When people think of a funeral, they often picture a grand ceremony where the deceased’s casket is carefully lowered into a prepared gravesite with a headstone. Most American Protestants used to choose this as their preferred way of burying a loved one. In recent times, that attitude has slowly been changing due to a number of factors.
In fact, it's estimated that by 2035, cremation rates in the United States will soar to around 79.1%. There are a number of driving factors to this, but the most prominent one is certainly the cost of a funeral. A casket alone can cost around $2,000 but will quickly rise to $10,000 for a high-quality one that is personalized to the deceased. This is in addition to cemetery fees, paying for the service, embalming for viewing, and also paying for a headstone. As you can see, a typical funeral can be incredibly expensive and there is limited support for helping families pay for it.
As such, cremations are becoming an increasingly popular funeral option and burial method. But what are Protestant views on cremation in America and why is it becoming more common?
A brief history of Protestantism views on death
In the past, society had become affixed with the idea of death. The Roman Catholic Church had an important role in mediating between both the living and the dead. This place, known as purgatory, was a place of purification for souls that were preparing themselves for entry to heaven. By endowing those in purgatory with prayers from family and friends, the suffering could be reduced. In the late Middle Ages, it was even possible to purchase special gifts of pardon or indulgences, and these were common commodities sold by the Church.
It was during this time that Protestantism arose. This was a group that sought to separate itself from the Roman Catholic Church. These reformers challenged the Church’s control over certain concerns such as death. They asserted that God saved souls by an unmerited gift of grace and not through church practices. They rejected the idea of purgatory and no longer purchased indulgences or provided alms for the poor as to be remembered. To the reformers, a calm and peaceful death was considered a good one.
The main point of difference between Catholicism and Protestantism during this time was the focus on the living or the dead. While Catholic churches prepared the deceased for entry into eternal life, Protestants focused on preaching to the living. Performative rituals were abandoned in favor of remembering the deceased and learning from their example. As medicine advanced, society began to see death not as a spiritual transition to the afterlife, but as a scientific challenge. As of the twenty-first century, both Catholics and Protestants now focus on the living during funeral services.
Protestant funeral customs
Protestants tend to focus on celebrating the life of the deceased as a funeral custom. The theme of the funeral revolves around rejoicing that a loved one has entered Heaven. They are most likely held in a place of worship such as a church or chapel. However, they can also be held in a funeral home as well if it supports the service.
A viewing (also known as visitation) is sometimes held on the day before or immediately preceding the service. In this situation, an open casket may be open. This allows friends and family members to receive closure and say their final goodbye while paying their respects. This typically requires the deceased to be embalmed, a process that can cost between $200 and $700. If the remains are kept in refrigeration until the time of the funeral, the service must conclude within five hours of the body being moved. Sometimes, a viewing may also be held with a closed casket. Protestants do have the choice of cremation. In this case, an urn or pictures may be used instead of a casket.
Protestants burials in the United States
Protestants made up roughly 43% of the country’s population in 2019. This accounts for roughly 141 million people which is a staggering number. As such, it’s safe to say that the projected increase in cremation rates will partially come from Protestants around the country. However, despite this large percentage, the number of people that identify as Protestant has been slowly declining over the past few years. In 2007, just over half the population at 51% identified as Protestant. That results in an 8% drop in just 12 years. When put into numbers, that’s roughly 9 million fewer people.
A typical Protestant burial involves many steps. Their focus is to both honor and respects the deceased while also celebrating their life. It typically opens with a statement on behalf of the family and those attending, then prayers, scripture, and songs or hymns are read and sung throughout the service. Readings from the Bible are also common in Protestant funeral services and a eulogy or time of remembrance is usually given to honor the life of the deceased.
While a traditional Protestant burial can be fairly complex, it is organized nonetheless and involves many different services and purchases. According to research and studies, the median funeral cost with a service and burial was $7,640. However, the article states that you may want to consider it a base price as it can quickly rise to $10,000 or $12,000. In comparison, the cost of a direct cremation can vary between $495 and $1,500 depending on your location. According to the same article, a cremation with a service can cost around $1,000 less–a considerable saving if you still want to have a service but avoid paying to have the body buried.
While Protestants do try to stick with their traditions, it’s difficult to escape some of the factors that steer Americans closer to cremation as opposed to a full-service funeral. Considering a large number of Protestants in the country, many of them are subject to the same financial restrictions that have made cremations increasingly popular. A direct cremation can be a fraction of the cost, yet it can still offer loved one’s peace and comfort in a number of ways. For example, a cremation urn can be a keepsake that stores the ashes of your loved one. This can be a comforting way to keep their remains with you at all times. If you plan to move to a different part of the country, you don’t need to return to the same gravesite to pay your respects. In addition, you can turn the ashes of your loved one into jewelry if preferred. This gives you the opportunity to keep your loved one close to you at all times in the form of a necklace that holds the ashes itself or uses the ashes together with a form of resin to create beautiful cremation jewelry.
Protestant views on Cremation
In general, Protestants tend to indicate that there is certainly a preference for burials. This is especially true in conservative denominations. However, Protestant churches in the modern day are far more neutral towards cremation. They neither condemn nor commend it for members of the Protestant tradition. As one can expect, there are many different denominations which are founded as a result of different ways to interpret the Bible. It’s only natural to assume that there are some denominations that are more conservative and stick to traditional interpretations, while others may find modern meaning in the passages.
Initially, cremation was favored in a number of towns and cities where there was little land or cemeteries were crowded. Cremations were also preferred during war times where the deceased would quickly overwhelm funeral services and there wasn’t enough space to bury all of the bodies. The same issue occurred as a result of the Spanish Flu between the years 1918 and 1920.
Historically, the Catholic church was strict about burying the deceased in a blessed plot with an upright monument. They were adamant about being against cremation. However, these rules have become slightly more relaxed in recent years due to a number of different factors, such as the practicality of a blessed burial, the space required, and also the financial aspect. In comparison, the Protestant Faith adopted cremation as a direct result of World War I. Due to the number of deceased in the war, it was far more practical to cremate the bodies instead of burying them. The ashes were then scattered, buried into the ground with an upright monument, or placed in a mausoleum or columbarium.
Comparing Protestant and Catholic views
Despite being under the term Christianity, the faith is divided into multiple branches with the two most common being Catholicism and Protestantism. In general, Christian funerals have several similarities depending on how conservative the denomination is.
Protestants often take a relaxed approach, allowing members of the faith to choose how they wish to proceed with a funeral. They also have more control over the cremated remains. If a person is to be cremated, their remains can be kept by the family. One popular option is to keep the remains in keepsake urns or use the remains for cremation jewelry such as keychains. This allows members of the family and close friends to always keep the deceased close to them at all times. It also allows for easier transportation of the deceased’s remains instead of burying them at a gravesite that they may move away from in the future.
On the contrary, Catholics have fewer options and must abide by a strict set of rules. For instance, cremation guidelines state that Catholics cannot scatter cremated remains and they must be stored in a church-approved place. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, adamantly encourages Catholics to bury the deceased as opposed to cremation. In his words, this is to “avoid any form of pantheistic or naturalistic or nihilistic misunderstanding”. However, a bishop may allow ashes to be kept at home in extraordinary cases. Should a person be cremated, Catholics believe that their remains should be treated the same as that of the deceased in a casket during the funeral rites. While accepting of cremation, the church encourages that the full body of the deceased is present during the funeral service and is cremated only once the rites are completed.
While both considered Christianity, it shows that there are vastly different views regarding cremation when comparing Protestants and Catholics. Protestantism takes a more practical approach to cremation. It understands that there are impracticalities around the burial of a loved one. It also understands that there are times where cremation is preferred due to world circumstances, such as a pandemic or during war time. Catholics, on the other hand, have a more conservative approach to cremation. This is based on the Church’s belief in the resurrection of Christ and was a stance that only recently changed in 1963.
Hopefully, this article has shown that Protestants take a fairly relaxed stance on cremation. As a result of the financial implications of a full-service funeral and the practicality of cremation, it is far more common to cremate a body than to perform a full funeral. As a result of this, it’s becoming much more popular to purchase cremation jewelry or urns to hold the ashes of the deceased. This allows you to keep your loved ones close to you at all times and makes it much easier to carry the ashes when they need to be transported. A single vial of the deceased’s ashes is enough to make up to 30 different pieces of jewelry. This makes it practical to offer each family member and friend something special and unique to remember the deceased by.