by Neal Laybourne, Teacher/Pastor Barre Evangelical Free Church
April 2004, updated March 2014
Is it OK to be cremated (as a Christian)?
A. Current situation
It is not surprising to get this question as we seem to be hearing of more and more people getting cremated – that is their bodies being burned to ashes after they die. In 2010 approximately 70% of the people in Nevada (72%), Washington (70.9%), Oregon (69.4%) & Hawaii (69.1%) were cremated while less than 24% of the people who died in Mississippi (13.8%), Alabama (17.2%), Kentucky (20.8%), Louisiana (21.2%) & West Virginia, (23.2%). Ethnically, whites choose cremation two to one over blacks Americans (2000 figure). Overall 42%, or two out of every 5 people, are now being cremated in the US (2011). In Vermont 62% were cremated in 2011. New England is about 50% with Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island all above 60%, Massachusetts is low and Connecticut in-between. It is forecasted that cremations will be 50% of all American deaths in 2016. The Vermont rate for 2016 is forecast to be 73%, or 3 out of every 4 deaths. The 2000 cremation rate in Japan was 98%, Great Britain 72% & Sweden 65%, while it was less than 4% in Italy (2.1 percent), Ireland (3.7) & Brazil (3.9).
B. Brief history
Cremation was practiced by both the Greeks & Romans in our Western world – it was thought of as a family protection and a purified release of the soul from the corrupted physical body. By 400 AD most of Europe had embraced Christianity and burying bodies in the ground almost completely replaced cremation. Then in 1869 at the International Medical Conference in Italy a resolution was passed urging all nationals present to promote cremation as “an aid to public health and to save the land for the living.” In 1873, professor Bruno Brunetti developed the “cremation chamber” in which to burn the dead body. The first two crematoriums in the US were built shortly after, both in Pennsylvania – the second in Lancaster. Currently the top three reasons for being cremated are: It's cheaper (25 percent); it saves land (17 percent); it's simpler or more convenient (13 percent).
C. The Biblical record
(Gen 23; Deut 21:23; I Sam 31:11-13; Joshua 7:24-26; Amos 6:9-10)
For our question “Is it OK for a Christian to be cremated” we want to look at the Biblical record. There is no single verse in the Bible for or against cremation because the Bible simply doesn’t give specific instructions about the disposal of the human body after death. The practice of the early Jewish people was definitely burying – actually putting the body in a tomb or plot (Gen 23). They did not use a casket like the Egyptians or as we do today. The same tomb or plot was used for many people in the family. Small bone boxes, called ossuaries, about 2 feet in length were made to hold the bones of a person after the body had decayed in the tomb. Names were put on these boxes and then it made room for the next person to die. Even the wicked who were executed were to buried that day and their bodies were not to be hung up for ridicule or as an object lesson (Deut 21:23). During Jesus’ day we find evidence of both burying & cremation urns among the graves of Jewish people.
In I Sam 31:11-13, Saul and his sons were cremated & their remains buried and that was considered a good, noble and brave thing to do. In Joshua 7:24-26 Achan & his family were stoned and then cremated with their remains buried specifically because they had grievously sinned. In Amos 6:9-10 cremation is used in a neutral way, neither good or bad, simply to describe what they were doing at the time when people died. So to be definitively for or against cremation on the basis of directscriptural statements on the subject is not possible.
D. Future resurrection body not dependent on mode of disposal
At the resurrection, it will make no difference whether our body was buried, burned, eaten by sharks, left to the birds of the air, frozen or any other disposal of our dead carcass – God will resurrect our bodies -- we will get a glorious, indestructible and radically changed new resurrection body. Whether it turns to dust quickly or slowly – whether the molecules are contained in a single jar or scattered over the world – will make no difference to God in terms of His plan to provide us with an everlasting body to go through eternity with. A number of very faithful Christians have died without burial whether they perished in a fire, were lost at sea, or consumed by wild animals.
So God doesn’t flat out forbid cremation, but neither does He say that it is a good thing. Clearly it doesn’t slow down God’s plan for our future. What history and the Bible do show us is that both Jewish people & Christians have chosen overwhelmingly to bury the body whole without first burning it. So what we are following is what is DESCRIBED in the Bible rather than what is EXPLICITLY PRESCRIBED. This is usually very wise and is safe. Interestingly, every instance of cremation in the Bible also had a burying of the ash remains after the cremation rather than what some moderns do of scattering the ashes to the wind.
E. Voices that disagree
Now not all who call themselves Christians today, agree with what I have just said. The Orthodox church stands strongly against cremation in any form – as does the religions of Islam, Orthodox Judiasm and Zoroastrianism. The Pope lifted the ban on cremation for Catholics in 1963. Among evangelical Christians, there are some who believe the Bible only wants us to bury without cremation. Their reasoning falls into three categories:
The first is Biblical. I went through a number of these and simply did not come to the same conclusion that they claimed. For example, they stated that in Amos 2:1-3 God condemned Moab because of cremation. But when one reads those passages they find that the Israeli kings had died long before and what Moab burned was their bones. What God was judging was the desecration of the graves of His people – showing the importance of respect for all humanity even to the point of respectfully handling the empty shell we leave behind.
The second category is reactive. Cremation is seen as some novel new idea, or degrading to humanity or as being founded in paganism, so the Christians should stay a long way away from it & do the opposite. The main problem with this reactive argument is that it is not consistently followed as most everything we do was previously done by someone who was unbiblical. In the case of our modern day burials, we follow a number of Egyptian pagan practices including having a casket, embalming and putting only one body in a ground plot. Since God originally revealed Himself through Adam/Eve, then though Noah & family, the everyday practices of non-Judaeo/Christian peoples will always represent both godly & ungodly practices without knowing it.
The third category I can only label as fanciful. The late Wim Malgo of Midnight Call wrote a small booklet called The Fatal Path of Cremation. He quoted Doctor Karl Ludwig Scheich as saying the following, "It is the nucleolus of the cell, that concentration of the cell's protoplasmic yolk, which, like a sort of central organ, like a brain, a soul of the cell, and also like the yolk of the egg, must be regarded as the essential element of these microscopically-small life units. These life units of the cell - the nucleoli - remain alive under all conditions, and in them there is no death, only a spore-like preserving, a waiting, until they, in the miraculous cycle of life, restore their minute, immortal energies to life through rhythmic transfer. Digestion, fermentation, caustic acids or lye cannot destroy their almost crystallized life. Only fire dissolves them! But this is not part of nature's plan. Cell-death by burning is the most unnatural thing there is, and we must come to a decision to prohibit cremation as one of the greatest errors of civilization! Every nucleolus, which is freely dissolved in the soil, carries within it something of the spiritual and physical 'I-nature' of that decayed body from which it came. There exists, therefore, a cycle of life, an immortality of bodily organization, and herein lie the reasons for why we declare that cremation is an act of human boldness. It unwisely meddles with the above-described cycle of life, and, with clumsy, unknowing hands, frustrates the methodical construction and promotion of living creatures to ever-increasing higher achievements." (Miracles of the Soul, Dr. Karl Ludwig Scheich.) This is neither theologically, Biblically or biologically true, but to some who want a reason it sounds “intelligent”.
F. Respect for humanity
So does that leave us just saying “Whatever?” NO, I believe that there are three principles we must each consider in whatever body disposal mode we choose for our self or our loved ones.
1) It must show a respect for humanity
The first is that it must show a respect for humanity. We handle the bodies of the dead with great respect – not because we believe those bodies are going to do anything but decay, but simply because this reflects the dignity God calls us to show since humans are uniquely created in the image of God. We NEVER want to lose that respect for humanity for ANY REASON or soon we will be discarding the living in a similar way. Therefore, one must consider the actual process of cremation to see if it fits your idea of respect. The body is put into the oven to burn for 1.5-3 hours, however, the bones & teeth do not burn up. First a magnet is brought over the remains to get out any metals there which are discarded, then the bone fragments are ground up to make them as fine as the ashes. While they seek to totally get the deceased ashes all swept out, this is neither possible or nor practical. Extremely small amounts may be left or intermingled.
2) It must consider what that form is saying to the greater community around
The second principle is that we must consider what the particular burial form is saying to the greater community around us. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Jewish people in the OT or the Christian in the NT would not do cremation because the pagan groups around them were claiming cremation could do spiritual things – like cleanse from sin. This is untrue – only through faith in God are we saved. So if our culture has attached unbiblical meaning to it, we dare not participate. This is the case over in India where cremation, especially in the city of Varanasi, is considered part of breaking the cycle of re-incarnation which they believe is a bad thing. However, in our society, the reasons people are choosing cremation are not primarily spiritual, but most often for expediency sake.
3) It must not misuse or violate scripture
Finally, we must make sure that we don’t misuse or violate scripture in our decision as Christians – like that false idea that God would use a spore-like nucleolus to activate our future resurrection body. Another false statement made is that fire always shows something is an abomination to God. Actually fire that “judges” is used both positively and negatively in scripture – both as a punishment and of a positive cleansing. We dare not “simplify” what God has said for our own conclusions. PERSONALLY, I lean against cremation, but I refuse to say it is because God forbids it. My personal reasons are that fire reminds me too much of judgment & pain (I was badly burnt in a fire), I’ve seen several Christians later struggle with their decision to cremate a loved one, I don’t see grinding bones into dust as respectful, I appreciate the Christian witness in many cemeteries, I believe society is already too materialistic & doesn’t need more reinforcing, and I respect the Judaeo/Christian heritage of directly burying the dead. I’d love to see some of the customs from the past added like the bone boxes & heavy-multiple use graves for genuine space concerns, but that probably won’t happen in my lifetime. On the other hand, Pastor Alan Wolcott, who was a careful student of the Bible, specifically asked to be cremated. He especially wanted ½ of his remains brought over to Africa because a part of his heart never left the people and the suffering there. Thank you for taking the time to ask & consider this great question.