With the rising cost of funeral expenses today, many people are choosing cremation instead of burial. Let’s look at what the Bible says about this topic.
According to the Bible, the Israelites in the Old Testament and the early Christians in the New Testament practiced burial, not cremation. Jesus attacked many Jewish traditions, but not burial of the dead. In fact, an Israelite was dishonored if they didn’t receive a proper burial (1 Ki. 13:21-22; 21:23-24; Jer. 16:4, 6; 22:19). One of the sins of Moab is said to be “he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king” (Amos 2:1). In this instance it seems as though cremation denied the king a proper burial.
Is this Biblical practice of burial a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?
Is burial a command?
It doesn’t seem to be a command, because any commands seem to relate to specific circumstances. For example, Joseph issued a command regarding the burial of his body (Heb. 11:22) and the bodies of hanged criminals were to be buried on the same day (Dt. 21:23). Also, there are no curses or judgments in the Bible on someone who was cremated. The examples that are usually quoted for curses are instances when people are burned when they are alive, not after their death (Gen. 19:24; Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 16:35; 2 Pt. 2:6). There are two exceptions, Achan was stoned and then cremated for plundering Jericho (Josh. 7:25-26) and King Josiah executed pagan priests and cremated their bodies (2 Ki. 23:19-20).
Although there is no general command for burial, cremation is said to be a sin in Old Testament times (Amos 2:1). This is the only clear reference to cremation in the Bible and no reason or explanation is given in this brief statement.
The bodies of King Saul and his sons were “burned” by the Israelites (1 Sam. 31:11-13). However, there is no mention of cremation in the parallel account of this event and its retelling to David (2 Sam. 2:4-5; 1 Ch. 10:12). As a result of this, some think this is burning incense, not a cremation (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19).
Today traditional Jews are prohibited under their law from practicing cremation because they believe that cremation rules out the possibility of resurrection. But it’s not more difficult for God to resurrect a body that has been cremated. All believers will one day receive a new body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Th. 4:13-18), regardless of what remains of their old body. All human bodies eventually decay and become like ashes or dust. Cremation mainly speeds up this process (Gen. 3:19).
Whether cremation was a sin in New Testament times is debatable because cremation isn’t mentioned in the New Testament.
Because burial was common, Paul used it as a metaphor for baptism and the fact that a Christian has “buried” their old sinful self and is no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:4-7; Col. 2:12).
Is burial a model or a report?
If burial isn’t commanded in the Bible, then it is either a model to follow or a report of events that are not necessarily right or wrong. I find it hard to decide between these alternatives.
Some say that because Christ was buried after He died, He is an example to follow (1 Cor. 15:4). But this seems like “cherry picking” to me. Christ was also crucified; is that an example to follow? Only in the sense of being a metaphor for self-denial (Lk. 9:23). Also, if it is a model to follow, what is the principle behind the practice? Is burial essential for resurrection? Surely not!
Biblical burial practices included funeral fires or burning incense (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19; Jer. 34:5), anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices (2 Ch. 16:14; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 23:56–24:1; Jn. 19:39-40), burial in caves (Genesis 49:29-32; Jn. 11:38), and family tombs (2 Ch. 16:14). “Spices were likely used in each of the three phases of burial: corpse preparation (Mt. 26:12), funeral procession and interment” (Brink and Green Eds., “Commemorating the dead – Texts and artifacts in context”, 2008).
If you think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then I don’t think you need to adopt the Jewish practices of funeral fires, burning incense, and anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices. For example the body doesn’t need to be anointed with about 34 kg (75 pounds) of perfumes and spices as was the case for Jesus (Jn. 19:39)!
Some believe that the symbolism of destroying a body (cremation) that God created and that God will resurrect is the wrong message to send at a funeral.
But if you don’t think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then you can ask the following questions about cremation: Will it bring the most glory to God? Are we acting in love? Will it reflect the dignity of the human body? Will the future bodily resurrection be paramount? Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on this topic? What do other family members think? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers and of families? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church? Will it help or hinder the gospel witness of the church?
We also need to consider local associations. For example, cremation is mandated by the Hindu religion because of their belief in reincarnation. They think that the fire helps the spirit detach from the body on its way to a new body. Because of this link, Christians who converted from Hinduism may be hindered by cremation. Also in Hindu areas, some may assume that cremation signals approval of idolatrous practices. So it would be better to favor burial above cremation in areas with a large Hindu population.
By the way, cremated remains can still be buried, interred in someone else’s grave or placed in a cremation plot.
Although burial was used instead of cremation in Biblical times, the Bible seems to be written to allow some people to think it is a model to follow today and others to think it is just a report of what happened and so cremation is also acceptable today. If you are considering cremation, then it would be good to consider the matters raised above.
Finally, the Bible focuses on our life when our bodies are alive. It is less concerned about what happens to our corpses.
Written, January 2015