When will the casket arrive?” I asked the funeral director some years ago at the grave site of the member of an unchurched family. The funeral home had contacted me to do the service. The director pointed to a small box next to my feet and replied, “There it is. The deceased was cremated.” After that service, the director and I got into a discussion about cremation. Thus began my interest in the subject, and the director later asked me to present a professional development workshop for funeral directors on the subject of Christianity and cremation. This article is the fruit of that study.
Cremation is an increasingly hot topic, especially among Bible-believing Christians. The unbelieving world seems to have largely accepted the practice. The inevitable comes to all of us sooner or later: a loved one or relative dies, and you must decide on funeral arrangements. Should you plan a traditional burial or cremation? Is your decision simply a choice between two options, or do important factors need to be examined?
Should cost and convenience be the deciding factors?
Questions and considerations
I want to answer four questions: First, Do the Scriptures allow for cremation? Second, Do the Scriptures prohibit cremation? Third, What is the difference between letting a body decay at its own rate and cremating it, when the end result is the same? Fourth, What view of cremation has Christianity historically taken? Should that view influence our thinking today?
To answer these questions we must first examine the Biblical data on the subject and then look at how Christians have understood and implemented that teaching.
Biblical pattern of burial
An overview of the Old Testament unearths the fact that the normal process of caring for a body at death was prompt burial. This practice usually took place on the day of death or within twenty-four hours (Deuteronomy 21:22, 23).
The examples of this are clear:
- Abraham was buried (Genesis 25:8–10).
- Sarah was buried (Genesis 23:1–4).
- Rachel was buried (Genesis 35:19, 20).
- Isaac was buried (Genesis 35:28, 29).
- Jacob was buried (Genesis 49:33; 50:4–13).
- Joseph was buried (Genesis 50:26).
- Joshua was buried (Joshua 24:29, 30).
- Eleazar was buried (Joshua 24:33).
- Samuel was buried (1 Samuel 25:1).
- David was buried (1 Kings 2:10).
Additional observation reveals that God Himself practiced burial upon the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5, 6). Even when burials were difficult, people still performed them (see the promise of Joseph’s burial, Genesis 50:24 and 25, and the burial carried out, Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32). To not receive a proper burial was a matter of great shame (Isaiah 14:18–20; Jeremiah 16:4).
New Testament patterns are consistent with the Old Testament:
- John the Baptist was buried (Matthew 14:10–12).
- Lazarus was buried (John 11:17).
- Jesus was buried (Matthew 27:57–60; 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4).
- Foreigners were buried (Matthew 27:5–7).
- Ananias and Sapphira were buried (Acts 5:5–10).
- Stephen was buried (Acts 8:2).
Biblical examples of cremation
“Cremation” as a word is not found in the Bible. However, the burning of bodies is mentioned and in such contexts is a symbol of judgment (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7:15, 25; 1 Kings 13:2, 3). Here the interpreter is reminded to exercise care when applying these truths to our present age. Except for the verses in Joshua, these references refer to live bodies being burned, not to corpses. This is especially true of the 1 Kings passages. It is not correct to say the Old Testament situation is exactly the same as ours today.
Some people believe that 1 Samuel 31:11–13 gives credence to cremation. However, upon close examination, we learn that it was a highly unusual circumstance and cannot be considered normative.
Another text to note is 2 Chronicles 16:14. Here the phrase “a very great burning for him” does not refer to cremation but to a demonstration of honor in the burning of incense (cf. 2 Chronicles 21:19; Jeremiah 34:5). Amos 2:1 clearly notes that the practice of cremation brought punishment. Another possible text that illustrates cremation is Amos 6:10. Yet here the context seems to be that of disease with accompanying infection, and this health factor or the special judgment of God is the reason burning was preferred.
The New Testament does not mention cremation. First Corinthians 13:3 says, “And though I give my body to be burned,” but the context refers to martyrdom, not cremation.
The normal pattern in both the Old Testament and New Testament was burial. When the Bible refers to a human body or an object being destroyed by fire, it is most often a sign of divine wrath (upon living people, not bodies). Note the following examples:
- Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Peter 2:6)
- Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1, 2)
- The men who rebelled with Korah (Numbers 16:35)
- Idols (Exodus 32:20; Deuteronomy 7:25; 2 Kings 10:26; 1 Chronicles 14:12)
- Magic books (Acts 19:18, 19)
- The unsaved cast into the Lake of Fire for eternal punishment (Revelation 20:15)
For the believer in Jesus Christ, burial symbolizes the promise of resurrection through anticipating the preservation of the body (Job 19:25–27; 1 Corinthians 15:51–55). Cremation, however, symbolizes the pagan worldview of reincarnation. Cremation better symbolizes pantheism, which in its Eastern forms is usually associated with a salvation from the body by escaping the cycle of reincarnation. So, while those who believe in resurrection look forward to the restoration of the body (Romans 8:11), reincarnationists look forward to being relieved from their bodies.
Burial also highlights the sanctity of the body (Genesis 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). While God has no problem resurrecting the cremated, cremation does not point to the resurrection of the body by God. Ultimately the believer’s hope rests in the one-to-one correspondence between the body that dies, being “sown in corruption” (1 Corinthians 15:42, 44), and the glorified body that rises (1 Corinthians 15:51–55).
Christianity and cremation
Early Christians viewed not only life as sacred but the human body as well, even at death. Believing Christ’s promise that He would raise them and all the dead on Judgment Day, they buried their deceased rather than cremate them. This is in stark contrast to the Roman culture. Their pagan belief that the body was a curse and the soul needed to be free from the body was their basis for cremation. Consequently, they attempted to use fire as a process of purification to release the soul from the body.
Christians, on the other hand, strongly opposed cremation. Similar to their Hebrew ancestors, they saw it as a pagan custom, and given the sanctity they assigned to the human body (alive or dead), they also rejected it for its violence and cruelty. Christians opposed cremation because they saw it as contrary to their firm faith in the resurrection of the body, a faith that their Roman persecutors sometimes mocked by defiantly burning the bodies of executed martyrs.
The influence of early Christianity on culture
So strong was the Christians’ belief that the dead were “asleep,” waiting to be resurrected, that they called every burial place a koimeterion, a word borrowed from the Greek that meant “a dormitory,” (where people slumbered).
Koimeterion became “cemetery” in the English language. Thus, every time people use the word “cemetery,” they are using a term that looks back to the early Christians and their belief that the dead are merely slumbering until the day of their resurrection.
With the spread of Christianity, cremation became increasingly rare by the third century and virtually disappeared in the fourth century as a result of Constantine’s Edict of Milan and the legalization of Christianity.
The practice of burying people continued, and in the eighth century Charlemagne the Great, who strongly supported Christian doctrine, made cremation a capital crime.
Not until the 1800s was cremation brought back into Western countries.
The increase of cremation in contemporary culture
Before 1930 in the United States, cremation was considered bizarre. In 1996 about 22 percent of the dead in the United States were cremated, and it is estimated that by 2010 the number will climb to nearly 40 percent. With the growing practice of cremation, many no longer see it as unusual.
What accounts for the recent increase in cremation practices? Among many Christians it probably reflects a lack of knowledge about how strongly the early Christians believed in rejecting the custom. This includes Biblical perspective on the normative nature of burial and the practical implications of the doctrine of the Resurrection.
The acceptance of cremation also reflects a permissive church posture. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church, which once strongly condemned cremation, in 1963 made an about-face regarding it not only by accepting it but also by producing an order of worship for the practice. Other major factors in the acceptance of cremation are geographic, economic, environmental, and family. It became an attractive option for families when a loved one would die far away from home. Transporting cremated remains is considerably less expensive and much simpler than dealing with a body.
To return to our original questions,
1. Do the Scriptures prohibit cremation?
While there are no specific New Testament commands for the believer, cremation was a rare occurrence and viewed either negatively or as highly unusual.
2. Do the Scriptures allow for cremation?
While there are no specific New Testament commands for the believer, our study demonstrates that cremation was not the normal or accepted means of caring for a body upon death. The Scriptures clearly report burial as the usual practice.
3. What is the difference between letting a body decay at its own rate and cremating it, when the end result is the same?
It is not a question of “end result,” but a question of motive and ownership. When something does not belong to us but is only borrowed from its rightful owner, we certainly have no right to destroy it. If the owner destroys his or her own possession, that is the owner’s prerogative, but such freedom does not belong with the borrower.
This is true of death and the Christian’s body. The body is not ours to desecrate or destroy. If God chooses to allow a Christian to die in a house fire, that is His prerogative. But the Christian has no such freedom to choose to destroy his or her own body. Romans 14:8 reminds us that this is true both in life and in death: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20).
4. What view of cremation has Christianity historically taken?
Historic Christianity not only opposed cremation, but Christians so influenced the culture that the practice of cremation was dramatically reduced. Along with their belief in the resurrection of the body, Christians wanted to be faithful to the longstanding Biblical practice of placing the dead person back into the earth to “return to the ground” from which God had created him or her (Genesis 3:19).
In light of these truths, in the face of death, and before a culture that has drifted far from its Christian origins, believers today have a unique occasion to publicly demonstrate their hope in life after death through the practice of Christian burial.
For Further Reading
Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
Cremation Association of North America at http://www.cremationassociation.org.
Rodney Decker, “Is It Better to Bury or to Burn? A Biblical Perspective on Cremation and Christianity in Western Culture” at www.ntresources.com. Dr. Decker is associate professor of New Testament at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. His paper is an excellent expanded treatment of this topic.
Donald A. Shirk is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Batavia, New York.
What happens in cremation?
A crematorium doesn’t look different from any other building in an office park or on a busy city street—but often local zoning guidelines restrict where a crematorium may be located.
Though a casket may have been used for a funeral service held earlier, the body is afterwards removed from the casket and placed in a cardboard box for incineration.
The cremation oven is known as a retort. At some point prior to the actual process, the funeral director asks the family to visually identify the body and sign a waiver confirming that the correct body will be cremated.
When slid into the chamber at 1400 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, the box incinerates in seconds. The complete process takes several hours.
After the chamber cools, the technician passes a large magnet over the remains to extract metal body parts left from earlier medical procedures, as well as any ingested metals.
Funeral directors keep a running collection of metal and titanium body replacement parts, some of which can be recycled.
Remaining bones are sent into a grinder chute, which pulverizes the remains into small pieces the size of aquarium gravel. The resulting material, known as cremains, is not actually “ashes and dust, ” but is more properly called calcium compounds.
Family members often purchase decorative urns for display or safekeeping of the cremains. Or the family may choose to bury the urn or store it in a columbarium, a niche inside a cemetery building, usually with a memorial nameplate.