Message preached on Sunday, August 2, 2009, after the cremation of a pastor aroused questions and controversy.
Different societies of people have various funeral practices. Did you know that the Zoroastrians or the Parsis of India place the dead bodies of their people in towers of silence? A tower of silence is a place where Parsis leave dead bodies to be devoured by vultures and other scavenger birds. Seems a heartless and gruesome way to dispose of their dead.
The reason they do it this way is that like most religions there is a notion that the body is evil and impure, and disposing of it in one of the elements (the sky, soil, water, air, fire) would defile them. When I was in school, there was no subject like “environmental studies.” Now that they do, I wonder if anyone would say that this method is the most environmental-friendly way to dispose of the dead. Not only is there no contamination of soil or water, but birds in the wild are fed. (What if they are a nuisance to aeroplanes—which are anyway machines that pollute?)
There is another method of disposing a dead body that seems rather uncaring toward family sentiments. I refer to donating the body for research or to harvest as many of the organs as needed. I carry a card in my purse, so that in case I die on the road, attending docs and nurses may go ahead with harvesting all available organs. Some people think that donations will affect their resurrection, because they think that somehow they will be complete in heaven only if they hold on to all their organs. (This argument will be confronted when we look at the arguments against cremation).
Most Christians choose burial to dispose their dead. They think that this is the right way to do it because it is the biblical way. They think that cremation goes against the teaching of the Bible. Most people think that the Bible doesn’t have any record of instances of cremation.
Saul and his sons were killed by Philistines. Later in order to shame Israel, the Philistines identified their bodies, cut off their heads and displayed their stripped bodies ignominiously on the walls of the city Beth Shan. Hearing of the ignominy people of Jabesh Gilead mounted a rescue operation to recover the dead bodies and on succeeding, quickly burnt the bodies (1 Sam.31:to prevent the Philistines getting hold of the bodies and shaming them again). Even if we discount Saul because of his apostasy, Jonathan, a good man was among those slain. The Bible records the story of his cremation without any disapproval of it.
The second argument against cremation is that Jesus was buried, not cremated, and Christians are to follow in Christ’s steps. Sounds very devout, except that Jesus was not buried. His body was laid in a tomb carved out of rock and a stone cover was rolled into place closing the mouth of the tomb. The Jews didn’t practise burial in the same way that we do today. When Sarah died Abraham bought a cave for her burial (Gen.23:19-20). He needed a cave to prevent animals from desecrating the dead body of his loved one. We don’t bury that way. Our way is to dig a hole in the ground, put the body into the hole and then cover it up with soil. There is no record of anything similar to that description being done in the case of any of the burials described in the Bible.
In 1963, the Roman Catholic Church allowed cremation as one of the ways in which to dispose of dead bodies. Usually the Roman Catholic Church is the conservative bit of the Church, and the last to give up any tradition or practice. When they give up a practice, it is most often because they have come to the conclusion that they have run out of reasons and excuses for clinging to custom.
If we were Christians living in Japan, there would be no question about what to do. It is illegal to bury in Japan and so we would be opting for cremation without questions or qualms.
If the RSS had its way in India, it would soon impose laws that make all minorities conform to whatever the group wished. And we would all fall in line. We are known to accommodate to prevailing law and custom. Christians in the UAE have changed their day of worship to Friday because the weekly day off there is Friday. Christians are not clinging to Sunday as though there is a sacred compulsion to worship corporately on Sundays only.
While we would have no difficulty to changing our customs to suit the RSS, and in this case there is nothing wrong with the change, such readiness to do what we are told should be what is questioned. Do you recall that the excuse of Nazi criminals was that they were merely following orders?
The most often asked question that Christians have in the matter of donations or cremations is that of how our resurrected body could be raised if we burn it all up or raised complete if we donate its parts.
If God couldn’t raise people who were totally reduced to ashes by cremation, then what hope would there be for the martyrs burnt at the stake? What hope is there for those eaten by the lions, for those lost at sea, for those who die in disasters such as wild fires or are struck by lightning and incinerated?
Those who ask this, have a very small god, who is totally lacking in sovereign power. If we believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, we would be echoing the line of John the Baptist. He told the Jews that they were not to pride themselves on their lineage and heritage, because if pure bloodline was all that God required, God could produce that out of stones (Lk.3:8). After all, God is the one who created everything out of nothing.
Early Christians did insist on burial (similar to what was done to the body of Jesus, not similar to our practice of putting the body into a hole in the ground and then covering it up with the soil). Their insistence was in contrast to the Roman practice of cremation. Why didn’t they adapt to Roman custom (in line with the notion, when in Rome, do as the Romans)?
For Early Christians, their insistence on burial was a statement of their faith. They believed that their dead were “sleeping” (see Stephen’s death—Acts 7:60) waiting to be awakened by the resurrection call of the Returning Lord. You must remember that their expectation that Jesus would return was an expectation that this blessed event would happen in their generation. They never thought that Jesus would wait for generations before returning. It is because of this belief that their departed were sleeping that they needed cemeteries. The word “cemetery” is derived from the Greek word koimētērion which means “dormitory” or “sleeping chamber”.
Not Soul Sleep
One of the best pictures we have of the present state of departed souls is in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man’s soul is not asleep but acutely aware of his own surroundings and also perceptive of how envious was Lazarus’ situation (Lk.16:19-31).
Paul described life here as living in tents. They are good for camping, but no one thinks of them as permanent dwellings (2 Cor.5:1-5). As a song writer put it,
This world is not my home,
I’m just a passing through...
Paul expressed a longing to be with the Lord, and said that the moment we are absent from the body, that moment we are present with the Lord (vv.8-9). In his words, “mortality is swallowed up by life.” The paraphrase that is echoing in my mind is the line, “Death is swallowed up by life.” We think that death snatches our loved ones from us. The perspective that God gives us is that life eternal has snatched our loved ones from dying and death. From the time we begin life, we are dying. God snatches us from the dying. That’s a totally different picture from what we see when our eyes are filled with tears.
One of the best pictures we have of life in heaven is given us in Revelation 7:14-17:
They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (ESV).
At a recent funeral, when I thanked the Lord that He had called the departed one to “serve” Him more fully, one who heard me protested. She said, “I don’t want to be working. I’m tired of working.” Somehow, we imagine that in heaven we will sit around on clouds and have golden harps in our hands and we will be lazily singing. But the Word of God uses the word “serve” and one meaning of the word is no doubt “worship”, but it is more than a rite of worship or why use the loaded word “serve”, suggesting that we will be working for the Lord, except that we will not be tired by drudgery, but enabled for the task. The passage also says that the Lord will shepherd and guide us. And you thought that when you arrive in heaven, you would have arrived. But the passage suggests that we will be going on a journey. This time it won’t be one of trial and error like when we try to find places here in our cities. The Lord will be our guide and He is taking us on a journey of discovery. And the best part is that the hand that wipes our tears away, will wipe them away forever. Here on earth when loved ones comfort us and wipe our tears away, the tears will come again and again. But when the hand of the Lord wipes our tears away, it will be for the last time. There will be no more tears.
Indulge me. I’m not being crude. There was a time when I used to be worried about wearing underwear with any tiny holes because I thought that if I should die suddenly, whoever discovers my body would find me improperly clothed. A while back, I realised that it was ridiculous to worry about how I would appear in death. I would be gone. I wouldn’t be there at all. What did it matter what the shell (the tent) looked like.
Similarly, funerals and cemeteries are only way stations. They are not the final destination. Let’s not get bogged down fighting wars about them. Let’s remember that what is important is when our final rites proclaim, “Death is swallowed up by life. It isn’t death that has snatched our loved ones. God has snatched them from dying.”