Another odd theological question that has suddenly become important

The coronavirus pandemic continues to throw up all sorts of weird and wonderful theological questions that most of us haven’t ever countenanced before. Some of them are a bit closer to things we may have thought about somewhere along the line. Others are just totally left-field matters that we’re essentially having to think through on the fly.

For example, what do we do when we simply cannot meet? Most of us never envisaged a time that we couldn’t. Now it is here, what are we to do? How does the prescription to continue meeting together sit with the imperative to love our neighbour which is being asked of us by our government whom we are also commanded to honour? We all know how this plays out if the government decided, for ideological reasons, to close our churches. But when they are asking us (not telling) to stay in because, if we don’t, we may be responsible for the deaths of others, what do we do as far as meeting together is concerned? It seems the overwhelming majority of us came to the same conclusion very early on.

But questions like these continue coming. How do we fulfil the one another commands when we can’t meet together? How do we do any of the things the Lord commands under these circumstances? How do we share the gospel with people we cannot go out and see at a time when death is looming large in people’s minds and if ever the question of whether we are ready to meet our maker was front and centre it is now?

But one of the more bizarre, but nonetheless now necessary, questions to ask has been thrown up again. Yesterday, Bradford, Leeds and Kirklees local councils have decided to ban funeral services. You can read about it in this Guardian article.

At the moment, they are saying the following:

families will no longer be able to attend services at crematoria. Instead the councils will offer “direct cremations”, in which there is no ceremony and mourners are not present; and burial services at gravesides, with a maximum of 10 mourners observing physical distancing guidelines.

The new rules will take effect from Monday in Kirklees and Bradford. Leeds has been offering direct cremations only for the past two weeks.

It strikes me as entirely possible, however, that it won’t be long before graveside services are revoked too. That may not mean burials are altogether forbidden, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that ‘direct cremations’ might become the only option for a limited time. And this throws up one of those weird theological questions that we never thought we would have to answer. Not only whether it is legitimate for a Christian to be cremated, but what we do if there is no other option?

I am not a proponent of the Christians must only and always be buried view. I do not think cremation is a problem. For me, there are three essential questions to satisfy. First, does the Bible demand burial? Second, if burial isn’t demanded, is cremation forbidden? Thirdly, if cremation isn’t expressly forbidden, what do we communicate about the value of the body by choosing one over the other?

Now, it is my view that burial is not expressly commanded in scripture nor by way of good and necessary consequence. Equally, cremation is nowhere forbidden either. The question that remains is what we communicate about the body. We don’t want to be Gnostic about it and suggest our bodies don’t matter at all. At the same time, we don’t want to suggest that our bodies are everything and the Lord somehow can’t resurrect them whatever state they may be left in. The question, to my mind, centres on what would be seen culturally as desecration and what would be seen culturally as honourable.

It is the last question that really causes us to think. The issue is less to do with the physical reality of what we do with the body and more about the cultural implications. For example, wrapping up my dead body and chucking me unceremoniously into the sea might well be viewed as desecration. But for a naval officer, being given a formal sea burial among his naval peers, what on the face of it appears to be largely the same action, does not carry nearly the same disturbing connotations but is seen as entirely honourable. The issue isn’t necessarily what we physically do with the body – the Lord will resurrect all those who are his in whatever state they may be found – it is more what we convey about the body in what we do. The issue is whether we are conveying the importance of the body the Lord has given or whether we are desecrating it like Gnostics. And much of that will be culturally bound.

This would (I imagine) be an interesting question for somebody who is a missionary to Hindus. In such cultures, cremating the body is seen as good because it is releasing the soul from the body. So, a Christian who dies among Hindus might determine that cremation is culturally honourable. However, they may determine, as a result of the specific religious connotations associated with cremation in that culture, a burial better conveys how the Lord views the body. The issue isn’t so much the action itself as what it conveys to the culture we are in about how the Lord views the one who has died.

Of course, cremation in our own culture doesn’t carry these connotations. To cremate doesn’t convey to the modern Brit a sense of desecration. It is typically seen as an entirely legitimate means of disposing of a deceased person’s body. If that is true, then there neither seems to be a definitive biblical nor a cultural reason to insist it is a problem. There may be other matters of wisdom that help us to make a decision on this issue. But it seems to me, without a biblical imperative nor proscription, the question rests on what we convey culturally. And if the answer to that is nothing especially unhelpful, then it seems to me all options remain on the table.

I hope (as I’m sure most of us do) that I won’t have to be making these specific decisions in the immediate future. But, as ever, the coronavirus pandemic continues to throw up questions that would otherwise largely pass us by almost entirely unnoticed. Thankfully, we can rest assured that however we answer the question, it won’t ultimately stay the Lord’s hand in fulfilling all his promises to his people.