Should Christians consider cremation instead of a burial? Does cremation interfere with our bodies or soul after death? Let's look at scripture and Christian teaching about cremation:
What Is Cremation?
Cremation is a process in which intense fire is used to transform the human body back to its basic elements, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Because most of the body is tissue, it’s vaporized in the process, leaving bone behind. This is completed in a cremation chamber, a masonry-lined enclosure with temperatures of 1800-2000 degrees.
When someone wishes to be cremated, typically, they are placed in a wooden or cardboard casket and placed in the chamber. Within a few hours, the body is reduced to bone fragments. The bone fragments are then placed on a table, and all-metal debris, such as pins, screws, and titanium limbs, are removed by hand. The bone fragments are then placed in a special processor that crushes the fragments to a fine powder. These “cremains” are then placed in a plastic bag inside an urn and returned to the loved one’s family.
What Does the Bible Say About Cremation?
The first reference to cremation is found in 1 Samuel 31, where Saul and his sons are burned, and then their bones are buried.
But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days (1 Sam. 31:11-13).
The only other references are found in the book of Amos 2:1 and Amos 6:8-10. Leviticus 20:14 indirectly mentions cremation since it involves capital punishment that requires the offender to be “burned with fire.” However, there are over 200 references to burial in the Old Testament, which indicates this was the custom of the culture at that time. For ancient Israel, burial in a tomb, cave, or in the ground was the common way to dispose of a human body (Genesis 23:19; 35:19; 2 Chronicles 16:14; Matthew 27:60-66).
John MacArthur tells us: "Actually, the Scriptures do not say anything about required modes of burial for believers. Standard practice in the Old Testament and the New Testament was a burial. The Israelites cremated Saul and Jonathan after their deaths, but this was not normal practice in Israel. Their bodies were mutilated by the Philistines, thus the decision was made to cremate, and then bury the ashes (1 Samuel 31:8-13). Achan, and his family, were cremated upon their execution for sinning against Israel, which again appears to be an exception to normal burial practices among the Israelites."
Cremation in the Bible
Job 34:14-15 - “If it were his intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust."
Amos 6:8-10 - "The Sovereign LORD has sworn by himself—the LORD God Almighty declares: 'I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.' If ten people are left in one house, they too will die. And if the relative who comes to carry the bodies out of the house to burn them asks anyone who might be hiding there, “Is anyone else with you?” and he says, “No,” then he will go on to say, “Hush! We must not mention the name of the LORD.”
1 Samuel 31:12-13 - "They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days."
Christian Teachings about Cremation
The perspective on cremation among Christians can vary, and not all Christians are against it. However, some Christians may have reservations about cremation for various reasons, often rooted in their interpretation of religious teachings or cultural traditions. Here are some common reasons why some Christians may be opposed to cremation:
Resurrection Beliefs: Some Christians believe in bodily resurrection, emphasizing the importance of the physical body in the afterlife. They may view cremation as the destruction of the body and prefer traditional burial as a way to show respect for the body's eventual resurrection.
Symbolism of Burial: Traditional burial is seen by some as symbolic of the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians who hold this view may feel that cremation does not align with this symbolism and may choose burial as a way to reflect their faith.
Cultural and Denominational Differences: Christian beliefs and practices can vary among denominations and cultures. Some denominations may have specific teachings or traditions regarding burial practices, and individuals within those denominations may adhere to those guidelines.
Concerns About Cremation's Irreversibility: Some Christians may feel uncomfortable with the irreversible nature of cremation, viewing it as a permanent and irreversible transformation of the body. Traditional burial, in contrast, is seen as a way to honor the deceased while allowing for natural decay over time.
Is Cremation a Sin?
There is no explicit scriptural command against cremation. Some believers object to the practice of cremation on the basis that it does not recognize that one day God will resurrect our bodies and reunite them with our spirit (1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
The fact that a body is cremated does not make it impossible or difficult for God to resurrect that body. He can resurrect a body eaten by a shark or a baby torn limb from limb and aborted by its mother. God is equally able to raise a person’s remains that have been cremated as he is the remains of a person who was not cremated. The question of burial or cremation is within the realm of Christian freedom.
When we consider how God created mankind, it supports this fact. In Genesis 1:27, we are told that God created man. The verb to create is the Hebrew bara. In Genesis 2:7, the Bible says God formed man (Hebrew asah). Since both of these verses speak of God creating man, we find that man was both created and formed. God created Adam by using pre-existing material, the earth. The word translated form is used in Scripture of the work of a potter forming his clay. The Hebrew has a play of words in Genesis 2:7. The word translated man is the Hebrew word Adam, while the word translated dust of the earth is the Hebrew word Adamah.
Should Christians Bury or Cremate?
Dr. Mark Coppenger gives this perspective from his video interview "Should Christian Famlies Bury or Cremate?":
"We had a big argument with my mother not long before she died, and she wanted to be cremated, didn't want to take up space, didn't want to make a problem. And we just said, "Yeah, mom. Yeah, mom." And then we buried her in a casket. And I mean, this was a family argument we had. There is a lot of cremation done in the Christian church.
I am not keen on it. I am not saying there is firm biblical teaching against it, but I did a piece for Baptist Press a number of years ago where I listed 10 reasons why I favored the other. And burial, that's a picture of baptism, I mean we're buried with Christ, in baptism raised in newness of life.
There are associations with Pagan burnings of the body, burning pyres in India, and so forth. I think that the biblical example is of special regard for the preciousness of the bones. They bring the bones back and bury the body from Egypt, and the like.
I think also there's just great reverence for the body. I mean, my mom's body was the one that birthed me, and that nursed me, and as I look at that mom in the hospital bed with the little IVs and so forth, that body is precious. And there's a certain piece of reverence.
I talk about just the treasure of graveyards, of cemeteries. How Cave Hill in Louisville has the bones of the founders of the seminary and you can walk in their reverential moments. And [inaudible 00:01:34] is full of it. Up from the grave, he arose. It's not like, "And the ashes from the winds."
There are just so many reasons that seem to me, to suggest, that the physical burial of a body is optimum."
Does it matter whether we're cremated or buried?
The following is an edited transcript of the audio from Desiring God.
John Piper takes a look at the theological questions that cremation raises:
"Not ultimately, but I don't ever counsel towards cremation.
An old couple had me over a few weeks ago. He's pushing ninety, and she's close behind. And the son was there, and the son said that the reason he wanted me to come was to tell his dad what I think about cremation and burial. (He had heard me talk about it.) So that's a real situation. The couple is just years away from this, months maybe, who knows.
The son wants to bury his dad, while the dad is thinking that cremation is quick, efficient and cheap. Well, it may not be cheaper. Anyways, here's the essence of what I said: The biblical pattern is that burning your children is pagan and burying your loved ones is a sign that you believe in the resurrection.
I'm going to encourage people towards burial because of what it says about the body.
The body is precious, and it is going to be raised from the dead. I know it decomposes. I know it's no more there in a hundred years than if you had burned it. We're talking about the symbolic significance of a body stretched out in a coffin, looked at, and lovingly kissed and buried, rather than what is to me the horrible prospect of my wife or child or dad being burned, incinerated.
I would have to do a major mental escape in order to keep from feeling like that's so out of sync with what the body means to God. He created it. He's going to resurrect it. There's going to be continuity between what you were and what you are so that we can recognize each other.
You don't want to symbolically destroy it. You want to symbolically put it to rest, because that's the language of the Bible: you're sleeping. Right? "He will waken those who sleep." "Whether we sleep or wake, we belong to the Lord."
So the picture of the New Testament is that the dead are asleep. They're going to be raised from the dead. And they are alive to God.
So I've probably overstated my case now and made all the people who have ever cremated feel terribly guilty. I'll go back and end where I began: it is not ultimately an issue that matters. It doesn't matter ultimately. It's just not a custom I think the New Testament would naturally lead us to."
Why Are More People Choosing Cremation?
This practice is becoming the norm. The National Funeral Directors Association expects the trend shifting from burial toward cremation to continue over the next 20 years, with the projected rate of cremation reaching 78.8% of deaths by 2035. For the first time in American history, the majority of Americans are choosing cremation rather than burial at 50.2%. A common reason why more people are choosing cremation is to avoid the expenses related to funeral services and burial. A traditional funeral can often cost around $8,000 to $10,000 while the average cost of cremation is $1,500 to $2,500. There’s also the cost of digging a grave and purchasing funeral plots as well. Both run around $1,000 each.
A new growing trend developed in Italy is the Capsula Mundi project. The cost of these biodegradable urns is around $500. Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel have developed an organic, biodegradable burial capsule that will turn the deceased’s body into nutrients for a tree that will grow out of their remains. After being encapsulated in the fetal position, the deceased is buried and either a tree or tree seed is planted above their capsule. As of right now, the project is waiting to gain clearance of burial laws. If it is approved, the goal is to create memorial parks full of trees instead of tombstones.
Trees hold great symbolism and meaning across many different cultures. In many ways, a tree’s life cycle mirrors the human experience. God starts us from a seed in the womb. We grow from young and small to strong, tall, and firmly rooted in the ground of His Word. Eventually, we grow old and pass from this earth to heaven.
Why Does The Cremation vs. Casket Burial Debate Matter?
It doesn’t matter if a loved one is cremated, buried, or placed in a pod to become a tree. God will resurrect his people at the second coming. Funerals are meant for the living as a chance to celebrate the life of their loved ones who have passed. It is a chance to remember, respect, and reminisce about their lives. It is also a reminder that we are ultimately in God’s hands. He’s given us life, the breath in our lungs, and the bodies that hold our spirits. One day we will meet him face to face with a new body that will never wear out for all eternity.
Photo Credit ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/FroggyFrogg
Heather Riggleman is a believer, wife, mom, author, social media consultant, and full-time writer. She lives in Minden, Nebraska with her kids, high school sweetheart, and three cats who are her entourage around the homestead. She is a former award-winning journalist with over 2,000 articles published. She is full of grace and grit, raw honesty, and truly believes tacos can solve just about any situation. You can find her on GodUpdates, iBelieve, Crosswalk, Hello Darling, Focus On The Family, and in Brio Magazine. Connect with her at www.HeatherRiggleman.com or on Facebook.