Maybe you became acquainted with cremation in connection with the death of someone you knew or loved. You went to visit the family at the funeral home or attended the service at church and wondered where the casket was.
What did you think of that experience? Did it seem strange to you? Did it affect your sense of grief or comfort? Did it matter that you didn’t have the opportunity to see the deceased person one more time? Did it raise any faith questions for you? Did you wonder if this was an acceptable practice for Christians? Maybe you asked your pastor if your church has a position on cremation.
Let’s deal with the topic of cremation in a question and answer format. Hopefully, this treatment will help us all as we consider a practice that’s becoming increasingly common in our society. In the United States, 51.6 percent of deceased persons were cremated in the year 2017, an increase of more than 30 percentage points since 1966 (Annual Statistics Report of the Cremation Association of North America, 2018). In Canada, the percentage is even higher—70.5 percent in 2017—and is projected to exceed 75 percent by the year 2022.
If you haven’t known anyone whose body was cremated, it’s getting more and more likely that you will. As with all issues, we want to face this one with an informed Christian perspective.
What happens when a body is cremated?
Cremation is the process by which a body is incinerated by intense heat. All substances are consumed and vaporized except for bone fragments and any non-combustible materials. What remains is four to ten pounds of matter. The “ashes” are in fact bone particles.
Where does the practice come from?
Cremation has roots in ancient times. It was the normal practice for Greeks and Romans, largely because of their belief in the immortality of the soul. For them, death meant the liberation of the soul from the prison-house of the body. The soul was the essence of a person; the body was the source of evil desires and habits. Cremation was, and still is, common in the Hindu world because of that religion’s belief in reincarnation.
Historically Jews and Christians have favored the practice of burial. With the spread of Christianity, especially after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, burial also became increasingly common. In traditionally Christian lands, cremation did not become a matter of concern until the late 19th century, after the development of the first modern cremation device in 1870.
Why do people choose cremation?
A number of factors make cremation an attractive option for people today. In some regions of the world, including parts of North America, concern about land use is an issue. Cost may also be a factor for some people; cremation is usually more economical than a traditional burial. Another likely factor is the loss of community in our highly transient society. Gone are the days when most families remain in the same community from one generation to another. If the remains of your loved one are in an urn, you can have them with you wherever you live.
What does the Bible teach about cremation?
The Bible offers no direct teaching about cremation. While the Bible describes how the dead were dealt with, it does not prescribe a particular practice. It is clear from Scripture that burial was customary for both Jews and early Christians. The only Old Testament examples of cremation are cases involving God’s judgment (Joshua 7:25; 1 Samuel 31:12; Amos 2:1). In 1 Corinthians 13:3 the apostle Paul speaks hypothetically of offering his body to be burned, but he is referring to martyrdom, not cremation.
What biblical/theological concepts should Christians consider when looking at cremation?
I believe there are at least five biblical teachings Christians should weigh as they evaluate arrangements made for disposing of bodies after death, whether by bodily burial or cremation.
1. Created in God’s Image
The first is our belief in God’s good creation. Humans are made in the image of God, and we are body/soul entities (Genesis 1:26–27, 2:7; Heidelberg Catechism Q&As 1, 6, 34, 57, 109, 121; Our World Belongs to God, st. 10–12). Rather than viewing the body as insignificant and the source of evil, we affirm that we image God in our full bodily existence.
2. Bodily Resurrection
This belief relates closely to our belief in a bodily resurrection. “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body,” we say in the Apostles’ Creed. As Christians, we affirm a faith not only in God’s good creation but also in the hope of a new creation—one in which we will reign with God forever as fully restored, full-bodied people (see 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Heidelberg Q&A 57). Our joy and hope do not rest in the salvation of disembodied souls but in a redemption that transforms the world and us in our fullness (Philippians 3:20–21; 2 Peter 3:13). Our only comfort is that we “belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to [our] faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Q&A 1). For some Christians, belief in the resurrection of the body is the source of their deepest concerns about cremation. They fear that somehow cremation threatens this hope. Let us be assured that nothing can prevent the Lord from bringing our redemption to completion—not cremation, and not the total decomposition of human remains after hundreds of years in the grave.
3. Temples of the Holy Spirit
Two additional teachings underscore our high regard for human bodies. One is the Bible’s declaration that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19; Heidelberg Q&A 109). The other is the truth that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
4. The Incarnation
The doctrine of the incarnation is yet another teaching that reminds us of the high value assigned to our bodies in the Christian worldview. One thing we may say with certainty on the basis of these teachings is that whatever motivation one may have for choosing cremation, it should not be a disregard for the body, as if the body doesn’t matter.
5. Death as the Consequence of Sin
Finally, we have to take into account the radical consequences of sin. Our hope in the resurrection of the body and in life everlasting does not blind us to the effects of sin. Physical death is real. It is a consequence of sin. It is an enemy. Pointing to the ultimate victory of Christ over his enemies, Paul states that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Cremation, therefore, should not be viewed as a way to somehow keep the “spirit” of the deceased with us.
These teachings do not argue for or against cremation. They simply provide the framework for our considerations.
What pastoral advice would you give to Christians considering cremation?
In a Christianity Today article on this subject (May 21, 2002), Timothy George hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “The real question for Christians is not whether one is buried or cremated, but the meaning given to these acts.” We may shake our heads at a story about someone’s ashes being scattered on a mountaintop because “she always loved to climb this spot.” But is that any stranger than dressing a corpse in a three-piece suit and placing it in a $20,000 casket? Both raise questions about whether the physical reality of death is being acknowledged.
My advice to Christians considering cremation is the same I would give to those considering traditional burial. Give careful thought to how your funeral arrangements can honor the tenets of faith that we noted above. Do not try to hide the reality of death. In light of the value that Christianity ascribes to the body, give an opportunity for family and friends to view the body before cremation. And by all means, make sure that our glorious hope in the resurrection of the body is affirmed and celebrated.