You might be wondering as a Christian, what does the Bible say about cremation? And more than that, how does God feel about it?
There is no definite response in the Bible concerning cremation.
Christian churches should be willing to help members financially with simple, Christ-exalting funerals and burials so that no Christian is attracted to cremation because it’s cheaper. I’m not thinking primarily of a line-item in the budget, but of a separated compassion fund that can be donated to church members regularly and if required. Grieving families should politely contact the fund supervisor and make it known that they needed everything to be done timely and respectfully between the family and the funeral home.
Around the same time, I do agree that pastors should discourage lavish funerals. No one should be compelled to believe that the more expensive the coffin, the more valued the dead. Pastors should lead the way in the cultivation of a church ethos where lavish funerals aren’t the norm. God-centered, gospel-rooted, Christ-exalting integrity should be the norm.
So my purpose here is to focus on both of these causes. First of all, I suggest that the churches develop a Christian counter-culture in which people expect easy, less costly funerals, and in which we all pitch in so that every member of the church can afford such funerals. Second, I want to offer biblical hints as to why burial is preferable to cremation. I say that it is preferred, not commanded, in the hope that the culture created does not reject or shun a person who has chosen differently. I advise those who want cremation not to equate this rejection with ostracism.
THE DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN BODY
The two biblical focuses that steer away from burning to burying are: One is the emphasis on the meaning and importance of the human body, both now and in the next life. The other is the definition of fire as it applies to the human body, both now and in the next life.
First, unlike the Greek religion, biblical faith does not see the body as the cage of the soul. But the afterlife has never been seen as the “immortality of the soul,” finally released from its physical prison. Rather, Christianity has always seen the body as vital to the fullness of humanity, such that the life to come is mainly seen as the regeneration of the flesh in the eternal life of heaven. Paul didn’t consider the intermediate bodiless state between death and resurrection to be ideal.
The best thing that can be said about the human body is that the Son of God was incarnated in the human body and will have one forever. John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Today, in heaven, Christ is glorified by the body he had on earth. When he arrives, he will “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” (Philippians 3:21). It was an immeasurable improvement in the history of the glory and dignity of the human body.
Are you aware that your body is the Holy Spirit’s temple within you, whom you have from God? You don’t own your body, because you were purchased with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
FOUR INCREDIBLE FACTS WORTHY OF NOTE:
1) Christ died to purchase us, including our bodies.
2) Our bodies are the Holy Spirit’s temple.
3) Therefore, our bodies don’t belong to us to use as we please, but rather as he pleases.
4) Therefore, we should use our bodies to display the glory of God.
• Our body, God’s purchase.
• Our body, God’s dwelling.
• Our body, God’s possession.
• Our body, God’s glory.
Paul said that he hoped to magnify Christ “in my body, whether by life or death” (Philippians 1:20). Glorifying God is what the body made for — in life and death.
This blood-bought, God-owned temple of the Spirit isn’t destined for final destruction, but the glory of the resurrection. It is precisely the consistency between the Spirit-indwelt-body now and the Spirit-work on the last day that guarantees our resurrection:
“But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” (Rom. 8:11)
The body is never going to be discarded. It was bought by the blood of Jesus!
A SYMBOL FOR SOWING AND SLEEPING
All this leads to a view of burial, controlled by symbols that are true to the glory of the human body. Paul’s knowledge of burial is that this was a picture of being “sown” in the ground like a seed that would sprout with wildly superior beauty at the resurrection when the graves were opened at the second coming of Christ.
“And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:37, 42-44 ESV)
Burial — sowing the seed of the flesh — is a religious picture of belief in the dead’s resurrection.
Christians also see burial as the laying to rest of the body, as if it is sleeping, waiting for the resurrection to come. “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15).
Early “Christian gravesites were known as coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means sleeping places, reflecting the belief in a future resurrection” (Timothy George).
One of the reasons why keeping the body in the ground, as if sleeping was necessary, was that no one knew when Jesus Christ was coming back. It was also possible that the trumpet could sound not long after the funeral, and the deceased would be raised just as if he had just taken a nap.
The biggest thing, however, is the sense of symbolism regarding the preciousness of the body now, and the glorifying of the body at resurrection. The double symbolism of sowing seed, as though ready to sprout, and laying to rest, as though ready to wake up, is the key reason Christians bury their dead.
THE DREADFULNESS OF FIRE
The other focus of Scripture, which leads away from burning to burying (aside from the importance of the human body), is the nature of fire as it applies to the human body now and in the life to come.
The use of fire to destroy the human body on earth has been seen as a form of contempt. It is not a noble treatment of the body, but a disdainful one. That is the meaning of the cremation of Achan. He betrayed Israel, so he wasn’t only stoned with his family, but he was deprived of the ordinary burial but was also burnt.
And Joshua said, “Why hast thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones.” (Joshua 7:25)
Of course, fire is a wonderful blessing from God. It warms, brightens, directs, and prepares, and refines. But it’s a bad thing to the human body. It hurts, tortures, kills and destroys.
This is most popular of all concerning the body after death. Being a Christian who believes in God’s judgment after death, the final symbol we want to practice in connection with death is fire! Hell is a place of fire. The fire is supposed to be felt by the body.
In summary, the biblical focuses that steer away from burning to burying are:
1) The value of the human body as the purchase and possession of God, now and forever; and
2) The dreadfulness of fire to the human body, particularly after death.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING CREMATION?
The term cremation is derived from the Latin word “crematus” or “cremare” which means “to burn up.” During the cremation process, human remains are put in a wooden box and then in a crematorium or furnace. It is then heated to temperatures between 870-980°C or 1600-2000°F until the remains are reduced to fragments of bone and ashes. Bone fragments are then processed in a system until they resemble rough sand, light gray.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST CREMATION
Many Christians object to cremation practice. Their claims are based on the religious belief that one day the bodies of those who died in Christ will be reborn and reunited with their souls and spirits. This teaching assumes that if a body is destroyed by fire, it cannot be resurrected later and reunited with soul and spirit.
It’s the same way for the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are rooted in the earth when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are covered in frailty, but they will be raised in glory; They are buried in weakness, but they are raised in strength. They are buried as human bodies, but they are raised as spiritual bodies. There are also spiritual bodies, just as there are natural bodies.
So, after our dead bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture would be fulfilled: “…Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:35-55).
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
PRACTICAL POINTS AGAINST CREMATION
• Unless the cremated bodies are buried in the cemetery of perpetual care, there will be no permanent marker or place to remember and preserve the life and death of the deceased for years to come.
• Human remains may be lost or stolen if inurned. It is necessary to think where and by whom they will be kept, as well as what happens to them in the future.
ARGUMENTS FOR CREMATION
Because a body has been ravaged by fire, it does not mean that God cannot revive it in the newness of creation, to reunite it with the spirit and soul of the believer. If God couldn’t do this, then all the believers who died in the fire have no hope of receiving their glorified bodies.
Flesh, blood and bodies will eventually rot and become like dust in the earth. Cremation speeds up the process. God is definitely capable of providing a resurrected body for those that have been cremated. A Heavenly body is a new, spiritual body, not the mortal body of flesh and blood.
PRACTICAL POINTS IN FAVOR OF CREMATION
• Cremation can be cheaper than burial.
• Under some cases, where family members wish to postpone a memorial service, cremation allows for more flexibility under setting a later date.
• The idea of letting the body to decay on the ground is offensive to some people. Fast, clean fire disposal is sometimes preferred.
• The family members of the deceased may wish to have cremated remains placed or scattered in a significant location.
While this is sometimes a significant reason for choosing cremation, further consideration should be given first: would there also be a permanent place for remembering and commemorating the life of the deceased? For some, it is crucial to have a physical marker — a place that will mark the life and the death of a loved one for generations to come. When the cremated remains are to be preserved, it is necessary to consider where and by whom they will be kept, and what will happen to them in the future. For this purpose, it may be better to have the cremated remains buried in the cemetery of perpetual care.
FOUR OTHER REASONS TO BURY
Besides these biblical references, other explanations should give us pause before we agree to burn our loved ones. (Using the word ‘burn’ instead of ‘cremate’ is like using the term ‘dismember babies’ instead of ‘abort fetuses’—it prevents us from hiding reality.) These reasons include:
1. Where Christians are a small minority, cremation is high. And where Christian influence gives way to rapid secularization, cremation is increasingly growing. Almost everyone who adheres to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism cremates their dead. Japan has one of the largest cremation rates globally, with a cremation rate of 99.85% recorded in 2008. The cremation rate in the UK has gradually risen, with the national average rising from 34.7% in 1960 to 73.44% in 2008. Canada’s cremation rate rose from 5.89% in 1970 to 68.4% in 2009″
(Note: Japanese cities of Tokyo and Osaka have decrees regulating cremation due to lack of cemetery space or sanitary reasons. I doubt that these two claims will be decisive if there were no other worldview problems. God would give wisdom to Christians living under this added legal constraint.)
2. The first cremation in America happened in 1876, accompanied by readings of Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few people (mostly liberals and freethinkers) have chosen cremation.
3. The nature of the cremation process makes it difficult to prevent dishonesty and to maintain integrity. For instance, how would you know if the crematorium is actually cremating your loved one, rather than just disposing of the body? There have been controversies on this very subject. It might be easier for the crematorium to dispose of the body.
4. How would you have an assurance that the ashes they offer you are the ashes of your loved one who died? It’s almost hard to investigate. For all we know, a crematorium can have a raising bucket of ashes, and it can give you three pounds. There’s no way you can know that.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
I urge churches to promote a Christian counter-culture where people expect easy, less costly funerals and burials, and where we all set out to ensure that Christian burial is no financial burden for anyone. And because of the biblical references and the additional reasons given above, I contend that God-centered, gospel-rooted burial is preferable to cremation. It’s preferable. Not commanded, but rich in Christian truth.