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I inhaled as I stepped behind the pulpit, ready for a fight. It was a sermon series on the end times, and I knew there'd be controversy. I looked out at the elderly man in the fourth pew with his Scofield Reference Bible in tow, the woman in the back with her John Hagee book on the Middle East crisis, the teenager in the front with the Left Behind video game on his computer at home.

I expected an onrush of feedback after the service. "I can't believe you don't believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture!" "You mean you don't think the land belongs to the Jewish state?!" "What do you mean you don't think 666 is a microchip in the arm?"

I was wrong.

There was controversy, but it wasn't one of comparing prophecy charts. My hearers were most provoked by what I said, in passing, about an issue we rarely think of as eschatological: cremation.

While speaking of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the flesh, I called my hearers to reconsider what their funeral plans testified about their hope for the future. I reiterated a position — long-held in the history of the church — that burial, not cremation, best pictures the imagery of death as a sleep from which one is awakened at the last trumpet. You would have thought I had tried to lead the service through an invitation hymn to the Blessed Virgin (with every head bowed and every eye closed).

As I talked to my congregants, though, I realized what was controversial was not my position. Many, if not most of them, already knew intuitively that our culture's rush toward cremation should take more careful thought than Christians have given it. What alarmed my people was the thought of people they knew, now sitting in urns on their mantles or scattered across the Pacific Ocean or ...

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April 2009

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