I was recently asked what seems to be an oft-asked question for pastors; the question is: Is cremation an appropriate method for Christians to deal with the body after death? I say that this is an oft-asked question, because it is an oft-answered question, the answers themselves being rather varied. Thus, the first reality we must recognize is the reality behind the varied answers: the Bible does not give a clear-cut command when it comes to this issue. Nowhere in Scripture do we see burial commanded or cremation forbidden. Thus, from the outset, we must be clear that it would be somewhat presumptuous to forbid something that is not clearly forbidden in Scripture; if Scripture is our rule of faith and practice, we must not add to it, nor take away from it.
That being said, though the Scriptures do not clearly command or forbid one way or the other, the Bible does have a great deal to say about the practice of the burial of the dead, the body, and other issues that should certainly influence how we answer the question.
- First, it’s necessary that we acknowledge that, in Scripture, the normative practice of disposal of the bodies of the dead is burial. We see this practiced in both the Old Testament and the New. In Genesis 23, for example, we see that Abraham buries Sarah in a cave in a field he had purchased from the Hittites. “After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.” (Gen. 23:19-20). Abraham would likewise be buried in this cave after his death (Gen. 25:9-10). Isaac was buried (Gen. 35:29); Jacob was buried (Gen. 50:12); Joseph was embalmed by the Egyptians and put in a coffin (Gen. 50:26), but was later disinterred, as it were (Ex. 13:19), and his bones were carried to the Promised Land and buried in Shechem (Josh. 24:32). Thus, all of the Patriarchs were buried. Moses was buried (Deut. 34:5); Joshua was buried (Judg. 2:9); Samuel was buried (1 Sam. 25:1); David was buried (1 Kgs. 2:10). More examples could be given, but those given should suffice to show that in the Old Testament, the normal practice was burial, not cremation. Likewise, when we come to the New Testament, we see that burial is still the normal practice for the people of God. Of course, the most famous of burials is that of our Lord Jesus Christ in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; we will discuss this in more detail in a moment. There are more burials in the Gospels and also in Acts. For example, Lazarus of Bethany was buried, though he would be later raised from the dead by Jesus (John 11:17). The dead son of the widow of Nain was being carried out of the city, likely to be buried in the tombs (Luke 7:12). The rich man in Jesus’ parable which is usually entitled “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, was buried (Luke 16:22). The thirty pieces of silver that Judas returned to the chief priests and elders was used to buy “the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers.” (Matt. 27:7). Both Ananias and Sapphira, his wife, were buried (Acts 5:6,10). Stephen was buried by devout men (Acts 8:2). Thus, what is clear from the practice of the church in both the Old and New Testaments was that burial was the normative practice.
- Second, we must consider a biblical theology of the body. Of course, in saying this is “second”, we must be clear that it is only second in the present list, but not in importance. Indeed, the biblical view of the body was no doubt the driving force for the practice of burial in all the above-mentioned cases of burial. A creeping and ancient heresy (Gnosticism) that has resurfaced in the church today might be expressed in the following phrase: “The soul is really you, and the body is only a vessel for the soul.” In this view, the body is often seen as a kind of cage for the soul; once the body is dead, the soul is free. Thus, what happens to the body after death really doesn’t matter. But, the Bible does not view the body in this way. When human beings were created, they were created as embodied creatures (Gen. 2:5-7); indeed, as embodied creatures we are said to be made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27), and this embodiment is deemed by God to be very good (Gen. 1:31). Even before the commandment is given at Sinai (Ex. 20:13), Noah is given this injunction: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed…” Why? “…for [or because] God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6). As another human being cannot kill the soul of another, but only the body (Matt. 10:28), then implied in this injunction is that the body itself, and not just the soul, images God. God sees, and so we have eyes; God hears, and so we have ears; etc. So, the body in death should be treated with the same dignity as the living body. Likewise, though it is true that we are soul-body creatures, one is not more “us” than the other. In fact, when we look at the way Scripture talks about the body after death, we see that though the soul of the believer has departed the body to be with the Lord, the body is still the person just as the soul is the person. Dr. John Frame writes, “It seems paradoxical to put it this way, but in Scripture it is not a material part of the person that lies in the grave; rather, it is the person. It is the person who returns to the dust (Gen. 3:19). While in the grave, Lazarus was Lazarus (John 11:43), Jesus was Jesus (Matt. 28:6). Jesus says, ‘An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice’ (John 5:28). So the bodies in the tombs are people, not former parts of people that have been discarded.” (John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 800). The soul is the person; the body is the person. Both are true. The person is alive in heaven with the Lord; the person is dead (or “sleeping”, as the NT puts it (1 Thess. 4:13; etc.)), in the grave. At the consummation of all things, when Christ returns, the fully sanctified souls of the dead will be reunited with their glorified and transformed resurrection bodies, just as Christ was raised bodily with the same body, though glorified. Our bodily resurrection is modeled after the bodily resurrection of our Lord Christ, the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20)! And believers will dwell bodily in the Kingdom of God on earth forever. Thus, Paul writes, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thess. 4:16).
- We must also consider the biblical imagery of burial. Paul writes, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.” (1 Cor. 15:35-38). Here Paul raises the metaphor of the sowing of a seed; the seed is sown in the ground, and from that dead seed springs up wheat, etc. A few verses later, he writes, “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 Cor. 15:42-44). The imagery that is very clear is that the natural body – our bodies that have died – are like the seed which has died and is planted. From that seed springs new life! Likewise, the dead bodies that are planted, are raised in resurrection life, imperishable, glorious, etc. The imagery of sowing is of course the imagery of placing a seed in the ground. Which option better represents the imagery being used by Paul here – cremation or burial? Of course, the option is clearly burial.
Another reality with which we must reckon, though not necessarily an exegetical argument from the Scriptures, is Christian tradition. Of course, we never want to grant tradition an equal standing with Scripture; where our traditions are clearly unbiblical, they need to be reformed. However, to not acknowledge what has been the normative practice of the church for the past two millennia would verge on silliness. And the normative practice of the church for the past two thousand years (and beyond) has been to bury our dead. Augustine writes, “Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not… to be despised and left unburied.” (Augustine, City of God, I.XIII.). A little over a century before Augustine, the Church Father Minucius Felix writes, “…we adopt the better and ancient custom of burying in the earth.” (Minucius Felix, The Octavius of Minucius Felix, XXXIV.). Clearly, the Early Church adopted the practice which they saw in Scripture, rather than the practice of burning the bodies of the dead which they saw in the paganism of Rome; burial was one way in which the Christians were differentiated from the pagans. Burial has continued as the normal practice in the church since earliest times; cremation for Christians did not become a normal practice until the last century.
Thus, in counseling someone on whether to bury or cremate, my counsel, along with the counsel of the church for the past two thousand years and the normative practice based upon the theology of the body that we see in Scripture, would be burial. That being said, because Scripture does not explicitly give direction in this matter, I would suggest that one prayerfully weigh the evidence presented here. Though I do not think cremation is a sin, necessarily, I think the Bible (and how the church has understood the Bible) tells us that cremation is not the best option.
With all that said, I am aware of possible financial reasons for cremation instead of burial. A funeral can cost on average between $7,000 and $12,000; cremation, on the other hand, is usually several thousand dollars cheaper. For some, burial is a financial burden. Another issue is overpopulation, which might not be a problem in many places, but in a place, say, like tiny Singapore, the issue becomes a more pressing reality. These are legitimate concerns, and should be weighed as you consider one or the other. Ultimately, God can resurrect the body in ashes just as He can resurrect the body in the grave. But, given all the information above, I would counsel burial rather than cremation if possible.
Addendum: An historical note that should be mentioned, during the time of Christ, it was the custom, especially among the more well-to-do, to place the body in the tomb until decomposition; after decomposition of the body, the bones were collected in an ossuary (a box used to house skeletal remains) and reburied. Thus, “Joseph [of Arimathea] took the body [of Christ] and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock.” (Matt. 27:59-60a; brackets and italics added). Jesus was placed in a new tomb “where no one had ever yet been laid.” (Luke 23:53). In other words, the tomb in which Jesus was placed after death was a tomb that had not seen even an initial burial of anyone; He would have been the first to use the tomb, where His body would have been tended (Luke 24:1) until decay, after which, His bones would likely have been placed in an ossuary. But, of course, Jesus was resurrected on the third day! There was no need for an ossuary, for the Incarnate Christ lives and reigns forever!