Recently I was asked for my opinion on the question of burial or cremation as the more appropriate process for Christians to dispose of the physical remains of our departed.
The question came out of left field as I am not someone who spends a lot of time reflecting on death and addressing my own mortality. It is a given that I am indeed a mortal and that death will be an unavoidable experience sooner or later.
Here is the question:
What is the Anglican Churches position on burial. Should Christians be buried in a cemetery or is cremation of the body ok? My friends who are Catholic Church members are positive that burial is the proper manner. They believe in the resurrection of the actual body. I was just wondering what is your theological position on burial? For example, if one of your parishioners came to you and asked for your advice, what would you tell them?
My response to this question was as follows:
I do not think it makes the slightest difference how one’s remains are disposed of after death.
There is a very simple logic at work in all this.
If someone dies after being attacked and eaten by a wild animal, or in a fire, or is lost at sea (or in outer space), there is no option for either burial or cremation. Our theology of death and resurrection has to be flexible enough to accommodate such realities. In any case, “resurrection of the body” does not mean that a deceased person gets back the same body that they once had. Knowing what we now know about human cell cycles and what we anticipate to be the realities of any afterlife (e.g., no digestive system, no body waste, no sexual activity) then our whole concept of resurrection body needs a total makeover.
The point of 1 Corinthians 15, as I understand it, is that there is some kind of continuity between the body before death and the body after resurrection; but there is also radical change. There is no requirement for physical and chemical continuity between one body and the next body, otherwise those who die without prospect of burial or cremation would be without hope of resurrection. Such an idea would not — in my opinion — be a Christian concept of life after death. Rather, Paul talks about a spiritual body that is from above, and quite different from the physical body from “below”.
I am not sure if these opinions help in any way with the questions you are considering, but it is quite clear that both the Anglican Church and the Roman Church accept cremation as a perfectly acceptable way to dispose of the remains of the deceased person. Some people may prefer one option or another, but those are personal preferences and cultural traits. They are not matters of deep theological significance, and my own pastoral response would be to ascertain the preferences of the deceased and those of the immediate family. Nothing else matters really. (In my view.)
For those may like to think further about the interpretation of Paul’s resurrection tex in 1 Corinthians 15, there is an extended discussion in my Jesus Then and Jesus Now, pp. 135–39.