Can cremation (rather than historical burial) be an option for the believer? From my understanding of scripture, I must in all good conscience say that unless it is ‘absolutely‘ unavoidable, the answer is an unequivocal no. Normally, christians and cremation should be an oxymoron. Sometimes it can be unavoidable (as I understand burial is not permitted in some major cities of Japan, thus cremation is pretty much a requirement), nevertheless, this is not the proper Biblical Christian way to handle deceased loved ones.
I should state right up front that cremation doesn’t affect anyone’s salvation. If you are saved when you die, nothing done afterward has any bearing on you. However, we’re not talking about salvation here, we are addressing the God glorifying Christian way to handle the bodies of our family and friends. In our day, sound Biblical judgment is clouded by man’s vain philosophies, secular humanism, and social practicality. But these are not valid replacements for sound Biblical principles and judgments. The rising acceptance of cremation in the modern Church has (not coincidentally) coincided with a marked departing from the faith, and a falling away from adherence to traditional Christian values and sound doctrines based upon the doctrines of sola scriptura.
Cremation was not an issue for the early Church, which historically taught that burial was the ‘Christian’ (Biblical) thing to do for loved ones. Unfortunately, in today’s world, finances, humanistic reasoning and changing cultures seem to be the determining factors of what is considered biblical or unbiblical in making funeral arrangements. The whole mind set has changed, and this is a substantial shift from the historical Christian teaching on the matter.
In my thinking, it really should be self evident to anyone reading scripture, that burial and not cremation, is in full harmony with (and is a testimony to) the hope of the resurrection. And this is what often get’s lost in all the rhetoric of those who tacitly support cremation. It is hard to even imagine God appointing cremation in anticipation of raising His only begotten Son from the dead. Symbolism is important in scripture, and we should not deviate from that Christian practice. In fact, historically cremation has been associated with the efforts of Pagans in their denial of the resurrection of the body. While burial has been seen as the ‘signification’ God uses in the resurrection figure, and has been the way that Christians show respect for God, and honor His example when their loved ones die. thus I believe that we should not desire cremation, and indeed, that it is our obligation to choose burial whenever possible. When we look at these reasons carefully, we understand that it is more than just a custom or tradition, it is a Biblical figure instituted as a separation or division between Heathen/Pagan and Christian heritages. It was a Biblical ‘sign’ of the division of the dead in preparation for resurrection, and for destruction. Historically God illustrated this separation of Pagan customs and practices from the practices of the Children of God.
2nd Chronicles 33:5-6
- “And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD.
- And he caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom: also he observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.”
The pagan nations have always used cremation in their varied false religious practices. Some as a release (supposedly) of the spirit at death, while others used the practice in idolatrous pagan fire worship. Still others used it as the aid or help in reincarnation. As an example, there are religions (such as the Hindus), which practice cremation in support of reincarnation, and then sprinkle the ashes of those who are burned up, upon the Ganges river. These false religions deny any bodily resurrection, and their practices are a “sign” of that.
Christians and cremation do not go together. God declared that His people were to be separate from the traditions and practices of their Pagan neighbors. He forbade the believers of the Old Testament from following the religions and customs of the un-Godly foreigners, and commanded His Children should bury their dead bodies.
- “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”
This is God giving specific instructions of what was to be done with dead bodies. God said it was to be buried that the land be not defiled. He could have very easily said burn it to ashes like the heathen do, but God wants his people to be separate and distinct from the customs of those around them.
It is interesting that cremation in Christian culture was extremely rare until the nineteenth century. It was not even legal in England until 1884. The first crematory in America was built in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1876 by non-christians who cared nothing about Godly practices. In this country cremation historically has always been unpopular and deemed unchristian. In point of fact, as late as the 1970’s only about eight percent of those who died were cremated. But along with the changing moral values and the increase in false and eastern religious influences in this country, came the rise in the acceptance of burning bodies.
There is no scripture which ever speaks of a Christian ever being cremated. This alone should alert the Biblically minded student that it is something that God has not assigned for the Child of God. Burning is a ‘scriptural’ symbol or sign of destruction, and thus is not to be the figure for a Christian. The heathen nations burned the bodies of their dead, but God’s people buried their dead in the earth or in sepulchres. When we read the accounts of the early martyrs of the Church, we see that the faithful treated the bodies of the dead in the traditional way, with respect, as they were taken away for burial. And we have clear historical precedent that the Roman (pagan) practice of cremation was shunned by these Christians.
- “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
- And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:”
Clearly Job understood that he would be buried, and that the worms of the earth (not fire) would destroy his body that it return it to the dust from which it came. And yet he intimately ties it to the resurrection, exactly as we see done all throughout scripture. That was/is the normal Godly way to deal with loved ones who die. Again, as attested to by the Biblical records of the purchase of land by Abraham (precisely for this purpose).
- “And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan.
- And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a buryingplace by the sons of Heth.”
- “And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre;
- The field which Abraham purchased of the sons of Heth: there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.”
- “In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a buryingplace.
- There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.
- The purchase of the field and of the cave that is therein was from the children of Heth.”
We don’t see Biblical precedent of God’s people burning dead bodies (except it be testimony to the heathen, judgment, or a sinful practice), and so why any Biblically minded Christian would even consider cremation defies any reason or sound logic. We should be persuaded by the witness of scripture that the Biblical practice of handling the dead, is in burial.
Moreover, God Himself buried Moses in a valley in the land of Moab over against Bethpeor (Deuteronomy 34:5-6). What more witness of scripture do we need for the Christian method of burial? Unfortunately in our day, no amount of Biblical evidence against this practice seems to be enough. For much of the Church today is caught up in the will of man (lust of the flesh) to do what seems right in their own eyes. This, coupled with the cultural humanistic changes of society, has caused many to depart from the historical Christian teachings. They look upon these Biblical precedents as old fashioned or Old Testament thinking, oblivious to the truth that the Bible is a timeless book. In fact, the same Biblical precedent for burial in the Old Testament continues right into the New Testament era, as we read that Lazarus (whom Jesus loved) was buried in a tomb.
- “Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.
- Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”
But when they took away the stone from the tomb, and Jesus said, ‘Lazarus, come forth,‘ He came forth, again, a significationof the resurrection unto life. The burial, and the resurrection of him that was buried, is a theme which goes hand in hand throughout the scriptures and should not be cast aside as insignificant. One of the most compelling arguments for burial in the New Testament is the example that God gives of Himself.
- “Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.”
The Jews were the Covenant Children of the Living God, and the Godly manner they practiced was the burial of their dead. So not only was the body of Christ prepared with spices and then buried, but God clearly and unambiguously ‘alerts’ us that this was, ‘the manner that the Chosen people of God handled their dead‘ also! If there is any question now about precedent in the scriptures (both Old and New Testament), then it can only be because man is predisposed to reject truth because of a hardness of his heart, or a determination to believe whatever they want. If authority of scripture doesn’t matter, then Biblical counsel becomes ‘just words.’
- “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise.”
Another weak argument for cremation is the Hygiene question. This has nothing to do with biblical principles or sound Christian behaviour, it leans upon social philosophy and science, rather than theology. The current graveyards pose absolutely no problem in terms of hygiene and health. The argument that burial is unsanitary (particularly in this country), is to dabble in absurdity and is just another excuse which some people choose to use in order to ease their mind and allow this un-christian action.
As for the ‘economics defense,’ it is somewhat true that there is a price difference, but it is not that great a price difference ‘providing’ one chooses a reputable funeral director, and an economical coffin and service. Of course if one is encouraged by funeral directors to select the best of everything, funerals can run well over the $10,000 figure. The point is to have a simple funeral service with a simple coffin, and the price will not be much more than cremation, and will be totally in line with the scriptures and the Christian faith. What is the price put on doing the right (Biblical) thing? And the bottom line really is, Christians should try to do the ‘Biblical’ thing. To surrender ‘all’ for the cause of Christ.
- “And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you.”
- “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.”
It is quite obvious that God is signifying the burning of people as a ‘signification’ of their judgment in Hell fire. It is not something which signifies a return to the earth (as burial is) but which signifies destruction and desolation of that which is abominable to God.
- “The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God.”
- “And it shall be, that he that is taken with the accursed thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he hath: because he hath transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he hath wrought folly in Israel.”
This is the only case recorded by God of a body being burned in Israel, and it is used of God as an illustration of his fierce anger and judgment. Aachan, of the tribe of Judah, and his family, were taken by Joshua and stoned to death, and their bodies were ordered to be burnt with fire ‘because’ of their abominable sins against God. Another stark example that burning a body was a “signification” that the judgment of God lay upon them, not something the Christian would want done to them. If we are going to let the Bible be it’s own interpreter, then all these facts speak for themselves.
2nd Kings 23:19-20
- “And all the houses also of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made to provoke the LORD to anger, Josiah took away, and did to them according to all the acts that he had done in Bethel.
- And he slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars, and burned men’s bones upon them, and returned to Jerusalem.”
This burning of men’s bones was a ‘sign’ of God’s wrath and judgment upon these wicked priests, an abomination unto God. Moreover, in the book of Amos God lists the burning of a body as, ‘a transgression’ which brought His judgment.
- “Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; becausehe burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime:
- But I will send a fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the palaces of Kerioth: and Moab shall die with tumult, with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet:”
Here God is clearly saying that the transgression of Moab was that He cremated the body of the King of Edom until it was lime. Burning bodies was seen as an act of desecration, or an act of God’s judgment upon them. Why would any Christian think to have such things done to his, or his loved one’s body? God declares in Amos that this act of sin in doing this, was one which He would not draw back the punishment thereof. Clearly evidence that cremation is not a Godly practice.
1st Corinthians 6:19-20
- “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
- For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”
There is a true sanctity of the Christian body, and it should not be disrespected by our burning it up after death. The body was sanctified and set apart by the blood of Christ, and thus we are not our own, and should ‘accordingly’ take God glorifying action concerning it. We must remain separate from the ways of the world.
I believe that the scriptures commend burial by equating the burial of the believer with the planting of a seed (1st Corinthians 15:35-44), giving witness to the hope of the final resurrection. It is quite conclusive that the scriptures describe burial as the ‘normal’ action taken for the body of the Christian who dies. It is part of the cycle of life ordained by God. The scriptures teach that man was formed out of dust.
- “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
And after the fall, death was introduced into the world, and the “natural” destination of man after death, is to return to the earth. God Himself declares:
- “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Man should return to the ground upon death of the physical body. Christ is our example, so following Him, ‘burial’ is a correct biblical method. That is to say, if we keep our eyes focused on Him and the scriptural record and not the humanism of the world.
But again I reiterate, ‘burning a body in cremation in no way affects God’s ability to resurrect either the believer, or the unbeliever.’ Unfortunately, because of this Biblical fact there are some who rationalize that, ‘because we know that cremation doesn’t affect anyone’s Salvation or judgment, therefore it doesn’t matter how we dispose of a loved one’s body.’ That is an untrue, and misleading conclusion. It matters because the desire of the Christian is to do the will of God, not to sin that Grace may abound. It matters because it’s a matter of Christian principle and because the Word of God itself matters.
Pastors, Elders, and other Church leaders should be teaching the congregation of the truth of burial, instead, in many cases they are in league with the world and giving tacit approval of cremation, not willing to offend. It is painfully clear from the witness of scripture that the standard for Christians has always been (and remains), burial. The burning of a body is spoken of as either a transgression of the laws of God, or as a judgment of God upon wickedness. These are things which cannot be gainsaid or denied. Certainly to be accidentally burned up in a plane crash, or house fire, or to have loved ones bodies burned in circumstances beyond one’s control in no way affects our standing with God. But to willfully burn a body is contrary to scripture, and should not be done by the faithful Christian. The Church has always (and should always) continue to get their instruction for dealing with the dead from the examples and precedence set in the Word of God. Let us in the burial of our loved, see it as a sign of their rising to be with God. Let us joy in this and not worldly traditions.
And may the Lord who is gracious above all, give us the understanding to discern these truths, and the wisdom needed to separate His thoughts from our own.