What Is the Bible’s View?
Is Cremation Proper for Christians?
WHAT is your reaction to the thought of having a deceased relative’s body cremated? Does cremation seem to you to be as suitable a way of disposing of the dead as burial? Or does cremation go against your sentiments? Does it seem improper or even unscriptural?
Your reaction may have been molded by the view prevailing where you live. In some lands cremation is quite common. For instance, in West Germany, England and Denmark over half of the dead are cremated, and in Japan it is almost universal. But in the United States only about 8 percent of the dead are cremated, and in other lands it is still more uncommon. Why such differences?
Unquestionably, local conditions bear on the customs regarding how the dead are disposed of. For example, in some areas the ground is frozen during much of the year and firewood is scarce. So it is customary for the dead to be ‘exposed’ to be consumed by birds or animals. In such lands only the middle and upper class persons are buried or cremated. In certain countries where land is scarce cremation is popular because it costs less than burial in a normal grave.
But religious beliefs also come into the picture regarding cremation. With their belief that a person has an immortal soul, some of the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed cremation as a fine means of rapidly releasing the soul from its dead body.
On the other hand, the Encyclopædia Judaica reports: “Disposal of the dead body by burning is not a Jewish custom and inhumation [burial] is considered by traditional Jews to be obligatory.” Also, for centuries the Roman Catholic Church strongly opposed cremation. In the late nineteenth century Canon Law 1240 declared that Catholics who ordered their bodies cremated were to be deprived of ecclesiastical burial unless they repented before death. A papal decree in 1963 somewhat revised this position, but still it urged ‘abstaining from cremation unless compelled by necessity.’
What, then, is the proper view of cremation from the standpoint of God’s Word? Is it proper for a Christian to be cremated?
In Bible Times
During the Biblical period God’s servants customarily interred the body of a deceased person in a cave, tomb or grave. Abraham set an early example. Upon the death of his beloved wife Sarah he purchased a cave as a family burial site. (Gen. 23:2-20; 49:29-32) Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, attached considerable importance to the proper burial of a person. For someone to be deprived of burial was a severe calamity. (Jer. 14:16) Thus Jehovah’s repudiation of King Jehoiakim was expressed in the prophecy that the king would receive “the burial of a he-ass,” that is, his corpse being dragged outside the city and left unburied.—Jer. 22:18, 19; compare Jeremiah 25:32, 33; Isaiah 14:19, 20.
With this emphasis on proper burial, it would have been disgraceful for someone to be refused burial and the corpse just be burned up as trash. In connection with some crimes the Law required that the criminal be killed and his body burned. (Lev. 20:14; 21:9; Josh. 7:15, 25) Similarly, when Jesus was on earth the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem’s wall was a garbage dump where fires were kept burning to destroy refuse. Some bodies of dead criminals viewed as unfit for a decent burial were cast there. Jesus used this as a symbol of complete destruction without hope of resurrection.—Mark 9:47, 48; Matt. 5:22.
But do these examples of the burning of corpses indicate that it would be improper to have a body cremated?
First, it is not as if the Law invariably linked the two, criminals and burning. Jews use Deuteronomy 21:23 as a proof text in support of earthen burial. It says that the body of a man executed and hung on a stake should not be left overnight, but “you should by all means bury him on that day.” So burning was just one way in which a criminal’s corpse might be disposed of.
And it can be appreciated that there is a vast difference between the corpse of an ancient criminal being burned with refuse and modern funeral procedures involving cremation. While the former was intended to express rejection and shame, the latter is arranged as a dignified alternative to a person’s returning to dust through normal decomposition in the ground.
Actually, modern cremation is somewhat comparable to the actions of the men of Jabesh-gilead after they rescued the bodies of King Saul and his sons from the Philistines. They took the bodies to “Jabesh and burned them there. Then they took their bones and buried them.” (1 Sam. 31:12, 13) Faithful David did not consider their burning the corpses as shameful. It was part of a respectful disposing of the dead.—2 Sam. 2:4-7.
The early Christians continued the Jewish custom of burial in the earth or in tombs. In addition to the Jewish background of Christianity, a reason for this seems to have been that cremation at that time was associated with paganism such as the immortal-soul teaching. In later centuries the Roman Catholic Church legislated against cremation, thus forbidding by Church Law what was not forbidden by Scripture.
What about Christians today? The fact is that there is no Bible command for or against either burial or cremation. Nor usually does burial instead of cremation help to distinguish true Christians from believers in the pagan idea of an immortal soul; today some of the chief adherents of that unscriptural doctrine are found among churchgoers who normally bury their dead.
Additionally, the Bible plainly shows that it matters not whether a dead body is returned to dust rapidly by fire or gradually by decay. Either way God’s words are true: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19) It certainly is not as if God needs a mummy in order to resurrect a person. The apostle Paul taught that a person resurrected to heaven will be given a new body, so that he is “changed” from the fleshly body that disintegrated. He showed that ‘God gives to each one a body just as it pleases him.’ (1 Cor. 15:35-49) It will be similar with those resurrected to life on earth in the New Order. God will be able to provide adequate human bodies no matter how their former bodies disintegrated, whether rapidly by fire or slowly by decay.
Definitely God’s Word does recommend that the body of a dead loved one be dealt with in a dignified, respectful way. But whether a family, for emotional, economic or other reasons, will have a deceased loved one cremated or not is a personal matter.