As a pastor I have the honorable task of walking with families through grief at the times of death. Funerals and memorial services are commonplace in a church with diverse ages in it's congregation. As I meet with family members to plan these services, I am asked often about the biblical view of cremation. This end-of-life option is considered more and more and those who follow Christ are seeking to know if this is a good or even acceptable option.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible gives no specific teaching about cremation. There are a few instances that many often reference when seeking biblical evidence one way or the other regarding this practice. Saul and Jonathan were killed by the Philistines and their bodies mutilated. The people of Israel then decided to cremate their bodies and bury their ashes (1 Samuel 31:8-13). Another story focuses upon Achan and his family who were cremated, but in this case after being executed for sinning against Israel (Joshua 7:25).
Cremation was practiced throughout the known world during biblical times, but not commonly by the Israelites or the New Testament believers. The cultural norm for these people at this time was burial in a cave, tomb or in ground. In many cases, the bodies would decompose and the remains were then placed in an ossuary (bone box) and buried in the tomb. This would have been the case with Joseph of Arimathea's tomb where Jesus was buried. At the time of Christ's burial, it was a new, unused tomb and therefore no ossuaries in the back area of other family members of Joseph.
Ultimately, there are no scriptural commands against cremation.
Cremation & the Church
For centuries, the majority of Christians have opposed the practice of cremation. There are various reasons given for such opposition. In the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans practiced cremation in that they believed in the immortality of the soul, but saw no value in the body. Hindus, even today, practice cremation as part of their belief in reincarnation. Of course, not all non-Christian religious groups cremated. The Egyptians went to the other extreme of mummifying the bodies of their dead and constructing elaborate tombs for the rich.
Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School wrote about the practice of cremation for Christianity Today back in 2002 (Read full article here.) He addressed the concerns early Christians had regarding the practice:
Why were Christians so concerned about proper disposal of the body? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human was created by God, bore his image, and deserved to be treated with respect because of this. (2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever. (3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor. (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come.
Early martyrs were often burned at the stake, as we know. In the days of the early church, when cremation was associated with pagan rituals, burial was an option that separated Christians from the world, at least in theory.
But what about today? George continues. . .
But what about today? The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few persons (mostly liberals and freethinkers) chose cremation. But that has changed dramatically. Only 5 percent of Americans were cremated in 1962; by 2000 it was 25.5 percent. In Japan, where burial is sometimes illegal, the cremation rate is 98 percent. The rise in cremations reflects many factors: concern for land use; the expense of traditional funerals; the loss of community and a sense of "place" in modern transient society; and New Age-type spiritualities.
While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation. Since 1963 the Roman Catholic Church has permitted cremation while "earnestly recommending" burial as the preferred mode of disposal. Billy Graham has noted (what Christians have always believed) that cremation cannot prevent a sovereign God from calling forth the dead at the end of time.
It is clear why many believers struggle in feeling comfortable with cremation. What we know, as stated above, is that any buried body will eventually decompose. Therefore, cremation isn't a strange or wrong practice for Christians. It does speed up the natural process of decomposition through oxidation. We know the children of God, the believers in Christ, will one day be resurrected. A new body will be given to each child of God (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). Throughout history, believers have died in various ways and have been buried in the ground, in caves, at sea and cremated. We know that God will have no problem whatsoever in the creation and redemption of His children's new bodies, so the state of the remains of the dead is unimportant.
In Michael Wittmer's book Becoming Worldly Saints, he speaks of the spiritual bodies and the resurrection. His points are well formed:
Whenever I speak on death and resurrection, someone usually asks whether it is okay to use cremation. I say it depends. We're not making God's job impossibly difficult when we choose cremation, because we know he will resurrect millions of people who have died in fires, been digested by animals, or decomposed all the way to nothing. It depends on our motive. We might choose cremation to honor the person. The proper way to dispose of an old flag is not to throw it in the trash but to burn it. Just so, we might cremate our loved one as the ultimate sign of respect. We might do it to save space (as is common in China) or money (as is common in West Michigan), and this is fine, too.
However, we should never choose cremation because we think the body of our loved one is unimportant. Their dead body is not merely the shell that once housed their true self. This is a Platonic, pagan view that I have argued against in this book. That body in the casket matters to enough to God that he has centered the entire Christian hope upon its resurrection. That body is a vital part of our loved one, and we should handle it as those who plan to see it again.
We should also keep the ashes of our loved one together. When we scatter them across their favorite lake or patch of grass, we are unwisely depicting a pantheistic worldview in which humans are one with nature. We're not. We are uniquely made in the image of God, and we must preserve that honor even in death. When we place their urn in a cemetery or columbarium, we treat our beloved with the dignity that humans deserve. Ant that place becomes resurrection ground.
What We Must Focus Upon
Ultimately, what we as believers must focus upon, even in the midst of grieving the loss of loved ones is not how to dispose of our earthly bodies, but that one day our new bodies will be fashioned as Christ's resurrected body was. It is an eternal transformation and leads us to a deeper understanding why Solomon said it is good to go to a house of mourning at times (Ecclesiastes 7:2).