Considering Concerns about Cremation
(response to submitted questions)
by Bob Burridge ©2018
Among sound Christian believers and teachers cremation has been accepted by some and condemned by others. We need to be very careful in our study of issues where believers differ. We need to avoid as much as possible prejudicing our conclusions with assumptions and convictions not based upon clear biblical evidence.
The common questions about the acceptability of cremation or burial for Christians pivot around three primary issues.
1. There is a sacredness of the physical bodies God gives each of us at birth.
Having spoken over the years with supporters of each side of this issue, I find that most on both sides emphatically agree that we are to treat our physical bodies with care and respect.
We should never just set fire to a body disrespectfully with no more respect than that given to an “old wood-shed” as one person said. I have never heard a well informed Christian on the pro-cremation side of the issue support such disrespect. We should never just set fire to a body to get rid of it, nor should we just dump it in the ground disrespectfully. To do so either way would be contrary to the way in which we should treat that given by God to house our soul during our earthly life, and through which we are to honor Christ during our lives here on earth.
I have had several experiences with funeral homes and memorial services where the bodies of the deceased were dealt with in both ways. Cremations can be done with extreme care and respect, and the remains handled with honor when done by responsible agents. The same with burials where the body is prepared for display or for burial with great respect as it is injected with preservation materials, surgically posed, and cosmetically prepared for the casket. Even burial at sea should be done with respect.
2. Does the Bible direct us how to deal with our bodies after physical death?
After death, human bodies cease to function biologically and need to be dealt with. Some are buried in the ground. They may be treated chemically first, but there are also cultures and economic situations where many have not been treated before burial. Bodies have been placed in sealed coffins, simple boxes, or just buried in plain soil. Some are laid above ground in special tombs or mausoleums.
In time all physical bodies deteriorate. Even those preserved and placed in carefully sealed caskets also deteriorate by normal biological processes in time. We know from archeology how the carefully preserved mummies of the pagan Egyptians have also deteriorated in spite of their best efforts at that time.
There are times when the destruction of a human body is unintentional. Some have been tragically burned by fire in home accidents, forest fires, war situations. Some have been eaten by animals, lost in the sea, lost in landslides or snowslides, and so on.
In the final resurrection every body of those redeemed by Christ, regardless of how it was handled after its death, regardless of it’s present physical condition, will be restored, raised up in a “glorified” state, to be reunited with the person’s soul to live in the spiritual presence of God and other believers for all eternity. The bodies of those not redeemed will also be raised up, but into a state of eternal torment due to their rebellion against their Creator.
We have no control over the disposition of the body by such things as natural fires, war explosions, drowning in the sea, avalanches and such. The concern in question is about the planned handling of the body after death by those who remain.
We have no direct instructions in the Bible indicating that God has a particular way in which our deceased bodies are to be dealt with. There are occasions of burials and entombments in Scripture. That was how the people at that time and in that culture dealt with the bodies of their passed loved ones. The Bible historically records what took place, but does not reveal a moral principle that governs these practices. Though some pagans did burn bodies ceremonially, many pagans also buried them ceremonially (as in the case of the Egyptian mummies as one example).
Some have used passages in Leviticus (20:14, 21:9) and Genesis 38:24 to imply that cremation was for those who had committed capitol sexual crimes, but these passages are about the criminal execution of lawbreakers by fire, not about the cremation of a person who had previously died. Some have used 1 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 23:16,20 to imply that cremation was a desecration, but these verses have to do with defiling an altar by disrespectfully burning human bones upon it. To set a dead body or its bones on fire intending to show disrespect would be a sin in the attitude of the person doing the burning. It does not address the act of cremating a body.
The disposition of the body of Moses is recorded in Deuteronomy 34:5-6, “So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.”
The word for “buried” there translates a Hebrew word which is based upon the root word “qavar” (קבר). The word in verb form means to either “bury” or to “entomb“. The noun form “qever” means either “grave, tomb, or sepulcher“. There is no instruction there or in any other place that this represents a moral imperative. It just states the historical fact of what took place. The term is the common one used by the Hebrew speaking people because some type of burial was the common practice of the Jews and most of the Gentile cultures of that time.
In the entombment of Jesus, he was providentially laid in a tomb. He was not buried in the ground as were most Jews at that time. Entombment was not available to the average person. The laying of Jesus in a tomb rather than just being buried served several purposes. It demonstrated his royal importance as the promised Messiah. It was also the fulfillment of the prophesy about the Messiah in Isaiah 53:9, “And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” Further, it provided the open stage upon which his resurrection would be made visible to all when he came forth from the tomb on the first day of the week. There is nothing in the context to indicate that entombment is more moral than burial in the ground, or that either is morally superior to any other way the body should be respectfully dealt with after death.
3. Is there an improper motive in cremation or burial?
There may be many reasons why a person prefers one form over another. Some who favor burial like to have a viewing of the lost loved one’s body for friends and members of the family. Some who prefer cremation argue that it is more respectful than burial where bacteria and other living things will eventually cause the body to decay as time progresses even when preserved in caskets.
Some argue for cremation because it is less expensive. Cost may be a factor to consider in some cases but it is not a moral reason making one method to be more proper than another.
If any method (burial, entombment, or cremation) is done in a pagan setting or with disrespect it would violate the honor God calls upon us to give to the physical form he created for humans.
In conclusion, I have not found any clear biblical instruction specifying that the body is most honored by one of these methods over the other. Within the boundaries set by God’s word I find no moral mandate for burial or for cremation, and nothing stated or directly implied against either method in Scripture.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)