Is Cremation Okay for a Christian?

Question:  Is it okay for a Christian to be cremated?  What does the Bible say?  ~ Pastor S. from Fluvanna, VA

Answer:  This is an interesting question that is being asked more frequently.  With the rising cost of funerals many people—including Christian believers—are considering cremation as an acceptable alternative to the traditional funeral and burial.  But how are we to view this practice?  Does the Bible have anything to say about cremation?

First of all, it must be emphasized that the Bible does not explicitly condone or condemn the practice of cremation.  However, there are biblical teachings that are relevant to this issue that should be considered.  There is also the witness of both Jewish and Christian custom that must be taken into account.

Among the ancient Jews cremation was virtually unknown.  This is probably one reason why the Scriptures have so little to say about the matter.  It was an unknown quantity for the Jewish people.  When a person died, it was just the custom that they be buried.  Indeed, this was so common a practice that in referring to the burial of Jesus, John makes notes of this practice being the common custom of the Jews (John 19:40).  Indeed, burial was a distinguishing feature of Jewish culture.  The Roman historian Tacitus noted that the “Jews prefer to bury and not burn their dead” (History 5.5).  However, while the Bible itself is largely silent on the matter, it is interesting to note that extra-biblical Jewish writings did speak of cremation and presented it as pagan and idolatrous.

The Bible does refer to the burning of bodies or the burning of human bones in several places.  Generally the practice is viewed within a narrow range of context:  A necessity caused by pestilence, the exigencies of war, or the judgment of God.  You may want to consider these passages in this regard:  Joshua 7:24-26, 1 Samuel 31:8-13, 1 Kings 13:1-2, 2 Kings 23:15-20.  The burning of the bodies of Saul and his son was probably done to keep them from desecration by the Philistines.  Notice that David later took the bones of Saul and Jonathan and had them reburied with appropriate honor (2 Chronicles 21:12-14).  Amos 2:1 does speak of the burning of bones as something offensive to God and eliciting His judgment.  Whether this is to be viewed as a universal principle or particular to this situation is a matter of debate among biblical scholars.

The proper preparation and burial of the human body was not only a tradition among the ancient Jews and early Christians, but was considered a sacred duty.  One early example is the case of Abraham.  As a nomadic wanderer in Canaan, Abraham did not have any permanent property in the land.  So when Sarah died, he had to decide how to handle her body.  Cremation would have been an easy and reasonable option here.  However, he negotiated with Ephron the Hittite to purchase a piece of land where he could bury his wife (see Genesis 23).   This was evidently of great importance to the patriarch.  In addition to Abraham himself, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah would all be buried in this same place.  Burial in the Land of Promise was important enough to Jacob that he directed that he not be buried in Egypt, but that his body be returned to the family burial site in Canaan (Genesis 49:29-32, cf. 50:2-14).  Joseph also expressed a similar wish (Genesis 50:24-26).  This desire of Joseph was fulfilled centuries later when the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, more than forty years after the Exodus (Joshua 24:32).  Was the body of Joseph a burden to deal with?  Certainly.  The Israelites carried the coffin containing his remains around for over forty years—yet to bury Joseph in Canaan was of great importance to them.  These are only a few examples of the sacredness and significance of burial among the ancient Israelites.  The Scriptures contain many more such incidences.

By the first century A.D. the Jews had developed very elaborate rituals for dealing with their dead.  The body had to be properly (and lovingly) prepared.  The body was washed, anointed with oils and unguents, wrapped in cloth, and buried in some fashion—often in a cave or a man-made tomb.  One of the main reasons for their care for the dead was the expectation of the future resurrection.  In anticipation of this end-time occurrence, they wanted the body and bones of their loved ones preserved and prepared for the time when all the dead would rise from their graves.  They also developed the practice of caring for the bones of the deceased even after the body had completely decomposed.  Family would return to the grave years after the burial and collect the bones of their loved ones and place them in stone boxes, called ossuaries.  Again, this was done in expectation of the resurrection of the dead.

Perhaps the most significant example of funeral practice in the Bible is the burial of our Lord Himself.  It is significant that some of His followers put themselves at risk to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus.  They then prepared His body for burial, including the use of 100 pounds of spices and ointments.  The Lord’s body was then placed in Joseph’s own tomb.  (See Matthew 27:57-60, Mark 15:42-46, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42.)  All of this demonstrates the great importance the Jews placed on caring for the dead and burying their remains.

Following the customs of the Jews, and with a strong belief in the importance of the coming resurrection of the dead, the early Christians always buried their dead.  The practice of cremation was unknown among Christians until the modern era.  Indeed, the early Church Fathers, if they spoke of the custom at all, universally condemned it as a heathen practice.  For example, Mincius Felix, writing about A.D. 190, states:  “We adopt the ancient and better custom of burying in the earth.  See, therefore, how for our consolation, all nature suggests a future resurrection” (Octavius 34).  And Tertullian writing in the Resurrection of the Flesh explicitly condemns cremation as a pagan practice.

By the early Middle Ages cremation was considered such a reprehensible practice that under the reign of Charlemagne it was actually a capital offense (cf. the Paderborn Capitularies).  The universal teaching of the church throughout the medieval period was against cremation.  The Reformers also condemned it across the board, and recommended the burial of the dead.  This belief in the importance of burial is evidenced by the traditional practice among Protestant churches to have cemeteries (literally “sleeping places”) located next to church buildings.  We only see the church’s opposition to cremation begin to change toward the latter part of the 19th century into the 20th century.

Cremation was not only a common practice among ancient pagans, but it is also customary in some religious traditions today.  Most noteworthy in this regard is the practice of burning the dead in Hinduism.  In both Hinduism and Jainism cremation is not only approved but actually recommended.  This is consistent with the tenets of these religions in which the body is viewed as an impediment to spiritual enlightenment.

With the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire, cremation had virtually ceased to exist as a common funerary practice by the 4th to 5th centuries.  It began to be revived in the West only in 19th century.  Advocates of the practice formed cremation societies in both Europe and America.  One of the main arguments used by the early proponents of cremation was that it was a very sanitary process, and would contribute to the elimination of diseases.  By the early 20th century crematoria began appearing in the U.K., Europe and the U.S.

Now to return to the main question:  Is it okay for a Christian to be cremated?  The simple answer is:  Is it up to you.  Where the Bible does not give specific instruction, then we cannot be dogmatic.  As the Bible neither explicitly condemns nor condones the practice, then it is up to the individual believer to decide on their own.  However, let’s take a moment and consider both sides of the issue.

First—why would a Christian want to be cremated?  The reasons given for cremation are usually economic and practical.  The average funeral in America today costs between $7,000 and $10,000 according to the National Funeral Directors Association.  The average cost of cremation (with memorial service) is about half of this—around $3200 according to the Cremation Society of America.  With careful planning, it might even be significantly lower than this.  With all that a family faces during the loss of a loved one, avoiding a large financial burden is certainly desirable.

There are other reasons besides financial.  Some advocate for cremation based on environmental concerns.  It certainly saves land use.  Also, in many ways we live in a different culture today (whether this is good or bad is another issue).  In times past, visiting dead relatives at the cemetery was just part of life for most families.  This is often not the case anymore.  Why pay for embalming a body, a casket, an expensive service, a grave plot, and a vault when you will rarely, if ever, visit the grave after the funeral?  To many people, this is totally impractical.

Convenience is another consideration.  There are fewer decisions and generally an easier process involved in cremation.  When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, making decisions and planning for funerals is a burdensome task.  Anything that will make this easier is something to seriously consider.  Some Christians choose cremation because they see it as a means to help ease the burden that falls on their family after they die.

Now, let’s consider the opposite side. Please allow me to state here that while the foregoing reasons in favor of cremation are reasonable and practical, I personally have strong convictions in opposition to cremation.  And while I cannot condemn anyone who chooses cremation for themselves or a loved one, I would urge any Christian believer to consider the following.

As noted above, for most of history both Judaism and Christianity not only did not sanction cremation, they actively condemned it.  Cremation was seen as a pagan, even idolatrous practice.  As we have seen, when the burning of bodies is presented in Scripture it is associated with war, disease or the judgment of God.  It is not presented as a practice for followers of the Lord.

The Bible presents to us many examples of how the followers of Yahweh, as well as the disciples of Christ, treated the human body after death.  It was customary to treat the deceased with respect and to honor not only the memory of the departed, but the very vessel they had lived in.  Burial was so important that it was done no matter how inconvenient, costly or even dangerous.  Even God Himself saw fit to bury the body of Moses when he died (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).  (You might consider the thought that if God considered burial important, perhaps we should also.)

One reason to treat the body with such sacred respect is that it is the very creation of the Lord God.  All of creation was spoken into existence by the Lord.  However, when it came to the creation of Man, God actually formed him out of the earth.  We see a personal, even intimate, creation process.  The actual physical human body was lovingly formed by the hand of God Himself.  He did this with no other creature.  He took time and care in making Adam’s body–something that was beyond anything He had done with suns and planets, galaxies and even angels.  This was God’s summum bonum, the pinnacle of His natural world.  Then after forming this sublime and wonderful body, He breathed into the molded clay His own breath and the man became a living soul (see Genesis 2:7).  When we consider this awesome and magnificent creation, the human body, it should cause reverence and respect.  Therefore, to consign this handiwork of God to flames somehow seems unnatural, even ungrateful.   It was probably in this light that the early Christian theologian Tertullian condemned cremation by calling it “the harshest inhumanity.”

I cannot help but wonder if part of the reason more and more Christians are opting for cremation is our growing tendency to accept a subtle Gnosticism.  The Gnostics generally viewed the physical universe, including our mortal bodies, as evil and corrupt simply because they are physical.  They believed that only the spiritual is good.  Anything of this natural world is automatically devilish and unclean.  For the Gnostics, death was finally our chance to get out of the entrapment of our physical bodies.  And sad to say, I have often heard Christians express essentially the same view, and think they were being very spiritual.  Haven’t you?  Haven’t you been at a funeral and heard someone say something like this:  “Well, now he’s gone.  He has flown away from the prison of his body.”  Or some preacher exclaim, “You see this body in front of you.  This is not John.  No.  This is only an empty shell.  The real John has left.”  Or you hear some parent tell a child, “Honey, Uncle John is no longer here.  You see, this body is not really your Uncle John.  He only lived in this body for a while.  But the real Uncle John has gone home to heaven.”

My response to all this?  Balderdash!  This has no more of the Bible about than tales about the Man in the Moon.  God created us as both bodily and spiritual beings.  And without our bodies, we are incomplete as humans.  Indeed, without a body we are in an “unclothed” state, longing for a future clothing with the everlasting bodies we will receive in the bodily resurrection (please note 2 Corinthians 5:1-4, Romans 8:23, 1 Corinthians 15:42-44).  And our current bodies are not something God rejects.  They are His creation, and precious to Him.

We should also keep in mind that our physical bodies are the temples of the Lord God Himself (see 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19).  The Greek word used for “temple” in 1 Corinthians 6:19 is very interesting.  It is naos.  This word does not refer to a temple building or complex.  Rather the naos is the inner sanctum, the Holy Place where God makes His presence known.  In other words, as a believer in Christ, your body is the Holy of Holies.  So when someone dies, should we not treat this vessel of the divine with great care and sense of its sacred nature?

Finally, I have concerns about cremation because of the resurrection.  We live in a day when most Christians live in hope and expectation of heaven.  And this good.  But it is only part of the story, and it is certainly not the climax of the story.  Our true hope is for the consummation of all things when Jesus returns, for the resurrection of our bodies, and life in eternity with the Lord  (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 John 3:2-3, Romans 8:18-25, etc.).

To care for the body of a deceased Christian, and to bury them with honor and dignity, is an affirmation that we believe that death is not the end.  We are asserting that this same body we place in the ground will one day rise again to eternal life.  We avow there is coming a day when God will raise the dead, the very bodies buried in the earth, in a new, glorified and immortal form.  Christian burial is in truth a ceremonial and creedal statement of the truth of resurrection.  It is a declaration that the grave cannot win, and that death will be vanquished forever.  Consider verses such as these which allude to this truth:  1 Corinthians 15:20-26, Job 19:26-27, John 5:28-29, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Revelation 21:1-7.  Please understand that I am not saying that cremation a deterrence to resurrection—for God is all powerful—still the burial of the body is powerful testament to the believer’s faith in the coming bodily resurrection.

In conclusion, the issue is one of personal conviction and opinion.  You must decide based on your own understanding of the Scriptures.  Yet I will say that while I do not condemn any Christian who chooses cremation, I would suggest they consider the matter carefully.  Further, I would ask them to consider this:  In the light of the Scriptures, sacred history, and a biblical understanding of the spiritual significance of the human body, might there be a better and more appropriate way to say goodbye to this earthly life than cremation?

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