtaken burial as the more common practice.
How might faithful Christians think about these two more recent practices which are widespread and becoming increasingly the norm?
United Methodists encourage organ donation as a gift of love. The Social Principles explain:
"We believe that 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 a part of their love and ministry to others in need." (Organ Transplantation and Donation).
United Methodist congregations are encouraged 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."
The Bible does not speak about the issue of cremation vs. burial, but usually assumes that bodies will be buried. In the cultures that produced the Hebrew Bible, if a body was burned, it often would have been a sign of disrespect for the person or a punishment for sin (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7:25). However, it appears cremation may have occurred with no intent to dishonor the dead after a plague or large massacre (Amos 6:9-10).
At the time of Jesus, cremation was widely practiced by the Romans, occasionally by the Greeks, but rarely by Jews and Christians. This was because of the belief of both religions in a physical resurrection to come. With the spread of Christianity, cremation disappeared almost entirely as a practice in the West until about 200 years ago. Notable exceptions occurred during times of plague and war when large numbers of the deceased needed to be cared for quickly.
Some of those opposing cremation argue the body must not be cremated because at some future date the believer's soul will be reunited with his or her body. Even some who do not hold the soul is separable from the body may express hesitancy to embrace cremation. Still others, whatever their belief about soul and body, conclude that since cremation only does rapidly what nature will do also more slowly, cremation is acceptable.
At the same time, the language about the resurrection to come in the original Greek of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds would appear to be open to the possibility of cremation. The Apostles Creed notes, translating literally, "I believe in... resurrection of flesh." And in the Nicene Creed it reads, "I/We look for resurrection of the dead." Neither of these terms necessarily implies intact bodies in any form.
The United Methodist Church does not have a specific official statement that either endorses or condemns cremation. Instead, United Methodists leave this choice to individuals and families and provide resources within the official ritual (Service of Death and Resurrection) that refer to the possible use of an urn and the interment of ashes.
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.