Funerals in the Time of Covid-19
Bishop Michael L. Rhyne, Allegheny Synod, ELCA
April 6, 2020
We find ourselves living in the time of COVID-19. At the present time, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is under a ‘stay-at-home’ order. Our pastors and congregations are learning new ways to connect while we are unable to gather in person. All of us wish that we could be together, but we know that to gather as the church at this time could endanger the most vulnerable among us. As hard as this is, we distance ourselves out of love for the members of our church family. None of us would want to be the reason that one of our beloved siblings in Christ contract this deadly virus.
This separation is hard especially when those we love finish their time here on earth. This is the time, maybe more than any other, when we want to gather and hold each other in our pain and grief. The funeral is a chance for us to publicly and communally mourn and to thank God for the life of that one who has died.
The question is then, what are we to do when we can’t come together because we need to keep members of our community safe? We wait.
If the deceased and family decided to be cremated, the cremains can be kept by the family or funeral home until a public funeral and internment can be held. If the person does not wish to be cremated, there could be a graveside internment and a public memorial service once it is safe for persons to gather.
For a graveside internment, the Pennsylvania Dept. of Health is still allowing gatherings of 10 people or less—which includes the minister and the funeral director. We must continue to maintain social distancing, and as hard as it is, we have to forego the hugs and handshakes that we are accustomed to in these times. It is hard but these guidelines are for everyone’s safety.
It is possible that as the virus spreads the allowed number of persons in any gathering could shrink. There are states where groups larger than 5 or even 2 are forbidden. We will have to adjust the size of any gatherings to the number allowed by the Dept. of Health at that time.
Can a Christian be cremated?
We have had several people ask what is the Lutheran position on cremation. The major Lutheran Church bodies in the United states, the ELCA, LCMS, and NALC, do not take an official position for or against cremation. These church bodies hold that cremation is one of several options for end of life decisions.
This has not always been the case for the Christian church. In the early church, Christians were opposed to cremation. They believed that as Christ had a bodily burial, they also should have a bodily burial. The early Christians found themselves in a situation where they were surrounded by the Roman culture that practiced cremation as their primary means funeral rite. It was, therefore, important for these early Christians to distinguish themselves from the surrounding Roman culture. Part of the prohibition on cremation in the early church was to demonstrate that the followers of Christ were different from the pagan world that encircled them.
The question I think is more likely to haunt people these days in regard to cremation is, ‘does burning the body affect our ability to be raised up on the last day’? The fear is if the body is cremated and turned to ash rather than being placed in the ground, we will not be able to be raised up because our earthly shell has been destroyed.
Nothing can stop Jesus from raising you from the dead. Nothing that is done to your body can stop God from calling you into eternal life. You are baptized. Jesus has claimed you in those waters and will never let you go. Cremation will not prevent you from joining the resurrection.
St. Paul tells us in Romans 8: 35 - 39
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution,or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing in this world or the next can separate us from Jesus Christ. Christ is the one who has claimed us in the waters of baptism and nothing can take us from him. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “it is the will of Him who sent me, that I shall lose nothing of all that he has given me, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:39). Whether we are buried in a traditional casket, or our ashes are interred in a columbarium or in the ground, we belong to Jesus and he will never lose us.
We also have to consider the process of cremation is speeding up the natural process of decay that occurs to all of us. Cremation turns the body to the ash and dust that we will all eventually become. That is important because if my resurrection depended on the state of my earthly remains then all of us could be in trouble.
There are millions who have died and gone before of whom there are no earthly remains left. There may be some relics and bones of some of the early saints of the church, but most have crumbled to dust by now. We know that Jesus will be able to call them from the grave and raise them from the dead, no matter what condition their earthly remains are in –even if it is only dust.
We also can consider our own condition. We know Jesus will return one day. If Jesus returns to us in the year 10,000 AD, even if we were buried in a more traditional burial none of us will be any more than dust by that time. The world will most likely have forgotten all of who we were. Jesus will know us. Jesus can call even dust into his eternal life.
The question then is, “Do we become ash and dust now through cremation, or do we become dust through the process of time”? Either way, Jesus will find us and raise us up to his eternal life.
In the end, this is a personal decision for each of us and our family. We have to do what is right for us and our loved ones. Cremation does not place your salvation or resurrection at risk. Our Lord Jesus will find us and call us home no matter what, because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
At this point in my life, I have chosen to be buried when my time on earth is through. However, if that is not what happens to me, I know I will be okay, because whether I live or whether I die I belong to Jesus Christ.
May God bless and keep you now and always.
+Bishop Michael L. Rhyne