The question of cremation is is a good and often asked question. We must begin our answer with the fact that the Bible does not directly address this issue. Therefore, it is a matter of conscience that falls within the parameters of the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Romans 14:1-23. Each of us should do what our own conscience dictates, without condemning others for doing differently.
Although we lack chapter and verse to be dogmatic on this issue, I do believe that the general tenure of Scripture is contrary to the practice of cremation. For this reason, I prefer interment to cremation. If our Lord tarries and I’m forced to walk the vale with Him, I’ll opt for a traditional burial. Permit me to enumerate my reasons why, as well as to elaborate upon them.
Cremation is of pagan origin. Pagan theologies led the pre-Christian pagan religions of Europe to cremate their dead for many reasons. For instance, many feared the dead and thought that cremation was a way of destroying the departed. Others downgraded the physical body as inconsequential or evil; thus, cremation was seen as a fitting end to a spirit-discarded corpse.
Since the inception of the Christian faith, many antichrists have opted for cremation as a sort of in-your-face gesture toward Christ, who called Himself the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25). In other words, cremation is seen by these enemies of Christ as their final opportunity to take a swipe at the Christian faith. A good example is a noted atheist who supposedly had this statement read while his ashes were scattered over the River Thames, “Let’s see if your God can resurrect this!”
God’s people have always buried their dead and rejected the practice of cremation. This is true, regardless of whether we’re talking about Israel in the Old Testament, Christians in the New Testament, or the church throughout Christian history. In fact, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, interment of the dead became the only sanctioned method of disposing of bodies throughout all of Europe.
All of the Bible’s key characters and champions of the faith were buried. The only arguable exception is King Saul and his three sons, whose bodies were burned before burial because they had been desecrated in the Philistines’ worship of their pagan gods and idols (1 Samuel 31:8-13). All of the other biblical instances of bodies being burned are either examples of pagan practice or enacted as part of the punishment for some egregious sin (Amos 2:2; Joshua 7:1-26).
No greater dishonor could be shown to the dead in biblical times than to refuse them a proper burial (Jeremiah 16:4-6; 22:18-19; 25:33). For instance, the Prophet Amos tells of a survivor of God’s judgment who is found hiding from God’s wrath and afraid to mention God’s name when those collecting bodies to be burned come to his house looking for corpses (Amos 6:9-10). This strange passage of Scripture insinuates that it was the ultimate insult added to injury for the dead of this survivor’s household, all of whom had been killed in God’s judgment, to subsequently have their bodies gathered as fodder for the fire. Another place where dishonoring the dead by refusing them a proper burial may be clearly seen in the Scripture is in Revelation 11:7-10, where the whole world refuses burial to God’s two end-time witnesses.
Did you know that a whole chapter of Genesis is devoted to the first formal burial in the Bible, Abraham’s burial of his beloved wife Sarah (Genesis 23)? Only two chapters later and Abraham himself—the Father of the Faithful—is interred beside his beloved Sarah in the “cave of Machpelah,” which Abraham had purchased from the Hittites as a sepulchre for his family (Genesis 25:7-10). All of Israel’s patriarchs were buried, one of which, Joseph, even asked his countrymen to swear an oath to him, promising to carry his bones out of Egypt and back to Canaan for burial (Genesis 50:22-26). In Hebrews Chapter 11, the famous Faith Chapter of the Bible, Joseph is commended for giving his countrymen instructions about his burial, which the author of Hebrews attributes to Joseph’s great foresight and faith (Hebrews 11:22).
Of particular interest to us in this study is the burying of Moses by God (Deuteronomy 34:1-6). Moses, Israel’s famous lawgiver, was permitted prior to his death to view the Promised Land from the top of Pisgah, Mount Nebo’s most lofty height. Afterward, he died on Mount Nebo and was secretly buried by God somewhere in the land of Moab. Surely, it is of no little significance that God chose to bury the body of Moses, someone who had spoken to others as God’s prophet and face to face with God as God’s friend (Deuteronomy 34:10-12; Exodus 33:11).
In the New Testament, the disciples of John the Baptist took great care to see to it that the body of their master was given a proper burial (Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29). This, despite the fact that the Baptist had been beheaded by King Herod at the request of Herodias’ daughter. Likewise, “godly men” in the early church risked marking themselves for persecution by tenderly caring for, burying, and mourning over the body of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 8:1-3). If it was worth risking life and limb for, then the burial of their beloved dead must have been of no small consequence to those 1st century saints.
Of course, above and beyond all other burials in the Bible is the burial of our Lord. Following His crucifixion, Christ’s body was given upon request to Joseph of Arimathea, carefully prepared for interment according to Jewish burial customs, and laid in a garden tomb within which no corpse had ever been entombed before (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). Although we need to be careful not to take this example further than we should; for instance, no one should argue that being buried in a cave is more Christian than being buried in the ground, we can’t help but feel that Christ’s burial, like everything else in His life, is a perfect example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21).
What would have happened to the beautiful picture of our salvation in Christ that is painted by the ordinance of baptism if Christ had been cremated rather than buried (Romans 6:1-14)? If it doesn’t matter whether we’re cremated or buried, why did Jesus say, “Let the dead bury their dead” (Luke 9:60)? If being quickly reduced to ashes after death is just as good as being slowly reduced to dust, then why does the Bible say, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19)? These are just a few of the many questions one might ask himself when considering the compatibility of cremation with the teachings of the Scripture.
The word “cremation” comes from the Latin word “cremare,” which means “to burn.” Although the phrase “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust” is commonly used in funerals, only the latter “dust to dust” has a biblical origin (Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). As we’ve already discussed, “ashes to ashes” is of pagan origin. Granted, modern-day crematoriums are a far cry from burning bodies on a pyre in some pagan rite or ritual. Still, present-day cremations have no biblical basis, but are traceable back to pagan religions, rites and rituals.
Rather than “to burn,” the two figures of speech used by the Scripture in relation to the bodies of the dead are “asleep” and “sown.” In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the Apostle Paul speaks of the buried bodies of dead saints as “asleep.” Far from advocating the false doctrine of “soul sleep,” as many erroneously propose, Paul is only speaking of the bodies of dead believers in this passage, not of their souls or spirits. This fact is made obvious by Paul’s assurance that the souls of all departed saints are not only presently “with the Lord,” but will also be accompanying Him at His Second Coming (2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
Our English word “cemetery” comes from a Greek word used by early Christians to describe the burial places of their loved ones. This Greek word, “koineterion,” means “a sleeping place.” It was also used in biblical days for an inn, a place to rest overnight until rising again at dawn. How well this symbolism fits with the Christian belief in the resurrection. Our bodies sleep and rest in a cemetery until they are awakened and arise in the resurrection.
In 1 Corinthians 15:35-55, the Apostle Paul likens the resurrection to planting a seed. The seed is planted in the ground, where it decays and dies, only to spring back to life and rise again with a new body. Likewise, Paul explains in this passage how our dead bodies are “sown” (buried) in the ground only to spring back to life and rise again at the resurrection. Although our “perishable” and “natural” bodies are “sown” (buried) in “dishonor” and “weakness,” our “imperishable” and “spiritual” bodies will be resurrected in “glory” and “power.” Again, we see the Christian belief in the resurrection boldly professed and beautifully portrayed by the Christian practice of burying the dead.
While the biblical symbolism of sleeping and sown is lost when Christians are cremated, there is no reason to doubt that cremated bodies are just as “resurrectable” as buried ones. God is every bit as capable of resurrecting ashes as He is of resurrecting dust. Let’s face it, whether we’re raised from ashes or dust, the resurrection of the dead will require a divine miracle of immeasurable proportions. Still, it is a miracle that poses no difficulty for God, regardless of whether one is killed in a fire, martyred for the faith by being burned at the stake, or chooses to be cremated rather than buried.
There is no doubt that the popularity of cremation today is due to price, not paganism. It is simply more economical, being much cheaper and far more affordable than a traditional burial. In cremation, there is no expensive coffin, burial vault, grave site or tombstone. Still, I can’t get away from the fact that the Bible speaks of the resurrection as a time when the graves shall be opened, not as a time when urns shall be broken and scattered ashes regathered. Though it’s definitely more expensive, I’ll take advantage of the opportunity afforded me by a traditional burial to testify to the world one last time of my undying faith in Jesus Christ—the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25). As far as I’m concerned, it’s worth it, no matter what the cost!