We have addressed the topic of cremation on the podcast back in episode 406: “Cremation or Burial?” We have addressed the topic of giving the body to science back in episode 874: “No Cremation — But Should I Gift My Body to Science?” But what about if you give your body to science, and that program cremates the remains they don’t need or use by way of standard policy?
Here’s the exact question. “Pastor John, hello! I’m a nurse at the local university medical center, and I’m considering donating my body to them when I die. After they harvest organs and tissues, the rest of the body is cremated. In the APJ episode on cremation you said this was not an edifying option for Christians. I’m seeking your wisdom on this situation. (1) Is it virtuous for Christians to donate their organs and tissues for medical use? (2) Is cremation less of a concern in such a situation?”
Bury or Cremate?
To set the stage for my answer, let me review my reasons for encouraging Christians not to cremate but to bury their loved ones. If people want the whole argument, they should go to Desiring God. The article is titled “Should Christians Cremate Their Loved Ones?”
“We are called to handle the body in a way that shows it is a precious gift from God.”
I argued that two focuses of Scripture lead away from burning to burying for Christians. First, we prefer burying because of the preciousness of the human body as God’s creation and purchase by the blood of his Son. We are his possession. We’re not our own. We were bought with a price now and forever. That’s the first emphasis. The second emphasis is the dreadfulness of fire as it relates to the human body, especially after death.
Those two biblical emphases disincline me from encouraging people to use cremation. I don’t care how cheap or convenient it may seem.
Seeds and Sleep
The early Christians in the New Testament buried their loved ones. They were encouraged to do it by two apostolic symbols implied in burying. One was sowing seeds, and the other was laying to rest.
For example: “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42). The body is sown like a seed, and it comes up out of the ground at the resurrection imperishable. That’s the first picture.
The other one is a picture like this: “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). We are called to handle the body in a way that shows it is a precious gift from God. We handle it like a seed sown in the ground and like a person being laid to sleep to be awakened from their sleep by the resurrection.
Fire and Hell
The other focus of Scripture that pointed to burying rather than burning the body is the meaning of fire as it relates to the human body now and in the life to come. In the Bible, the use of fire to consume the body on earth was seen as a sign of contempt. It was never a blessing to have your body burned. It was not a glorious treatment of the body, but a contemptuous one.
“If we act from faith, it can be a beautiful act of love for Christians to donate their organs and tissues for medical use.”
Early Christians believed in the judgment of God after death (Hebrews 9:27). The most dreadful picture of that judgment was fire. Hell is a place of fire, according to Matthew 5:22 and James 3:6. This fire is meant to be felt by the body.
We’re cast as bodies into hellfire. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Therefore, the early Christians shrank back in horror from exposing the body to fire — the precious blood-bought body of a believer that would be revived, renewed, raised, and glorious forever. They shrank back from exposing the body to fire, which was like exposing it to hell.
That was my double argument against cremation, besides some really pragmatic ones (like you will never know whether those are your loved one’s ashes).
Loving Others in Death
Now, the questions are:
- Is it virtuous for Christians to donate their organs and tissues for medical use?
- Is cremation less of a concern in this case, where parts of the body are left over to be disposed of?
My answer is yes to both of those questions, if the heart is humble and trusting God’s mercy rather than proud and seeking to score points with God and man. You can donate your body and be an arrogant person trying to earn God’s favor, but I’m assuming that’s not at all the case here.
First, I would note that from the earliest times, Christian martyrs have been willing to be burned alive. They would say, “Though I give my body to be burned rather than deny the faith” (see 1 Corinthians 13:3). Now, this means that there are higher values than avoiding being burned to ashes — like not forsaking the faith, not bringing reproach upon the Savior.
From this, I would infer that there are other values that might override the ordinary way Christians show honor to the body in burial. One of those would be the conviction that offering our bodies to medical science may serve the discovery of some disease-healing drug or may provide an organ transplant that could save a person who’s about to die on dialysis or something like that. The value of loving others in this way may override the value of burying the body (in its entirety at least).
Beautiful Act of Love
Then our nurse friend asks, “After they harvest the organs or the tissues or whatever they’re going to use for good purposes, the rest of the body is cremated.” For her, that would be part of the price we may be willing to pay to do the good that we believe God is calling us to do.
“There are higher values than avoiding being burned to ashes — like not forsaking the faith.”
I don’t know enough here to make pronouncements. I don’t know the ins and outs of the process of using a body for medical research or for organ transplanting, but I would at least raise the question whether it might be possible to still bury the body.
There have been examples in the Bible and in history where bodies have been mutilated and parts have been severed, and families have longed to have any remnant of their loved one’s body that they could honor in burial. Whether this is possible will depend on the process that I know nothing about. I can’t say. She would probably know better than I, but if we did it that way, it might bear significant testimony to the medical community and professionals if Christians gave a biblical reason for why they would like to proceed with some kind of burial after medical use of the body.
Putting all that uncertainty aside, my answer would be yes. If we act from faith, it can be a beautiful act of love for Christians to donate their organs and tissues for medical use. Yes, cremation, while not ideal, may carry new meaning under those circumstances.