Is Cremation Biblical?

Cremation. Is it right for a Christian who dies to be cremated? Does the Bible have anything to say about this?

The word “cremate” comes from the Latin verb cremare, meaning to burn. It refers to the practice of disposing of a dead body by subjecting it to high heat (around 2,000 degrees F, or 1100 degrees C) for several hours.

After burning, the ashes of the deceased are treated variously. Sometimes they are buried, or kept on display in an urn. Other times they are scattered to the winds, or simply discarded as refuse. The first crematorium in the United States was built in 1876. From then, on into the early twentieth century, only about 4% of those making funeral arrangements requested cremation for their loved one. But in recent years that figure has increased tenfold. Currently, there are about 30,000 funeral homes in the States and Canada offering this service.

The question therefore arises: How should Christians view this practice? Some see no problem with it. It makes others uncomfortable, but perhaps they are unable to explain why. That is the purpose of what follows. Cremation may be popular, it may even be promoted in the secular world, but there are reasons why the practice should be seriously questioned by the people of God. Here are some points to consider, referenced to nearly 200 verses of Scripture.

A. Several arguments are offered in favour of this practice. Some of these are based on faulty and unbiblical conclusions.

1) Usually it is less expensive than a traditional burial. This is especially true if the one who has died is to be buried at some distant location. The transportation of a body is costly, and a second funeral director must be hired at the location of the burial to handle final arrangements.

2) In some urban areas burial sites are becoming more difficult to obtain. Cremation seems to solve this problem. In relation to this, it is further argued that cremation is more sanitary as it disposes of the body in a more hygienic way.

Research indicates that these are the main practical reasons given in favour of cremation. But this is more than a practical matter. It has spiritual and moral overtones.

3) Occasionally, cremation is requested to avoid the detection of a crime (specifically, murder), since it is believed this will destroy the evidence for the misdeed–as it sometimes does.

4) A few suppose erroneously that they can escape the resurrection and judgment to come in this way.

5) Some religions teach that the spirits of the departed return to the bodies to plague the living, and cremation is used to prevent this.

6) Some have the notion that cremation sets the spirit free forever from the ties of this life, enabling it to enjoy unhindered bliss in the life beyond death.

But none of these latter ideas is in accord with the Word of God. They are all based on the false and misguided notions of unregenerate minds. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 16:25). And “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. 28:26).

7) Some claim that the Bible says nothing against it, and therefore cremation is an option Christians are free to contemplate.

The silence of the Scriptures is appealed to as evidence that God accepts or condones cremation. However, a moment’s reflection will show that not every single harmful or questionable act can be treated specifically in the Bible. (For example, the use of tobacco is not, yet we now know it can do deadly harm.)

We must look at the broad picture, considering biblical principles and precedents, to see whether they point us in one direction or another. And it is the contention of this writer that a careful study of the Word of God will lead to the conclusion that cremation is not a practice which Christians should follow.

Unfortunately, there has been little teaching from the pulpit on this subject–perhaps because it is one of those topics that makes us uncomfortable. Or some may avoid it because they feel it will only cause dissension, and “unity at any cost” is their watchword.

Yet, as the Lord said of the priests in Old Testament times, “The lips of the priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7). The same can surely be said of pastors in the Church Age. They are custodians of God’s truth and ought to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27; II Tim. 4:2-4).

B. It is not in keeping with the historical beliefs and practices of God’s people.

Even among the ancient heathen, the disposal of a body after death was treated as a religious matter, not just a practical one. One's beliefs determined choices that were made with regard to the procedures followed.

Often in former times, burials (in Egypt, for example) were accompanied by great ceremony. The position of the body, its clothing and other artifacts, were respectfully attended to, supposedly preparing it for the afterlife. Among the world’s oldest buildings–some of them elaborate and costly--are tombs and burial chambers.

But what of the people of God in the time before Christ? In Judaism, the Mishnah, the Jewish oral law, considers the burning of a corpse to be an idolatrous practice (Av. Zar. 1:3). The Talmud (Sanh. 46b) deduces that burial is a positive command and, together with the teachings of such men as Rabbi Maimonides (Sefer La-Mitzvot 231, 536), it declares that cremation is a “denial of the belief in bodily resurrection, and an affront to the dignity of the human body.”

This conviction can also be found in the apostolic era. Not a single early Christian writer we know of (outside the Bible or in it) supports the practice of cremation. Even those believers who fled persecution in the days of the Roman Empire carefully buried their dead, as the well-marked tombs in the catacombs of Rome attest.“Both Jew and Christian objected to cremation” (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1970).

Historically, cremation has been practised among those religions, such as Hinduism, that deny bodily resurrection, believing instead in reincarnation. But wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ has found acceptance, heathen practices such as cremation have been rejected.

A missionary to India was asked some years ago whether the Christians there cremated their dead. He responded with surprise, “Positively not! Cremation is heathen. The Christians of India bury their dead, because burial is Christian.” The Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “There can be little doubt that the practice of cremation in modern Europe was at first stopped, and thereafter prevented in great measure by the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.”

C. It departs from the common biblical practice of burial. Overwhelmingly the record of Scripture attests to the practice of burying the dead, often reporting on the great care that was taken to do so. Here are some examples:

1) Abraham buried his wife Sarah, purchasing property in Canaan at high cost to do it (Gen. 23:1-20).

2) Though he died in Egypt, Jacob asked to be buried on the same plot of ground where Abraham and Isaac were buried, and this request was honoured (Gen. 49:29–50:13).

3) Joseph was buried in Canaan too. Even though it took many years for this to be accomplished, eventually his mummified remains were buried in the Promised Land (Gen. 50:24-26; Exod. 13:19; Josh. 24:32). (Carrying an urn of ashes all through the 40 years in the wilderness would have been much easier!)

4) Even God Himself practised burial. He buried the body of Moses in an undisclosed location (Deut. 34:5-6).

5) Joshua was buried (Josh. 24:29-30), as was Eleazar, the son of Aaron, around the same time (Josh. 24:33).

6) Samuel was buried (1 Samuel 25:1).

7) King David was buried (1 Kings 2:10).

8) John the Baptist was buried (Matthew 14:10-12).

9) The Lord Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea. The careful treatment of His body in burial should be pondered (Jn. 19:38-42; cf. Isa. 53:9). There was loving respect and a quiet dignity in the actions of those early believers.

10) Ananias and Sapphira were buried (Acts 5:5-10).

11) Stephen was buried (Acts 8:2).

12) In prophecy, “Gog and Magog” will attack Israel and be defeated, and the Jews will carefully bury the bodies of their dead enemies–a process taking seven months--and the Lord will commend them for doing this (Ezek. 39:11-15).

13) For a body not to have a proper burial was, in Bible times, a sign of disgrace. This is what happened to wicked Ahab and his wife, the Baal-worshipping Jezebel, and their descendants (I Kgs. 21:21-24; cf. II Kgs. 9:37; see also I Kgs. 13:22, and Jer. 16:5-6).

D. It fails to reckon with the significance of burning in the Word of God.

Almost entirely and overwhelmingly, fire in the Word of God represents judgment and a divine curse (cf. Ps. 21:8-9). It is a picture of God’s wrath, and often a sign of contempt for that which is burned.

1) Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire (Gen. 19:24-25). God “condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly” (II Pet. 2:6).

2) Though the sentence was never carried out, when Judah’s daughter-in-law was accused of harlotry, he called for her to be burned (Gen. 38:24; cf. Lev. 21:9). Other gross sins were to be punished by burning the guilty (Lev. 20:14; Jer. 29:21-23).

3) The Israelites were commanded to burn the idols of the Canaanites and all the paraphernalia connected with their heathen worship (Deut. 7:25).

4) Moses burned the golden calf, made and worshipped by Israel while he was up on Mount Sinai receiving God’s Law (Exod. 32:20).

5) The priests, Nadab and Abihu, who offended God in their ministrations, were burned by the fire of the Lord (Lev. 10:1-2).

6) Two hundred and fifty Israelites who rebelled against the leadership of Moses and Aaron were devoured by the fire of the Lord (Num. 16:35).

7) Because of his wicked disobedience, Achan, his family, and all his possessions were burned (Josh. 7:15, 24-26).

8) David burned the Philistine’s gods (I Chron. 14:11-12)

9) Jehu burned the sacred pillars from the temple of Baal (II Kgs. 10:26)

10) Converts to Christ in Ephesus brought the books used to practice their occult magic and had them burned (Acts 19:18-19). Though some in our day might ridicule this as “fanatical,” the burning of their books on witchcraft became a public witness to their need and desire to live in holiness. And clearly, that which was burned could no longer be a danger to the converts or to others.

11) The fires of God’s judgment will eventually destroy this whole wicked world and everything in it (II Pet. 3:10-12).

12) After the unsaved gather before the Great White Throne to receive their final sentence, God will consign them all to the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:11-15).

Can anything be plainer? Fire represents the righteous judgment of a holy God. That which was burned was being treated as accursed. Even the sacrificial system of the Old Testament Law fits this picture. The slain animal burned on the brazen altar was a thing condemned, symbolically suffering the punishment due to the sinner.

E. It is not fitting, given the sacredness of the human body in God’s sight.

Repeatedly the Word of God gives every indication that the human body is something unique and, as such, is worthy of special respect. The practice of cremation does not show reverence and thoughtful care for the bodies of the dead, especially in light of the previous two points.

1) Unlike the animals, which were called into being by the Creator in huge flocks and swarms (Gen. 1:20-21, 24-25), the body of Adam was a special creation of God (Gen. 2:7). Nor did this divine attention cease with the children born later to Adam and Eve and their descendants. Almighty God overshadows the formation of each tiny babe in the womb. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:13-16).

2) The living body was to be treated with great respect. God commanded the Israelites not to engage in occult practices that involved mutilating their bodies with cuts or tattoos (Lev. 19:28; Deut. 14:1-2).

3) An amazing miracle occurred in connection with the buried prophet Elisha. When a dead man was lowered into Elisha’s grave and touched his remains, the man’s life was restored (II Kgs. 13:20-21). This would seem to indicate the Lord’s continuing concern for the bodies of the dead. It may also suggest that the place of burial becomes sacred because of the body it contains. The graves and tombs of the dead should also be treated with respect because something precious to God lies there.

4) “The Word [Christ] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory” (Jn. 1:14). “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said, “...a body You have prepared for Me” (Heb. 10:5). Have you ever considered how remarkable that is? As a home for the immaterial part of man, the human body was so carefully made that God the Son could become “flesh” without sacrificing either His deity or His moral perfection.

5) The bodies of the saved are doubly the Lord’s. They are His by right of creation, and also because we have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ. Spirit, soul, and body, we are the Lord’s (I Thess. 5:23; Rom. 14:8).

6) The living body of the Christian is a temple of God. We are each indwelt by the Spirit of God (I Cor. 6:19; II Cor. 6:16). Even though the Holy Spirit departs at death, there ought to be a continuing remembrance that this earthly tent had once been His dwelling place. If we respectfully enshrine hockey sticks and uniforms because they were used by great sports heroes, surely we should treat what has been God’s home on earth in a careful way.

7) The body and its parts (“members”) are to be dedicated to the service of the Lord (Rom. 12:1-2; cf. 6:13). Though trust in God and submission to Him take place in the heart, these attitudes are expressed and lived out through a body. “Therefore glorify God in your body” (I Cor. 6:20), because one day, before the Judgment Seat of Christ, each of us will give account for “the things done in the body” (II Cor. 5:10).

8) The body is used as a picture of the church of Jesus Christ with its many members mutually supporting the work and goals of the body. Further, not only is the body of the individual Christian God’s dwelling place, together we form a habitation of God (I Cor. 3:16; 6:15; Eph. 2:19-22; I Pet. 2:5). This illustration is used a number of times, with Christ being described as the Head of the “body” of believers (I Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:11-16; 5:28-29).

F. It runs counter to the Bible’s symbolism regarding burial and resurrection.

In some unexplained way, the body that is buried becomes a kind of “seed” from which springs the resurrection body, “to each seed its own body” (I Cor. 15:35-38). Does this mean that if the body is destroyed by burning it cannot be raised in the resurrection? No. And yet there is some connection and continuity between the mortal and the immortal body.

Consider the words of Job concerning his assurance of a bodily resurrection: “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: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another [that is, not as a stranger]” (Job 19:26-27, AV). Believers look forward to that wonderful day when we will have glorified bodies like Christ’s own (Phil. 3:20-21).

Until that time, the body of one who dies is, in effect, laid to rest in the grave. Several times the physical body in death is described as “sleeping” (Jn. 11:11-14; I Thess. 4:13-14 ). (And the word “cemetery” actually means sleeping place.)

Laying a body gently in its resting place is a way of testifying to the hope of the resurrection. As the Bible declares, “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep....But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (I Cor. 15:20, 23).

These things also relate to believer’s baptism. Baptism by immersion is a figure of burial, not of burning. It pictures our identification with Christ, both in His death (going down into the water), and in His resurrection (coming up out of the water). Water baptism is a visual acting out of that spiritual baptism by which the Holy Spirit placed us into Christ at salvation.

Because of the latter, God counts us as having participated in Christ’s saving work (Gal. 3:26-27). “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death. Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

G. It is a poor witness to the living, even though it means nothing to the dead.

Whether the deceased is to be buried or cremated is a decision which primarily affects the living, not the dead. A dignified burial witnesses to our reverence for a special creation of God, and to our faith in the coming resurrection. But these things are a testimony to the living. What is done with the body does not affect the departed spirit of the dead believer which is now “with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23).

If that person put his faith in Christ for salvation during his lifetime, cremation will not keep him out of heaven. Nevertheless there would seem to be good reasons to favour burial over cremation as a witness to the community concerning our desire to honour God’s Word.

Cremation is of heathen origin. It is a practice avoided and condemned by both Israel and the early church. Cremation is an invention of man. It is not God’s way--which is to allow the slow natural return of man, made from the dust of the earth, back to dust again (Gen. 3:19).

Since God repeatedly commands that which is sinful and corrupt to be burned, and repeatedly honours the burial of the body, we can deduce that cremation does not fit His purpose. It is a barbarous act showing dishonour to the body in a way that is contrary to the will of God.

Some will almost certainly cry foul when I now raise the horrific spectre of the Holocaust, arguing that this is an attempt at “guilt by association!” Perhaps. But associations are powerful things, and they do colour our perceptions every day.

Within the lifetime of the older generation, an estimated six million Jews were killed in the Nazi death camps. Many were gassed and then reduced to ashes in the ovens of Auschwitz. For the most part they were non-combatants in the war, men, women and children, whose only offence was their ethnic origin. It was the most heinous crime against the Chosen People of God in all of history. Why follow a procedure that is so tainted with unspeakable wickedness?

Yes, this becomes a matter of personal choice and conviction. However, “Whatever things were written before were writing for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). We cannot dictate what the unsaved choose to do. But as followers of Christ we should have a higher standard. The testimony of Scripture would seem to support the traditional custom of burial, and cast doubt on the validity, and the morality, of cremation.

And I will dare to go a step further. If pastors refuse to marry those who are not following the biblical pattern (for example two homosexuals), should they not also refuse to officiate at the funerals of those who plan the cremation of the dead? That again is an individual choice. But if we are to place such a stricture on our clergy, the policy must be preceded by consistent and thoroughly biblical teaching on the subject. It is hoped that this material will assist with that.