More cremations mean less chance of mourning together…
Soaring cremation rates are upsetting traditional practices around death, as more people forego traditional church funerals and some ignore community experiences of grief altogether.
Randy Anderson, who worked in funeral homes in Alabama for more than 30 years, tells the story of a widow who chose to forgo a funeral for her husband, instead cremating his remains and keeping the ashes at the home. Then every few months, she met acquaintances who asked how he was doing.
Frustrated by awkward conversations reopening her grief, the woman called a local funeral home to schedule a funeral service three years later. Over 300 people attended the ceremony.
If trends continue, more than half of Americans who die this year will be cremated, up from just 4% in 1960. The proportion is expected to rise to nearly 80% by 2040, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).
Families who have chosen cremation are less likely to reunite with others: 38% do not host a service, compared to 35% who offer a memorial service and 27% who provide a casket and visitation prior to cremation.
“There’s a myth that if you don’t have service and move on, the grief will go away,” said Anderson, who is president of the NFDA.
But like the widow at the delayed funeral, people must grapple with death alongside other mourners. “Grief shared is grief diminished,” he said.
Many choose cremation for economic reasons: an average funeral with burial and visitation costs $7,848 compared to direct cremation at $2,300. It’s also more convenient, as geographically dispersed families need the flexibility to delay service or gather in a different location. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated trends towards cremation and the elimination of funeral services.
And just as fewer Americans are getting married in churches, fewer are choosing to be buried in church cemeteries. Cremation continues to grow in popularity as America becomes more secular.
These demographic shifts are impacting the traditional role of funerals for Christians, as a rite of passage to mourn the dead and place individual lives in a larger, hopeful narrative: Christ is dead; Christ is risen; Christ will return.
Changing views on cremation
Christians have historically resisted cremation due to a high opinion of the body as a creation of God and due to the doctrine of resurrection.
David Jones, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that burial “most visibly represents the gospel message, most clearly communicates the hope of future bodily resurrection, and most clearly expresses the promise of eternal physical existence”.
But a growing number of Christians are expanding their views on the disposition of earthly remains while recognizing the rich symbolism of burial and resurrection.
“There’s not much evidence in the New Testament to deny cremation as a practice,” Brian Croft said. “God created Adam from dust, so it is not true that God cannot recreate people from cremation.”
Croft, a Baptist pastor from southern Kentucky, started a ministry called Practical Shepherding after doing 200 funerals in 15 years.
As Christian views on cremation evolve, so do cultural views on death. Previous generations were surrounded by death in a way that modern generations are not. They lived before antibiotics and open-heart surgeries, experienced high rates of infant mortality, and directly observed the cycle of life on farms. These are the generations that washed and prepared their dead, laid them home for a wake, and later carried them to church for burial and interment.
But in recent decades we have found a way to keep death at bay, according to Tim Perry, a Wesleyan Church theologian who authored the book. Funerals: For the Care of Souls.
“In the past, humans learned to deal with grief by dealing with the body,” he said. “But since the 1950s, we’ve found ingenious ways of not dealing with the body, and as a result, we’re not good at dealing with grief.”
He sees no theological barriers to cremation, but advocates that churches and pastors grow in their understanding of death and grief to help their members through the process.
If a member “simply makes a phone call and two hours later picks up the ashes in a box, that practice is pastorally suspect,” said Perry, who has worked in funeral homes in addition to ministry roles.
He believes there are theological and psychological benefits to viewing bodies as our ancestors did, whenever possible. There are ways to accomplish this, such as an open casket visitation, that still allows for cremation.
In fact, he points to the UK as a role model. Due to space constraints, churches in Britain fully accepted cremation and incorporated it into funeral services. Mourners gather at the crematorium chapel when the coffin is brought in. And once the service is over and the mourners have paid their last respects, the cremation begins.
tell the truth about death
In 2016, Perry uprooted his family to return to Shawville, Quebec, as his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The process of walking with her father to the end of her life revealed the power of a supportive church family, according to Perry.
“I wasn’t alone, my dad wasn’t alone, and he was among the people where his suffering had meaning,” he said.
This connection to the church also proved true after his father’s death, as Perry relied on the liturgy to plan his father’s funeral.
“The liturgy gives us words so that we are not left alone, having to invent ourselves,” Perry said. “The liturgy gives us the grammar to speak the truth about ourselves and about humanity – a person has died, and we commit them to the mercy and judgment of God, before returning to the land of the living.”
As an example, he shares a prayer for the Anglican Church of Canada funeral: “Father of all, we pray to you for those we love but see no more. Grant them your peace; let perpetual light shine upon them; and in your loving wisdom and almightiness work in them the good purpose of your perfect will through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Perry advocates that churches more regularly integrate the reality of death into worship and life. This could include teaching a biblical theology of death in Sunday school, hosting an All Saints’ Day service where worshipers who have died in the past year are honored, or inviting a funeral director to talk about funeral planning.
“We should make this universal experience a part of our life together so that it’s not the thing that surprises us,” Perry said.
leave a legacy
One of the challenges with cremation is how to create a permanent marker of remembrance for the deceased. While urn gardens, columbariums, and burials are options, many eschew creating a permanent resting place for cremated remains.
This may be a missed opportunity, according to Steve Bezner, senior pastor of Houston Northwest Church in Texas. “In scripture, graves are meaningful markers that say, ‘This was a significant place in this person’s life.'”
Although churches and cemeteries are historically linked, it is now more common for cemeteries to exist outside of churches. “The divorce of the cemetery from the church proper precipitated this change [of minimizing permanent markers]”, Bezner said. “When they are connected, it tells you that your death, if you are a believer, is inseparably linked to your faith.
As a 50-year-old church without a cemetery, Houston Northwest Church is now beginning to think about how to accommodate aging founding members.
“They want to tie their earthly heritage to this place,” Bezner said. “He said to their children and grandchildren, ‘This person has invested his life for the gospel in this particular place.’
Located in a developed area without land for a cemetery, Houston Northwest Church plans to install an urn garden. “I think that would be a beautiful thing,” Bezner said.
Pastors are called to help the faithful at all stages of life and death. For Brian Croft, attending a series of poorly preached funerals led him to start his ministry as a practical shepherd, which equips pastors in areas ranging from leadership to bereavement. The ministry was born out of his belief that too few pastors are equipped to comfort the bereaved and the sick.
“The two most important places to minister are the hospital room and the funeral home,” Croft said. “This is where people come face to face with their humanity and their mortality, the things that we spend most of our lives pretending don’t exist.”
This is where pastors can engage their members and reach people beyond the doors of the church, a necessary task in a culture that shrinks at the thought of death. Whether bereaved families choose cremation or burial, pastors offer the same hope: that Christ has conquered death.
“Although death is our common enemy and our common destiny, it is God who writes the first and last word on our lives,” Perry says. “This is the good news of the gospel.”