The Bible does not speak about the issue of cremation vs. burial, but usually assumes that bodies will be buried. If a body was burned, it was usually either a sign of disrespect for the person or a punishment for sin (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7:25), though sometimes cremation may have occurred after a plague or large massacre (Amos 6:9-10).
At the time of Jesus, cremation was widely practiced by the Romans, occasionally by the Greeks, but rarely by Jews and Christians (because of their belief that the bodies of believers would one day be physically resurrected). With the spread of Christianity, cremation disappeared almost entirely as a practice in the West, until about 200 years ago (an exception seems to be during times of plague and war, when large numbers of bodies needed to be taken care of quickly).
Those opposing cremation argue the body must not be destroyed because, at some future date, the believer's soul will be reunited with his or her body. However, more and more people are coming to agree with the view that, since cremation only does rapidly what nature will do much more slowly, cremation is acceptable.
References in our funeral services to "urn" and "interment of ashes" infer acceptance of the practice of cremation even though there is no official statement from the church.
United Methodists do take a very proactive stand to encourage organ donation. Our Social Principles explain:
"Organ transplantation and organ donation are acts of charity, agape love, and self-sacrifice. We recognize the life-giving benefits of organ and other tissue donation and encourage all people of faith to become organ and tissue donors as part of their love and ministry to others in need" (¶ 162 (W)).
As a way to embody this stand in our corporate worship life, General Conference urged all United Methodist congregations to celebrate "Organ Donation Sunday" on the second Sunday prior to Thanksgiving week, which is recognized in interfaith circles in the U.S. as "National Donor Sabbath."
First published Oct. 20, 2016.