Two Questions I Was Asked Pertaining to the Christian Death:

Is Cremation Acceptable for Christians?

Should Christians Donate Their Bodily Organs For Others/For Research When They Die?

My Reply :

  1. Cremation and the Christian. (If you are only interested in the answer to the second question, please scroll down).

Okay, let us consider this question. First of all, the bottom line is that the New Testament does not bar the practise of cremation, however, the practise came from the pagans and - right from the time of Abraham - the family line which God used to fulfil His plan for Mankind practised burial, or entombment. So, while cremation is not utterly barred, I think that Christians should be aware of the background and history involved here and why Christians have usually opposed it.

In order to get the full history, here is a helpful quote from Cremation, by John Russell. Please be aware that this quote comes from a Catholic website so you will find mention of 'The Holy See', however, it is a very historically accurate and fair desciption of the reasons that the Church once banned cremation. It is a longish quotation but I recommend that it is read right the way through :

...Archaeologists tell us that practically all primitive peoples at one time or another during their history cremated their dead. Nomadic tribes had really little choice if they wished to carry with them the remains of their ancestors. Other peoples were prompted by religious considerations: they looked on cremation as a rite which permitted the soul, purified by fire, to escape more easily from the prison of the body and migrate to whatever region disembodied spirits were consigned to. Excavations carried out in Palestine reveal that the Jewish People at an early date adopted the practice of inhumation (or more correctly entombment; the dead body was placed in a sepulchre rather than buried underground). In the land originally occupied by the Canaanites, cremation was the earlier practice. But at about the year 2000 B.C., this practice abruptly gave way to entombment. The date corresponds more or less with the arrival of Abraham and his family in the land of Canaan. The Old Testament confirms the universal Jewish practice of interment. The First Book of Kings tells us that the bodies of those slain in battle were sometimes cremated (cf. 31:12). The Book of Leviticus ordained the burning of those guilty of especially serious crimes (20:14; 21:9). These exceptions only confirm the general custom of inhumation.

Two traditional Jewish conceptions, reflected in the Old Testament, point to the same conclusion: the comparison of the earth to a mother from whom all men have sprung and into whose womb all are destined to return (cf. Gen. 3:19; Job 1:31; Eccl. 40:1); and the likening of death to the lying down for the repose of sleep at the end of the day's labours (cf. Dan. 12:2).

The same tradition is continued in the New Testament. Lazarus was placed in a tomb, and the body of Our Lord was wrapped in linen cloths with spices, "as the manner of the Jews is to bury," St. John expressly tells us (19:40). For St. Paul no other practice was conceivable: he uses the familiar fact of burial to illustrate other themes, v.g.: the body, sown in corruption, will rise in incorruption (1 Cor. 15:42); we are buried with Christ by baptism to rise to newness of life (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).

It was only natural for the early Christians, converts from Judaism for the most part, to retain their traditions and bury their dead. Indeed, those who lived at Rome or in other places where Roman influence was strong, would probably have adopted inhumation even if it had not had the force of such a long tradition behind it, in reaction to cremation as practiced by those around them. For, from the time of the Republic, the practice of cremation had grown more and more common among the Romans—Sulla is said to have been the first to order his body to be burned— until, under the Emperors, it had become the more usual method of disposing of the dead. The Christians wanted nothing to do with the superstitious rites that accompanied pagan cremation, and all the more so because they had a very different idea of what death involved. For them it was not total annihilation, aptly symbolized by reducing the corpse to ashes. Their hope was full of immortality. They believed that their bodies were destined to share the glory of the Lord's risen body, and entombment seemed to them a more fitting way of expressing their Christian hope.

Thus, in the first centuries of her existence, the Church vigorously opposed the prevalent practice of cremation and insisted on burial for her children. The early Christians ran great risks in order to snatch the bodies of the martyrs from destruction and carry them off for proper burial. Where this was impossible, and their persecutors ordered the bodies to be cremated and the ashes to be scattered as a sign of contempt for the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, the Christians maintained that this placed no obstacle in the way of God's almighty power. Against this background, we may perhaps understand a little better why miraculous preservation from fiery torments crops up so frequently in the legends of the martyrs. It was an assertion of the firm belief that even the destructive power of fire is subject to God's control. The giant labour entailed in hollowing out the catacombs to provide a burial space for all the members of the Faithful demonstrates how attached the early Christians were to the practice of interment.

Cremation disappeared from the Roman Empire in the fifth century, though it persisted in some parts of Northern Europe for many more centuries. Thus, in the year 789, Charlemagne made it a capital offence among the Saxons to burn the bodies of the dead or to attend the accompanying superstitious rites. In the Scandinavian countries cremation was still practiced as late as the thirteenth century. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a rather gruesome custom made its appearance in parts of Catholic Europe. It arose from the practical difficulty of bringing back for burial the remains of some prince or nobleman who had died far from home. The body was simply put into water and boiled. This facilitated the separation of the flesh from the bones. These latter could then be easily carried back to the family burial place. In 1288 Boniface VIII, with his usual vigor, forbade this macabre practice under pain of excommunication, and refused to allow the bones to be buried with Church rites.

From that time on, the bodies of the Faithful were always and everywhere interred, except in very unusual circumstances, e.g., in times of plague or after a battle. It is ironic to reflect that the Church's concern was limited to prohibiting the burning of the bodies of the dead: the Inquisition was not very particular when it came to the bodies of the living!

It was not until modern times that cremation was introduced into Christian countries. At the time of the French Revolution an attempt was made to legalize the practice in France, but the proposal met with little official support. It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that sustained efforts were made to get governments to take an "enlightened" view of cremation, especially in Italy, where the first law permitting the practice was passed in 1874. The French parliament voted a similar measure in 1887, and other European countries were not slow to follow suit.

Cremation was at first promoted in the name of hygiene and scientific progress, but it was quickly seized upon by the rather virulent crop of anticlericals that the age managed to produce so abundantly. They saw here a good way of flaunting their contempt for the Church and religion, and for deriding the Christian dogmas of immortality and the resurrection of the body. Organized groups energetically championed the new cause as an act of defiance of Church authorities. Associations were formed in many cities of Continental Europe to promote cremation, and many of these had enrollments of several thousands. The funerals of the members of these associations were often made occasions of noisy and hostile demonstrations against the Church, to the scandal of the Faithful.

The Church could not remain impassive in face of such flagrant displays of irreligion. Up to that time documents dealing with ecclesiastical burial frequently spoke of the universal practice of inhumation, with never a reference to cremation: in the absence of abuses it did not even merit the recognition of a condemnation. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century (1886-1897), the Holy See issued several decrees on the subject, chiefly in the form of replies from the Holy Office to bishops for whom the new form of impiety raised considerable difficulties. It was through these replies that ecclesiastical legislation on cremation gradually evolved. For instance, it was declared unlawful for Catholics to join associations whose aim was to promote cremation; or to arrange for the incineration of their own—or of another's—body after death; a Catholic, who was determined to have his body cremated and who persevered in this state of mind until death, was to be refused Church burial. On the other hand, if the cremation took place solely at someone else's behest, the dead man was to be accorded the usual ecclesiastical rites and suffrages, both at his home and at the parish church: but on no account was a liturgical function to be held at the crematorium.

This is the legislation that passed into the Code of Canon Law, where the matter is briefly dealt with in two canons. The first (can. 1203) simply outlaws cremation, and adds the rider that a desire for cremation expressed in the dead man's last will and testament is simply to be ignored. The other (can. 1240) includes among those to be refused Christian burial Catholics who chose to have their body cremated and died without having given any sign of having undergone a change of heart.

We may wonder why the Church condemned so severely the practice of cremation, while at the same time maintaining that it is neither wrong in itself nor involves anything contrary to a dogma of the Catholic religion. The following are some of the reasons:

  1. Interment is a rite consecrated by a tradition of almost two thousand years, from which the Church has been unwilling to depart without very cogent reasons. The whole liturgical rite supposes that the body will be laid in the earth. Many of the funeral prayers would lose their full significance if the dead person were about to be cremated.

  2. The bodies of the Faithful are holy. They have been sanctified by the sacraments, especially by the Eucharist, and hallowed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They are due to rise in glory on the Last Day, according to our Christian hope. The Church has traditionally maintained that cremation cannot easily be reconciled with the reverence due to the dead human body. It has always seemed to her more desirable to commit the body to the earth and allow it, naturally and gradually, to resolve into its component elements. Cremation was looked on as too violent—and hence disrespectful —a way of treating the bodies of the Faithful.

  3. Interment has a didactic value, not only for those present at the rite, but also for all the Faithful. The human body's committal to the earth from which it was originally derived reminds us forcibly that death is the result of sin. The word cemetery means "sleeping place": for here the bodies of the Faithful are laid to rest after their earthly labours to await the summons to an eternal reward at the sound of the last trumpet. (It is perhaps a little inconsistent that at the beginning of Lent we are reminded of our human mortality by having our foreheads signed with ashes rather than with earth.)

  4. The chief reason for the Church's intransigent attitude towards cremation was, of course, the anti-Christian spirit of the first modern proponents of the practice. In the historical context in which it grew up, cremation was equivalent to a challenge thrown in the face of the Church. And it was precisely this attitude of irreligion, rather than any particular form of disposing of human remains, that the Church wished to eradicate by the severity of her legislation. “

(By John Russell, S.J. is Professor of Canon Law at the Gregorian University, Rome. Ph.L. Tullamore College, Ireland; S.T.L. Milltown Park, Dublin; J.C.D. Gregorian University, Rome. This is is an excerpt from Cremation and comes from here: Our sincere thanks to them).

So, the bottom line is that while the Bible does not prevent us from being cremated, the reasons the Church has opposed it are very valid and important reasons which I believe we should all bear in mind. My personal preference? I intend to be buried.

  1. Donation of Bodily Organs and the Christian.

Okay, now regarding the donation of bodily organs for the use of others, or for medical research, we should bear in mind that this is a very recent development and pressure. It is the product of a society which largely supports practical atheism – what is that? The philosophy is: Just live your life as though there is no God! The pressure groups who are striving to encourage us all to donate our organs believe that this is the only life we will ever live therefore we should strive to hold on to it as long as possible. Of course, they are sincere in this belief but constantly Christians must avoid applying the same reasoning as that which we observe all around us in a society which has turned its back on God! The Holy Bible obviously does not directly legislate on this because it is such a recent development so I will simply give my own opinion. My opinion could offend you but I hope it does not:

a. Donating Organs For Others:

Whilst this is necessarily a personal decision for all to make I would just say that the Christian should not feel guilty if he or she decides to reject this approach. There are certain organs which can be donated to a brother or a sister which do not require a death (kidneys, for instance) and it is a fine thing to donate one of a person's kidneys to a sick brother or sister who would otherwise die through kidney disease. But that is rare. Apart from that I would advise believers to resist all pressure to become an organ donor. There have also been ethical questions raised about just what “brain death” is! My understanding is that organs can be removed from donors when they are considered “brain dead” even though they may still have a pulse (even though that pulse may be dependent upon a machine). However, bearing in mind that not all doctors agree on the definition of 'brain death' this gives me serious cause for concern as does the fact that people are regularly suddenly recovering from deep comas after next-of-kin have already been put under pressure to switch off all life support since recovery is impossible! You think that is rare? Well, I have read of about ten such cases in the last year.

I also happen to think that it is better for a Christian to go to his or her grave with the organs which God originally gave to those people - if at all possible. Now maybe that is emotional, but it is the way I feel. While living, our bodies have been temples of the Holy Spirit – we should feel under no pressure to give away any part of us which contributed to our individual personhood. Sometimes people who apply pressure for more people to become organ donors almost seem to imply that our bodies belong to medicine – They don't! They have been given to us by God alone and are His property!!

b. Donating Organs For Medical Research:

Here my answer would be unequivocally No! Your body has served you well, in all probability, for many many years now allow your God-given body to rest in the grave in dignity.

I am not one of those people who seem to believe that “medical research” justifies just about anything. For the same reason, I am personally opposed to vivisection (experiments on living animals). Many people, for instance, emotionally give money to health-concerned charities (such as cancer research) without questioning how the money will be used and are astonished and horrified when I tell them that a large majority of that money will be used to support experiments on living animals; much of this is not in any realistic expectation of finding cures to major illnesses but in order to train students (but you will never be told this).

In the same manner, I have it on good authority that organs donated for “medical research” will be used to develop the expertise of students rather than having much expectation of finding a cure for some major illness.

Okay, this is my opinion and I hope I have not offended anyone, but as Martin Luther said, 'Here I stand – I can do no other.'

Robin A. Brace, 2005.