To cremate or not to cremate?

Deuteronomy 34 records the death of Moses, the man of God. Moses had been forbidden entry into the Promised Land because of his unbelief (Numbers 20:12), but God did permit him to view the Land before he died. Having viewed it, Moses died and the Lord buried him so that “no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:5–6). While no one knew where Moses was buried, it was widely known that he was buried.

Burial is a common theme in the Scriptures. The English word “bury,” or a derivative thereof, is found some 165 times in the ESV. God’s people are often said in Scripture to have been buried. Examples include, Rachel (Genesis 35:19–20), Joseph (Genesis 50:25; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32), Aaron (Deuteronomy 10:6), Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5–8), Joshua (Joshua 24:30), Samuel (1 Samuel 25:1), David (1 Kings 2:10), John the Baptist (Matthew 14:12), Lazarus (John 11:17–18), Stephen (Acts 8:2), and, of course, Jesus Christ (John 19:38–42). It is certainly safe to say that “the custom of the Jews” was burial (John 19:40).

Of course, burial is not the only funerary rite known to man. The mummification process in ancient Egypt is well attested. Another ancient means of disposal, which is still commonly practised today, is cremation. It is probably safe to say that the two real options that exist today for the disposal of a corpse are burial and cremation.

The question of whether it is right for a Christian to be cremated is hotly debated. To be sure, cremation has certain tangible benefits, but it is argued by many that the Bible’s heavy emphasis on burial indicates that burial, as opposed to cremation, is God’s intention for believers.

Biblical considerations

It cannot be disputed that the traditional Jewish and Christian practice has been burial. That is not to say, however, that cremation is unmentioned in Scripture. There are a handful of references to cremation in the Bible.

When Achan stole some of the devoted things at the conquest of Jericho, God’s command was that “he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire,” which they did (Joshua 7:15, 25). It can be argued that Achan was denied a burial, and instead cremated, as an act of divine judgement. Cremation in this text can hardly be viewed positively.

A second  (possible) reference to cremation can be found in 1 Samuel 31:11–12, with reference to the disposal of the bodies of Saul and his sons. Interestingly, when David’s men recovered their bodies, they still buried them, which suggests that the cremation was only partial.

In Amos 2:1–3, God pronounced woe on Moab “because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.” The reference to cremation here is unambiguous, and it is clearly condemned by God. This is about as close as Scripture gets to actually condemning  cremation.

A fourth possible mention of cremation can be found later in the same book. In 6:10, Amos makes mention of “one’s relative, the one who anoints him for burial,” or who “burns the body” (see NIV, NKJV). It is possible that the reference here may be to burning incense as a means of anointing for burial rather than actually burning the body.

It is perhaps significant that death by fire is frequently an act of direct divine judgement in Scripture. Examples of this include Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1–2), a man who married a woman and her mother (Leviticus 20:14), a daughter of a priest guilty of prostitution (Leviticus 21:9), some who complained against Moses (Numbers 11:1–3), and some in the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16:35). These acts of judgement did not constitute cremation as we know it; nevertheless, the burning of bodies is seen in these texts as the instrument of God’s judgement.

Burial was the primary funerary rite in the Bible, and burning of bodies is almost always mentioned negatively. Some have even argued from Deuteronomy 21:23 that the Bible commands burial, but the truth is that that verse assumes rather than commands it. It is true that some in the Bible went to great pains to ensure a proper burial (see Genesis 23:3–18; Genesis 50:25; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32), but even then burial is assumed and not commanded.

Historical considerations

While it is clear that the Jews favoured burial, it is known historically that the Greeks and the Romans favoured cremation. In the new covenant world, the general Jewish disdain for cremation was naturally carried over into Christianity. In fact, it has been argued that the expansion of Christianity can be followed in general terms by an examination of burial practices in the Roman Empire, for where the gospel moved, cremation was generally replaced by burial.

Tertullian was the first church father to expressly denounce cremation, but he was not the last. Many church fathers followed suit. Under Charlemagne, cremation was declared to be a capital offence.1 In medieval Christianity, believers were buried while heretics were denied burial and instead burned at the stake. The Reformers assumed this unfavourable view of cremation.

In 1886, the Roman Catholic Church issued the following declaration on cremation: “The bodies of the faithful must be buried, their cremation is forbidden…. Anyone who has requested that his body shall be cremated shall be deprived of ecclesiastical burial unless he has shown signs of repentance before death.”2 While this was overturned by Pope Paul VI in 1963, burial is still decidedly favoured by Catholics, and cremation only permitted “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”3 The widespread acceptance of cremation in Christianity is relatively new.

Theological considerations

If the Bible nowhere expressly commands burial or forbids cremation, why have Christians historically favoured the former over the latter? There are at least two theological considerations that have guided Christian thinking in the past.

First, Christians recognise the dignity of the human body. The human body bears, in some sense, the image of God. God took great care to form a body for Adam and Eve, and did so in his image. Jesus Christ was given a human body, and the Spirit of God indwells our bodies at conversion. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and is not to be treated lightly.

Second, Christians are concerned about a bodily resurrection. God intends to give his children glorified bodies (2 Corinthians 5:1–5; Philippians 3:21; 1 Thessalonians 4:16). Paul uses the analogy of a seed, which is planted and brings forth fruit (1 Corinthians 15:35–43). Similarly, the human body is “planted” in the ground dead in the belief that it will one day sprout to life.

Some have suggested that cremation is a denial of the resurrection, but it is difficult to seriously suggest that that this is always so. A cremated body is no more difficult for God to raise than a buried body, which itself returns to dust (Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 3:19–21).

Practical considerations

While we do well to avoid doing things for pragmatic reasons, there is no doubt some value in considering some of the practical reasons in favour (and against) each position.

Burial more easily lends itself to the creation of a permanent marker to remember the life and death of the deceased for generations to come. In Genesis, several generations of Abraham’s family were buried on the land purchased by Abraham for Sarah’s burial. Burial in a cemetery provides opportunity for loved ones to visit frequently. While it is possible to create such a scenario with ashes after cremation, it is certainly easier to do so with burial.

On the other hand, cremation is usually less expensive than burial. For some, such economic considerations may be a serious issue. If it is necessary to delay the funeral service for any significant length of time, cremation lends itself more to such delays than burial.

As important as it is for many to have a permanent memorial spot for deceased loved ones, it may be equally important for others that the ashes of their loved one be returned to and scattered at a designated spot. For example, a person may wish for his ashes to be scattered in the ocean upon his death. It is easier to scatter ashes than to dump a body!

Additionally, concerns about land availability for burial, and even a particular country’s legal restrictions, may play into decisions about funerary rites.

Concluding considerations

Three things can probably be said in favour of burial. First, the church has historically favoured burial over cremation. Second, the examples in Scripture lend greater support to burial than cremation. Third, it can be argued that burial shows more respect to the body than cremation.

With that said, it arguably best to treat this as a matter of conscience. While it is not wrong to have defined biblical convictions, and even to reason with others about those convictions, it does not fall to us to pass judgement on those who differ.

The Bible cannot legitimately be used as a proof text for either position. And perhaps more important than funerary rites is the meaning applied to them. As Timothy George has concluded,

Whether final disposition is by burial or cremation, the Christian church should offer a funeral liturgy in which the reality of death is not camouflaged, and the resurrection of the body is affirmed. We solemnize the departure of our loved ones by reminding ourselves that we brought nothing into this world, and that we can carry nothing out. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”4

  1. Henry R. Loyn and John Percival, The Reign of Charlemagne (New York: St. Martins, 1975), 52.
  2. Corpus Juris Canonici 1203, 1; 1240, 1.
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2301.
  4. Timothy George, “Cremation Confusion: Is it Unscriptural for a Christian to Be Cremated?” http://goo.gl/ZK39YU, retrieved 3 October 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve : *
35 ⁄ 7 =