As a pastor, I deal a lot with people who are sick, suffering, and dying. I’ve had the honor of presiding over more than 20 funerals in the past four and a half years. As a part of this process, families from the church have sometimes asked me for advice regarding final arrangements for their loved ones who have passed away, particularly as it regards burial and/or cremation. This question came home to my family just a few weeks ago with the passing of my wife’s mother, in which her wishes were to be cremated - wishes that we obliged and carried out.
Many Christians are uncertain if the Bible allows for cremation as a viable option for those those who have died. On one hand, burial has become so expensive in recent years as to be financially untenable for many, making cremation a convenient and economical choice. In most cases, cremation is only about 25% of the cost of a traditional burial, which is a savings of several thousand dollars. On the other hand, cremation seems to buck the tradition of several centuries of Christian burial. What are Christians to do? How does the Bible guide us as we make decisions about our final arrangements? As we seek to answer this question, there are four biblical realities that we would be wise to consider.
1. The Bible does not forbid cremation. In fact, there is only one recorded instance of cremation in the entire Bible, and it is not cast in a negative light. After King Saul is killed, the Israelites cremate the remains of him and his sons. Although it should be noted that Saul and his sons were not cremated for economical reasons, but most likely because their bodies had been ravaged by war and had been expired for a length of time before burial rites could be performed. Thus, their cremation was likely the most expedient way of dealing with their bodies. The only other mention of cremation in scripture is in Amos 2.1, in which the bones of the king of Edom are noted as having been “burned to lime.” While this instance of cremation is cast in a negative light, it cannot be interpreted as a prohibition against the practice. In short, the Bible does not forbid the practice of cremation.
2. Although the Bible does not forbid cremation, the clear pattern for the people of God throughout scripture and history has been burial. Just because the Bible doesn’t outright forbid a certain practice doesn’t mean that it gives us license. Rather, we should look at the whole counsel of the entire Bible for wisdom on a particular issue. While the reference above to King Saul’s cremation is the only instance of one of God’s people being cremated, there are more than 200 references in the Old Testament to God’s people being buried. This disparity should at least give us pause as we consider how we treat the bodies of our loved ones (and our own bodies) after death. The reason for the biblical preference for burial was, in part, to differentiate the people of God from other religions and people-groups. This was even true of Christians in the New Testament, who regarded the body (both living and dead) differently from other religions (more on this below). The fact that the overwhelming tradition of God’s people for millennia has been to bury the dead should at least inform the final arrangements that we make for our bodies.
3. God will resurrect our dead bodies, regardless of their physical condition. The Bible teaches that the bodies of those who are in Christ will be resurrected and redeemed after death. This promise disregards the physical destruction of our bodies in death and relies upon the power of God to reconstruct our bodies regardless of whatever physical damage they have incurred. The process of death and decay is not passive. Left to itself, a body will decay and disintegrate in the grave. And yet God is powerful to make dead bones come alive. Likewise, God’s power to resurrect will not be hindered by the decimation of a physical body through cremation. God will resurrect our bodies whether they have been buried in the ground, cremated, lost at sea, or torn apart by wild animals, such as the early Christians who were executed in the Roman coliseum. We should not think that cremation excludes us from a bodily resurrection.
4. The human body holds temporal and eternal significance, and should not be dealt with flippantly. The reality of a future resurrection should inform us that our bodies matter. Your body is not just a vehicle for your soul, or a shell of your true self. We can see clearly from scripture that your body matters; what you do with your body matters; your body has a future, even after it has died. So then, does what we do with a body after death matter? It would seem that scripture teaches that it does. For instance, Joseph was adamant that his bones not be left in Egypt, but instead be carried to the Promised Land. Why? Clearly it was significant in at least some way that Joseph’s physical remains be brought to the Promised Land. On the surface, this might sound strange to us: why does Joseph care where his bones are laid to rest? After all, he isn’t using them! Moreover, each human being has been intricately created in by God in his own image. How we treat the body after death communicates something about what we believe about God. We don’t just throw our dead loved ones out with the garbage. Instead, we treat their bodies with dignity and respect because God created them, and because God cares enough about the body to resurrect it one day. This kind of thinking is in direct contrast to the early heresy of Gnosticism, which taught a sharp differentiation between body and spirit, and that matter (physical stuff, including the human body) was evil, and therefore was of no consequence; only the spirit was important. This teaching led Gnostics to engage in every form of physical debauchery under the sun, and was the impetus for much of the New Testament teaching on sexual immorality to the first century church. According to Gnostics, the body was meaningless, and therefore could be used in whatever way a person desired. Christian teaching stands in contrast to this, in that the body is not insignificant. Rather, each individual has been created in the image of God, and therefore the human body holds significance, both while it is living and after death.
After considering these biblical realities, should Christians choose cremation or burial? I am not here to argue for either one. In fact, I think a good biblical case can be made for burial or cremation considering these principles. Rather, my point in this brief post is to simply acknowledge that, although there are patterns in scripture, this is an area where the Bible has not spoken clearly, and as such, it seems to me that the decision made isn’t as important as the process a person goes through in order to make the decision. Therefore, I think there should be a good amount of freedom for people to prayerfully and wisely make final arrangements for themselves and for friends and family members who die. And we should extend a good deal of Christian charity to those who have arrived upon a different conclusion than our own.
So should Christians choose cremation? Maybe. What is not debatable, however, is that all Christians should pray, use wisdom, search the scriptures, and make a decision that makes sense for you and your family. Two Christians who prayerfully think about this question can come up with two different answers, both of which can be honoring to God. We should not condemn those who choose a different form of arrangement than what we are convicted of.