Burial Rites and Cremation
by Edward A. Sövik (July / August 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 4)
What do we designate a service in which the bodily remains are cremated prior to the funeral?
Where I live — Minnesota — and perhaps other states and regions of this nation, funeral services for Christians are often called "memorial services" if the body has already been cremated. But why shouldn't these services be called by the name of the rite, the "Burial of the Dead?"
This article will address some concerns surrounding this issue, as well as suggestions as how such a funeral can be adapted to the "Burial of the Dead" ritual. These observations are based on experiences I had when making funeral preparations for loved ones.
First, I object to calling such a service a "memorial" service rather than the rite of the "Burial of the Dead." The term "memorial service" has no Christian or ecclesiastical associations. It is used indiscriminately for pagan, agnostic, Jewish, and other occasions, as well as for Christian church liturgies.
To use the terms to celebrate the lives of devout church people in a place of Christian worship puts the deceased Christian not in the company of saints but in an undifferentiated scattering of both the faithful and faithless. If services for the dead in the church are Christian and congregational actions, implying a specifically Christian view of life and death, then to label the event as merely a "memorial" is to weaken the specific qualities of Christian worship.1
Secondly, while variations and exceptions to the presence of the coffin are recognized in the The Manual on the Liturgy and the LBW Ministers Desk Edition (pp. 37-8 and 335-365, and pp. 331-9, respectively), these texts remain fairly consistent in their reference to the presence of a coffin. The variations and exceptions also seem to relate mainly to situations where the body has been destroyed, given to medical institutions, or is otherwise absent.
The Manual on the Liturgy also refers to cremation in discussing the Commendation of the Dead, and makes the assumption that cremation follows a burial service where body and coffin have been present (pp. 362-3). There is no specific recognition of the fact that cremation does sometimes precede the service.
Thirdly, ashes in an urn are about as much the "real" person as a chemically treated body in a coffin. Perhaps, if we remember the phrase "ashes to ashes," the urn takes on more symbolic relevance. And urns, as well as coffins, are subject to burial, if desired.
The (almost) complete Service of the Burial of the Dead may quite as properly be used for occasions where the urn can take the place of the coffin. To accommodate cremated remains in the Service of the Burial of the Dead requires only modest changes of artifacts, words, and actions. What follows are suggestions for three new artifacts and some changes in preparations.
Generally, the coffin, which is covered by a white pall, is brought forward from the narthex or foyer to the proximity of the liturgical center on a rolling carriage, or by pallbearers when it rests on a bier. The paschal candle is usually at the foot of the coffin ("east").
When there is an urn of ashes, a tray is needed on which to set and carry the urn. A small, white pall is appropriate, and a stand, on which the urn can rest during the service, can replace the bier. I suggest an article of high dignity, and if there is something in design or material that relates it to the baptismal vessel, so much the better.
To the liturgy, I suggest some additional changes:
1. The pall should be in place, if the urn is already present in the narthex or foyer when the congregation arrives, perhaps resting on the tray on a table or shelf. The citation at the bottom of page 206 in the Lutheran Book of Worship, having no reference to the pall or any action, need not be omitted.
2. The Manual on the Liturgy prescribes the location of the coffin and the paschal candle in relation to the coffin in two ways, depending on whether the deceased is a layman or clergy (pp. 358-59). In the instance of cremation, one location is proper: "east" of the crematory stand so the pallbearer doesn't need to walk around it to reach the stand.
3. One pallbearer is sufficient.
4. At the Commendation, the pastor(s) would stand beside the candle.
5. If there is a columbarium on site, the recessional and Committal can follow the Commendation with little interruption. One would also omit the ritual act of casting earth on a coffin. If there is no columbarium, the urn on its tray might be returned to its former place in the narthex or foyer where the family could retrieve it. There would then be no Committal service, or the Committal may be held elsewhere without the congregation present.
6. Substitute certain words: "body" becomes "remains"; the optional "its resting place" is appropriate.
Edward A. Sövik is an architect, now retired, from Northfield, Minnesota. He authored Architecture for Worship (Augsburg, 1973).
1. It seems to me that the term "Memorial Service" for Christians may even be inappropriate when the body is entirely absent (lost at sea, destroyed in war, etc.), and hence neither a coffin nor urn are present. Perhaps a title for the liturgy in this instance could be "A Celebration of Resurrection." Possibly, one could add a wreath or other symbol which could accompany the paschal candle at the usual place of the bier.