With the very recent loss of a dear friend and DBM partner, the question has again been asked, “What does the Bible say about cremation vs burial?” Does God have a preference? The spouse of this friend, is not the only person who is asking this sensitive question. With hospitals now being the #1 cause of death in America, and the spillover effects of the Kool aid 19, shedding, testing and more, this question is being asked more frequently.
With some study of God’s Word, here are my thoughts on whether to cremate or to bury. Which does the Bible favor? Today we will attempt to gain some insight to this topic from a spiritual perspective. The first being, is cremation permissible for a Christian believer? And secondly, does the Bible give us any guidance or instruction surrounding this dilemma. However, before addressing these specifics, it is important to clarify that the Bible does not state cremation is a sin or that we are not to do it. But it does give us many examples and illustrations that lead us toward burial as a preferred method.
Overall, the type of burial one choses is a personal preference and decision. This information is for your consideration only as guidance if you face this decision with questions. It is important to say, that regardless of the final condition of the body in death—whether a loved one is lost at sea, or their body is destroyed in some way in their death, or they choose cremation—if they are a Christian who is a follower of Jesus—when the trumpet of God sounds and the dead in Christ are resurrected, the particles of that believers body will be gathered again to live in God’s kingdom in a resurrected bodily form. Nothing can separate us from what God has declared for those who love Him. This is one of the aspects of our “great hope.”
Now let’s consider current culture vs biblical history. In the culture at large, things have significantly changed when it comes to funerals and memorial services. On reading obituaries alone there is evidence in many instances, when no formal services are planned. Often times memorials to the deceased are simply online, or post funeral gatherings are often at a picnic shelter, a camp ground, restaurant, clubhouse or pub. Paying tribute to the deceased in a informal or relaxed manner has become commonplace.
There appears to be various reasons why we see these changes happening. One is evidence of families increasingly becoming disconnected from one another. This could be geographically or relationally, so planning a funeral service can seem overwhelming, resulting in arrangements that are simpler and less emotionally stressful.
As costs increase and income decreases, the cost of burial over cremation becomes a serious consideration. And culturally, our society is moving more aggressively toward cremation as land is limited and costs are rising. The first year that the number of cremations in the U.S. exceeded the number of burials, was in 2016. Now it has risen to exceed 56% and is growing. The challenge we may experience, is the struggle to discern which option is most biblically sound.
Fewer people in today’s culture feel the need for a religious component in their funeral service. A little over five years ago, 50% of Americans felt a religious service was important and necessary, compared to just 40% in recent figures. This study shows a worrying decline. As Christians, we should continue to place a high value on funeral and memorial services where the truth of Christ and the wonderful message of eternal life can be faithfully proclaimed, as the deceased Christian life is valued and celebrated. It’s at just such a time where we can ‘Shine as lights’ in a dark world (Philippians 2:15), and a funeral/memorial service is a wonderful opportunity to do just that as we honor a Christian life!
Interestingly, the states exceeding the number of cremations are most indicative in the west, in states that are not as biblically orientated, and the lowest rates are in bible belt states. The United Kingdom presently has a rate of 77% cremation versus burial. Notably, nearly all Hindus and all Buddhists practice cremation.
The question becomes: why is cremation gaining increasing popularity in western world civilizations, particularly in America and the UK? Possibly the biggest reason is that in our culture, it is becoming increasingly secularized and less biblically orientated, which is contributing to the rise of cremation.
Looking back toward the early church days, interestingly, in about 200 AD, the practice of cremation, which was popularized in the Roman Empire, began to wane, which coincides with the spread of Christianity. Then in about 500 AD, in the ancient Roman Empire, the practice of cremation virtually ceased! It’s significant to point out that cremation, from that period until more recently, has been largely avoided and discouraged by almost all in the Christian tradition.
Now, while the bible doesn’t provide us with direct instruction or revelation surrounding cremation and burial, it does cover some of the practices that cultures of the bible followed.
The usual way that dead bodies were handled in the biblical world, was burial. There were different types of burial practices in the biblical world, because there was no way of embalming the body and keeping it from decaying and spreading disease. Therefore, the custom was to bury the deceased on the same day the person died. That custom changed little from place to place, and by and large has remained the same even now in many of those areas.
There were different types of burial in the bible, including direct burial in the ground, and burial in a Crypt above the ground. There were also burial caves known as ‘ancestral’ caves, where for example, Abraham bought the cave of the Hittite and buried his wife Sara there. Later, when Abraham died, he was buried in the same cave, followed by his wife Leah and his son Isaac.
We know that Jesus was laid in an unused ancestral burial cave/tomb after being hurriedly wrapped in linen cloth, face covering and spices. Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, had also been wrapped in linen cloth and placed in a ancestral cave, which was a common practice amongst Jews of that time. Sometimes the dead would be laid in a sarcophagus, then the bones retrieved and placed in a little box and put in the ground or a burial cave.
There are some examples of cremation in the bible, but not many. Sometimes the body would be cremated after there had been desecration. An example of this can be found in 1 Samuel 31:12, where the men of Jabish Gilead, cremated King Saul and his sons who had been killed by the Philistines. The bodies were cremated then the bones taken and buried.
Criminals were often not given the honor of a burial. God’s judgement of the wicked often resulted in denial of a burial, leaving the body exposed to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. The prophesied end of Jezebel and of Jehoakim, an evil King of Judah, found in Jeremiah 22:19, demonstrates the denial of burial as a direct result of God’s judgement.
So in a day when cremation is becoming increasingly popular among believers and unbelievers alike, how should we, as believers, think about it biblically and wisely? Although there is no specific biblical verse that prohibits cremation, there are cultural practices that can help us form a wise, biblical perspective, and find guidance.
Both in the Old and the New Testament, the people of God almost always exclusively practiced the burial of their dead. For example, in the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses (buried by God Himself), David and so on.
The New Testament tells us that John the Baptist was buried, Lazarus, Ananias and Sapphira, Stephen, and our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself. As the apostle John wrote in John chapter 19, the custom of the devote was to bury. So, in spite of the fact that in both the Old and New Testament, surrounding cultures practiced cremation, the people of God did not practice it. On the rare occasion when it was practiced in the Old Testament, it always carried a negative connotation—often possibly due to a criminal punishment, human sacrifice, war or some other uncommon factor.
In light of this we should also consider the principle of biblical stewardship. To be a biblical steward means the proper care of something, which certainly applies here, as we are stewards of our bodies. Stewardship is not synonymous with frugality, thus the easiest and cheapest option, which would be cremation, may not necessarily be the moral or the wisest option from a biblical perspective.
Of important and little known significance, is how scripture refers to buried corpses as ‘persons’, and often by name! One example of this is in the gospel of Mark where he writes in Chapter 15, ‘Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus from the cross and buried HIM’ and ‘laid ‘Him’ in a tomb’ referring to Jesus’ body as a person. Yes, the spirit had departed from the body, but to be human means that we have both a physical and non-physical body.
In biblical times, there was a widespread dualistic philosophy that the body was bad and the spirit was good, and therefore it didn’t matter what you did with the body, but that’s not a biblical perspective. While alive, the body of the believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit. At death the spirit departs from the body, but the body, as the temple, still needs to be shown respect and dignity, for it is the workmanship of God, made in the image of God.
Something else that needs to be considered is the biblical teaching about death and resurrection. Where it says in 1 Corinthians 15 ‘It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body’ implies that a body is being placed into the ground. In biblical times until the mid 1800’s, the church was nearly united in the view that burial best demonstrates respect for and the dignity of the human body. It clearly demonstrates the hope and the promise of a resurrection, and an eternal, physical existence for the believer in Christ. Since we are to do all things for the glory of God, whatever we do, we do all for the glory of God. And in Philippians 1:20 Paul goes further to say, ‘…so that now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death…’
In light of this, we may be wise to ask ourselves, which option might provide the most opportunity to glorify God? People may come to different conclusions. Family may sometimes be required to choose cremation due to financial resources, location of death, manner of death, respect of a loved one’s wishes, or other factors may necessitate it. We can go before the Lord in that freedom because the Bible does not prohibit it, whether we would choose that for ourselves or for our loved ones.
The aim here is to encourage us to think through the issue and explore it from a biblical and cultural perspective, bringing it before the Lord, and not just go along with the cultural practice of today.
If cremation is chosen, there is an advantage in burying the ashes and having a burial site, rather than just scattering them to the wind or to the sea. There is great value in having a specific burial place—a memorial to the deceased loved one. Having something put on a stone or a marker that gives a lasting testimony, like a verse of scripture, and to think through what testimony could be left, so that in a sense, though he or she is dead, yet they speak to those in the future who may come through that place.
In conclusion, if given a choice, contemporary believers open to cremation may desire to carefully consider the practice and evaluate it in the light of God’s Word. Because for us believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying in every aspect to the message and the hope of the gospel and eternal life found only in Christ Jesus.
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