Many members have asked what is the Unificationist position on cremation. As a dynamic Movement relating to our Heavenly Parent, it is natural our traditions will continue to be reexamined and updated. Such is the case with our position on cremation.
The Tradition, published in 1985, was the first attempt to describe in an orderly form the official traditions of our faith – attendance, prayer, pledge, holy songs, holy salt, holy grounds, tithing, holy days and holidays, and birth and death rituals. It also put in writing for the first time our position on issues such as abortion, contraception, circumcision, as well as cremation.
Regarding cremation, it was declared to be “not in accordance with the Unification view, as it does not allow the physical body a natural return to the physical (material) world.”
After the ascension of Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 2012, the movement’s leadership passed to his wife, Mother Hak Ja Han Moon. On the one-year anniversary of Father’s ascension, Dr. Chang Shik Yang, former FFWPU Continental Director, North America, spoke with Mother and asked about cremation. She acknowledged that cremation has become common in Korea among members. Statistics are not available for the movement, but in the general population of Korea, almost 80% of people who die are cremated, while in Japan it is nearly 100%.
According to Seoul’s Hankyoreh newspaper, “A recent study shows eight out of every ten funerals is now carried out by cremation. It’s the result of a combination of factors, including changing family structures, more favorable perceptions among South Koreans, and a lack of space for burials.” There has been a big shift in South Koreans’ thinking due to Western influence and recently a strong government push to consider cremation as a way to save space. A law passed in 2000 requires anyone burying their dead after 2000 to remove the grave 60 years after burial.
Mrs. Moon said the choice of cremation is a personal and family decision and must be done with sensitivity and care. If cremation is the choice, then “it should be done with a sincere heartfelt prayer to heaven.” Members are called to respect this choice and honor the family’s decision with kindness and respect. She said that the remains should be treated with similar esteem and dignity as would be afforded the body in a traditional burial.
Mother’s updating of this position is of interest to members who might be considering choosing cremation for ecological, financial or philosophical reasons.
In giving her blessing, if that is the wish of the family, Mother has reaffirmed the importance to embrace the wishes of the family for the Seonghwa arrangements, and that the most important condition for the fulfillment of any tradition is the heart behind it.
Implications of Cremation
Based on the model of True Father’s Seonghwa, the service embraces four ceremonies:
- Ipjeon Ceremony: wash the body and place in casket.
- Gwihwan Ceremony: farewell ceremony for family.
- Seonghwa Ceremony: community send-off.
- Wonjeon Ceremony: interment ceremony.
Each ceremony has a deep richness of spirit that, based on our experience, unites the family and community closer together, and at the same time, comforts and envelops the ascended one with unconditional love. No matter how strongly we believe in the spirit world and the joy that we feel for our loved one as he/she begins life as an exclusively spiritual being, nevertheless, there is a sense of loss and grief that cannot be ignored. At the heart of each ceremony, we send off our loved one with a mixture of tears and gladness.
Now that cremation is accepted as an alternative option, members may decide to choose cremation for various reasons such as possible cost savings, availability of burial plots, and flexibility of timing of the service. If family members and friends live far away, cremation makes it possible to hold a service at a later date, but it is recommended to hold the Seonghwa Ceremony prior to cremation.
If cremation is chosen then obviously there will be changes to the Seonghwa service. For example, if the body is brought to the funeral home, the family can choose to proceed with the first three ceremonies – Ipjeon, Gwihwan, and Seonghwa.
The family may choose to have an open casket for the Ipjeon and Gwihwan but according to our tradition, the casket must be closed for the Seonghwa. After the Seonghwa ceremony, the body would then be sent for cremation. The final ceremony at the Wonjeon would be scheduled for a different date since it may take up to five business days to receive the remains. The family may choose to rent a casket or to purchase a wooden casket or alternative container, a non-metal enclosure – pressboard, cardboard or canvas.
If the family chooses direct cremation without a viewing or other ceremony where the body is present, then similarly the funeral home will offer casket options such as an inexpensive unfinished wood box or alternative container that is cremated with the body. In this case, the family could have the Ipjeon and Gwihwan ceremonies at the funeral home and crematorium for family and close friends. A farewell service could then be scheduled at a later date for the Seonghwa and Wonjeon ceremonies.
It’s difficult to conjure all the variations and scenarios. What’s important and crucial to this sendoff ceremony is the heart behind it. I’ve always appreciated Father’s words given December 18, 1998, in Washington, DC:
“(God) is happy because the moment of the physical body’s death is the moment we experience the joy of leaving the finite realm of love in order to enter the infinite realm of love. It is the moment of our second birth. Then is God happier on the day we are born into the physical world, or at that moment we leave our physical body behind? At that moment, we are born a second time into the realm of the infinite expansion of love. We become His new children through death. Of course, God is happier at the second birth. I am telling you this because you need to know that you cannot have a relationship with God unless you are released from the fear of death.”
The author scattered the commingled ashes of his parents, per their request, near their Ocean City, MD, home where they lived for many years. It was a beautiful ceremony attended by the family.
The Value of the Body
The Principle helps us understand that the body has an incalculably sacred and reverent purpose. Our physical body has served as a temple or vessel, which carried the spirit of Heavenly Parent’s son or daughter.
Nora Spurgin wrote in Insights Into the Afterlife that the physical body is a reflection of the spirit body which lives on after the death of the physical body. “The spiritual body has the same identity, the same vibration; it simply lives in a different dimension. The higher one’s development, or vibration, the brighter and more finely attuned will be his spirit.”
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, said, “Death is like putting away your winter coat when spring comes…. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow.”
In The Spirit-Person and The Spirit-World, Kerry Pobanz describes the relationship between the physical body and the spirit. Once the body ceases to function biologically, it has fulfilled its purpose.
At Heung Jin Moon’s Seonghwa Ceremony on Jan. 7, 1984, Father described the passing of life in the physical world to the spiritual world like “an insect coming out of its cocoon, getting rid of a shackle and becoming a new body and a new existence, a new entity.”
Although all faiths recognize the holy value of the body, today most accept cremation as an alternative to burial, including Baptist, Episcopalian, Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Conservative and Reform Judaism, Lutheran, Methodist, and Quaker.
Eastern Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, and Islam prohibit cremation. Mormons and Presbyterians do not prohibit cremation, but it is not encouraged.
Unificationism prohibited cremation for much of its history but now accepts it.
Historically some churches opposed cremation because of belief in physical resurrection. At some point, the thinking evolved that if God can resurrect a disintegrated skeleton after being buried for a 100 years, then He has the power to resurrect cremated remains as well.
For some, the evolution of thought concerning cremation has been whether the body slowly decomposing to its natural elements in the ground or rapidly by subjecting it to intense heat in a crematorium does not detract from its sacred nature.
Most faiths have concluded that, in the end, both methods fulfill the same objective: The body returns to the physical world. The difference in the process comes down to time: how quickly the process will take place – hours versus years.
I’ve been dealing with the Seonghwa ministry for many years and have seen situations when families chose cremation for different reasons, or situations where the member or family was no longer in the church and the children made the decision. In that case, the person had not taken the time to spell out their preference and the children who were not members decided to cremate.
The choice between burial and cremation is a highly personal decision. At this time in the Providence, True Mother considers cremation as an acceptable option to honor the body of a deceased Unificationist, if this is the family’s choice. It is a testimony to our Heavenly Parent’s infinite love.
Closing points: First, it is the responsibility of the family members to discuss what they want based on their spiritual beliefs, finances and philosophical concerns. Each family and each person is unique, so it is important to reach consensus on what will be done.
Second, whichever the final decision may be, it is imperative that the wishes are shared in writing. Writing a will, a living will (advance directive) and purchasing a cemetery plot are all important. This information and your details for a Seonghwa service should be shared in writing with family members and friends.♦
Dr. William P. Selig (UTS Classes of 1981 and 2012) is a hospital chaplain in the Washington, D.C. area. Chaplain Selig has been a member of the Unification Movement for more than 40 years. He graduated from the University of Maryland, and completed a two-year course of study in Religious Education and a Doctor of Ministry from the Unification Theological Seminary.
Sometimes, in old times, the decision to burn the bodies of the deceased was also based on whether those people had committed very evil acts. I thought that was a major reason for not cremating!
Many thanks for this, William. A number of times I have been asked about this myself since I am currently the local church pastor here in Wales, UK. Your words make an unclear situation very clear especially as you have pointed out that True Mother has now endorsed cremation as a possible alternative to the traditional burial albeit with the sensitive considerations needed regarding the family. A Korean leader some years ago, when asked about cremation, simply replied that it was quicker but, ultimately, no different to burial. The background context has added to the clarity and overall your message has cleared the way, for members who have considered cremation as an alternative to burial, to do so without the fear that they have or will have done something that goes against our Unification tradition.
Dr. Selig, for someone such as yourself, who has overseen the Washington, D.C., wonjeon for so many years, this abrupt shift on burial policy comes as a complete surprise. Whenever the church posts images of True Mother praying at True Father’s wonjeon in back of the Original Palace, it’s inspiring. Likewise, when members visit actual burial sites of their deceased, it affords an opportunity for them to commune and reflect. I was always taught the body should be left in its original death state so as to not interfere with the transition to the other world. Finally, has there been an official policy statement about what should be done with the ashes of the departed? Should they be kept in an urn on the offering table, or scattered in some providential location?
This generation that has attended True Parents is a precious one. Lineal descendants a thousand years hence may wish to visit the graves of their Tribal Messiahs. Are the wishes of the immediate family important or should we consider more deeply the will of heaven and of history? I am not sure that I know the answer here, but I think it important not to be too humanistic. Our society may not always be so ephemeral and transient as it is today. Maybe a bio-coffin and plant an oak tree over my head, giving my body back to the earth and helping the planet to breath!
Excellent article, Bill. But I have a question. In the article, you wrote, “The family may choose to have an open casket for the Ipjeon and Gwihwan but according to our tradition, the casket must be closed for the Seonghwa.”
At many of the Seonghwa’s that I’ve attended, the casket has been open during the ceremony and there has been a flower offering with congregants placing carnations in the casket. This also was the case in Japan for a Seonghwa I attended there.
Is the requirement that the casket “must be closed for the Seonghwa” a Washington, DC area practice or are you indicating that this is a universal requirement?
I’ve also attended Seonghwa ceremonies with both open and closed caskets. This is another area where personal decision must take precedence. The Tradition book clearly states that the casket is closed during the Seonghwa ceremony. It’s unfortunate The Tradition book doesn’t give any explanation or theological reason behind why the casket is closed or, for that matter, any aspect of the ceremony. For example, I’ve always been curious why it specifically states that the member’s blessing ring should be left on. This has never made any sense to me, but this is what it says. Now that cremation is an acceptable alternative, then this too must be reexamined. I’m of the opinion that members should bequeath their Blessing ring to their families as a treasured heirloom. If someone insists on being totally united with The Tradition book, then I’ve counseled members to simply purchase a second ring.
In the end, whether it’s to choose cremation, have an open casket during the Seonghwa, or what to do with the Blessing ring, I believe Mother’s wisdom is best, let the family decide and honor their wishes.
The rationale for believing that cremation is now acceptable seems to be that it is very common in Korea nowadays. But being told that cremation is acceptable because it’s become so “common” in Korea, or mandated by law in Japan, is nothing short of relativism. Does this mean that principled action is being determined by what’s popular rather than what’s actually principled?
Of course, any human being should be able to determine what is Principled or not — but, are we there yet? Are the members in Japan or Korea who are making cremation so common there yet? Is there anything more meaningful than law or popularity or laziness or finances that is making cremation so common? If not, can we really say these members are making an informed decision as to what’s Principled in this respect?
In all of our experiences dealing with Seonghwas, we found that there were variations in what was believed to be “essential” vs. “recommended” aspects and Unification vs. Asian tradition, as well as the practical and feasible. In the case of cremation, it is True Mother who has now said that it is acceptable. We could speculate whether her decision was based on what’s “common in Korea” or a message from True Father. We don’t know but I’m going to believe it’s the latter.
Shortly after Father’s passing, I attended a “national level” Seonghwa in Japan where the flowers were arranged by the same group that had prepared the incredible flowers for Father. The casket was open throughout and at the end we all placed a flower around the body of the deceased until only her face was visible in a sea of colour. We then went to the National Wonjeon, several hours outside of Tokyo. There I discovered that of our deceased members in Japan almost all have been cremated. For those deemed worthy of burial, there are three family members to one plot, so the first one in is much more than six foot under! For the rest there is a building with slots for the ashes of those cremated where they can be visited.
For my wife and myself, we have left instructions that we wish to be cremated, believing it to be immoral to think of the waste of land if all of the over 7 billion currently on earth were buried, let alone anyone in the future. We also have a type of insurance to pay for our funeral costs, so as not to burden our children — highly recommended with the price of funerals having risen in North America much faster than inflation, at least 50% since the year 2000.