Cremation?

“Are you gonna burn him up?” A young (five yrs. old or so) child asked me that at the cemetery after the memorial service for his 18 month old cousin who had been cremated. My answer went something like this, “No, cremation does not mean ‘burn him up.’” He asked, “So, what’s cremation?” I said, “Cremation simply uses heat to do what nature does when we bury our loved ones after they die. Cremation does the same thing in hours that burial does over a period of years.” He seemed content with my answer, and was no longer concerned that his cousin was “gonna be burned up.”

Let me mention here, that generally speaking, "funeral" means that the body is present, while "memorial" means that the body is not present. Direct Cremation can be followed by a Memorial, a Funeral can also be followed by cremation

I’ve been asked, as a minister, what God thinks about cremation. As far as I can determine, and I have done some searching, there is no scripture that forbids cremation. There is a verse in the Old Testament that prohibits making your children “pass through the fire,” but reliable Bible commentaries say that refers to something completely different.

I also add that some churches and denominations do have beliefs or religious traditions prohibiting cremations. Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Eastern Orthodox Church, and a few others prohibit cremation. The Catholic Church once forbade cremation, but now allows for it.

In my search of scriptures regarding the cremation question, I found as many positive uses for the words “burn” and “fire” as I did negative. “Cremate” or “cremation” is never mentioned. The main reason some don’t like cremation is that they don’t like the idea of being cremated. It’s what I call “The Yuck Factor.”Others feel just as firmly against burial for the same reason.

The word “cremate” comes from the Latin word “cremare,” meaning “to burn.” I didn’t lie to the child at the cemetery that day; I just gave him information in language that helped him be at peace that day. Yes, flames and burning are involved in cremation as the temperatures are over 1200 degrees.

Cremation is becoming the preferred method of choice for many families today. It can be a very meaningful form of caring for the body of a loved one. Cremation is not, and should not be looked at as an inferior form of disposition. The family who chooses to have a loved one cremated should never feel any sense of not doing the best, or not caring as much for a loved one. Cremation is also now an option for pet owners in many areas of the country.

If you or your loved one has chosen cremation, remember, cremation is final and irreversible. Because of the finality of cremation, most states require permission from the coroner or medical examiner before cremation can be done. Bodies are kept in refrigeration until the death certificate or cremation permit is issued. Many times death certificates take longer, up to a month or so, and a cremation permit is issued.

My first exposure to cremation was seeing the ashes on TV shows. It was funny to watch as Lucy struggled to separate the ashes of someone’s loved one from the fireplace ashes and put them back into the urn. Real life is different than “I Love Lucy.” Today, most people refer to the part left over from cremation as cremains or ashes. There are ashes included, but it’s not all ash. Those I have seen have been more the consistency of kitty litter mixed with a very fine ash, almost like dust. If you choose to cremate, you will have the option to purchase an urn, some very ornate, others rather plain. Cremation urns are prepared from a variety of materials such as ceramic, granite, wood, crystal, glass, bronze, brass, stainless steel, resin, and so on. Urns are available that are biodegradable. If you have not arranged for an urn, the cremains can be returned to you in a plastic box. A good resource for more information regarding cremations can be found at www.cremationresource.org . Jewelry designed to hold a small portion of the ashes is available, as well as glass blown with a small mixture of the ashes mixed with the molten glass to make a special memento.

Whether you choose burial or cremation, my advice is two-fold.

  1. Do what you need to do. I sometimes cringe at the thought of people doing like my mother did. She avoided the funerals of at least two people who meant a great deal to her. She became emotional and refused to go to Granddad’s funeral. She could not bring herself to say goodbye to her own father. Years later, Mom stayed at home during Dad’s funeral. Sometimes I cringe at the thought, but I still defend Mom’s right to do just exactly what she did. Do what you need to do.
  2. Have the funeral. Though I defend your right to do what you need to do, don’t deny the rest of the family their need for the funeral or memorial service. Have the funeral or memorial. Ceremony can be a valuable part of the healing process. They might not know to ask for the right to mourn, and we sometimes forget that others might need the healing that can come from having community come together at the time of the funeral.

I knew two different couples who pre-planned their services years in advance. In both families the husband preferred cremation while both wives preferred burial. In both cases the wives were able to say to their then living and thriving spouse, “I’ll cremate you if you’ll let me have a funeral first!” And that is just what we did in both cases. As it turned out, in both cases the husband died first. In both cases the body was embalmed so we, the survivors, could have a very meaningful time of family visitation. We laughed, cried, told stories, and remembered them during the family visitation. We had a funeral for the spouse. Following the funeral we were all dismissed, and in both cases shared a meal together. The following day, in one case, we met at the cemetery and buried my uncle’s cremains. When my aunt passed away, we had her funeral at the same funeral home, proceeded to the cemetery and buried her in the plot next to his cremated remains.

In the other case, the Funeral Director delivered his cremains to her home. She kept them in his closet at their home. In her words, “And that is okay with me and with him.” When she passed away a few years later, his cremains were still in his closet alongside his clothes, shoes, etc. He was a veteran. The local National Cemetery allowed the family to bury her with his cremains in the same location. It is a very sacred location for family to visit today.

A brother-in-law wanted to be cremated, and was. We had a “graveside memorial” for him, and buried (with the cemetery’s permission) his cremains at his parents’ feet. Later a small grave marker was placed there. Another brother-in-law was cremated, according to his wishes, and his cremains buried at the head of his parents double plot (again, with the cemetery’s permission). A third brother-in-law was cremated and his ashes scattered, according to his wishes, over his grandparents’ home site with the present owner's permission.

Some cemeteries have sections with smaller sized plots for cremains; others have a columbarium for the purpose. Some use a full sized plot to bury the cremains so a full-sized headstone can be used.

Cremation and burial are neither right nor wrong…it’s a matter of preference. The ceremonies that we develop around those are important in the grieving process. I’ve both heard and have used the word “closure” in speaking of this portion of the grieving process. I’m still not sure if I completely understand that word, but I think in all of the personal experiences that I shared in this article, we experienced “closure.”