To cremate or not to cremate is a question many Christians wrestle with. Throughout evangelicalism, people disagree on whether or not an affirmative answer is appropriate. Adding even more confusion (or, perhaps, more clarity), there is a new option: Dead bodies can now be liquefied.
The New York Times offers this explanation of the process:
A machine uses a chemical bath to dissolve protein, blood and fat, leaving only a coffee-colored liquid, powdery bone and any metal implants, like dental fillings.
It works like this: An alkali, or salt derived from an alkali metal or an alkaline earth metal (usually sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide or a combination of the two), is combined with water in a specially made machine.
About 65 percent of the human body is already water, while another 20 percent or so is protein, including blood, muscle and collagen, which is found in tissue and bone. The alkali breaks down the body’s proteins and fats. The machine produces sterile brown effluent made up of minerals, salts, amino acids, soap and water, as well as weakened bones that can be crushed into an ash, and any metal in the body.
Purported to leave a smaller carbon footprint than either burial or traditional cremation, the liquefaction process is attractive to people concerned about harming the environment even in death. However, there is another surprising reason people choose “flameless cremation.” In the same article, the NYT quotes Jason Bradshaw, who runs a cremation business in the Twin Cities. “When it’s a family that has just lost Mom or Dad, they’re in a more emotional state and they look at it and say it seems more gentle,” he explains.
Traditional cremation is on the rise in this country because it “costs less than a third of a burial, according to an industry report by market research firm IBISWorld. It also saves on some natural resources; a burial requires land as well as the stone, steel, cloth and wood used to make the casket and gravestone,” according to Scientific American.
But what does this mean for Christians? Do the financial and environmental benefits of cremation, either with fire or flameless, mean that it’s ethically in bounds for followers of Jesus?
Often, the spiritual aspects of our faith are emphasized among Christians at the expense of the material, the physical. We frequently fail to appropriately interact with the fact that God created both body and soul, and He declared both “good.” Granted, since the Fall, when our first parents Adam and Eve sinned against God, both body and soul have been marred and are no longer as good. However, all humans are still God’s creation and still image God.
On the Final Day, when Jesus returns to judge all the peoples of the earth who have ever lived, there will be a physical resurrection. Those who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will be ushered into the new heaven and new earth to enjoy God for all eternity. And that enjoyment will include a physical enjoyment. Those who refused to acknowledge their debt of sin before God and submit in faith to Jesus will be ushered into a physical and spiritual punishment for all eternity.
Our bodies matter. As do our souls.
We do not have carte blanche to treat our bodies however we want, neither in life nor in death. In their wicked idolatry, the ancient Canaanites cut and marred their bodies in an attempt to dehumanize themselves. This was done as an act of rebellion, showing God that they refused to submit both spiritually and physically to Him.
Few Christians would argue that how we treat our bodies during life doesn’t matter. The same holds true in death, though.
Both fire and flameless cremation treat the body as insignificant. Of course, buried bodies decompose and rot away, turning again to soil. But that too is part of the curse brought by sin. As Christians, we shouldn’t steer into the curse. Instead, we should seek to honor and respect our physical bodies even in death.