When older folks get together, the conversation often drifts toward ailments, surgeries, and medications. But it’s also become rather common to talk about cremation.
Today many of us have had friends or family members who were cremated, and cremation is sounding more and more like something we might consider for ourselves. But is cremation an acceptable option for Christians?
Historically, cremation has not been part of the Christian tradition. Early Christians agreed with their Jewish ancestors that cremation was not an option they would consider, even though the Bible includes no specific mandate prohibiting it. Pagans practiced cremation. Christians did not.
In 1886 the Roman Catholic Church officially banned cremation. There does not appear to be a formal rule against cremation in the Orthodox tradition, but there is a heavy weight of custom and sentiment in favor of burial. Most Protestant churches, including the Christian Reformed Church, have made no official ruling on the matter. Perhaps the CRC made no study of it because burial was long the common practice. But now a growing number of Christians, including CRC members, are opting for cremation.
In view of that, let’s take a look at each practice and consider how each relates to our understanding of Scripture.
The first biblical account of burial is found in Genesis 23. Abraham and Sarah believed the promises God gave them about receiving a new land and having descendants beyond number. Sadly, they had no children until nearly the end of their lives, and they remained foreigners in the land they thought God had promised them. When Sarah died, Abraham did not own a burial place. So he bought the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites. He used that cave as the burial place for Sarah’s body. When Abraham died, he was buried in the same cave (Gen. 25:7-10).
When Moses died, God buried him in a gravesite that was never revealed (Deut. 34:6). King David was buried in the “City of David” (1 Kings 2:10).
The burial of Jesus is recorded in all four gospels. Had Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus not asked for the body of Jesus and buried it, his body might have been discarded along with the bodies of other crucified criminals. The burial of Jesus is so significant that it is one of the important points of the Apostles’ Creed.
After Herod murdered John the Baptist, John’s disciples buried his body (Matt. 14:12). And friends of Stephen buried his body after he was stoned to death (Acts 8:2).
The apostle Paul used the sowing of seed as a metaphor for burial and eventual resurrection: “Someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body” (1 Cor. 15:35-38).
It’s challenging to evaluate cremation from a Christian perspective, especially since the practice is relatively new to us.
One of the first things we should consider when it comes to either burial or cremation is the matter of respect. Burial is thought to show respect for the deceased, whereas the use of fire at the time of death may convey an image of destruction, disrespect, and judgment. But Christians who opt for cremation point out the following:
While fire was used at times to convey the judgment of God, it was also used to convey the presence of God. Think of the burning bush out of which God called Moses to be his servant, the pillar of fire that led Israel through the desert, and the tongues of fire that rested on the heads of the disciples on the day of Pentecost.
It’s true that the body God gives us must be respected because we are made in the image of God. But cremation need not be a destructive act. Even an embalmed body buried in a vault decomposes within a relatively short time; cremation only hastens an inevitable process.
The ashes that remain after cremation can be dealt with in a respectful manner by survivors.
When choosing between burial and cremation, we should also consider the matter of cost. Traditional burial may be a financial hardship for some. Even in biblical times it could be expensive. Abraham paid an exorbitant price for the cave of Machpelah. Only a few people in his day could afford that. Even the body of Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb. In the Middle Ages, only the wealthy could afford to be buried in a church building. (The very wealthy paid to be buried as close to the altar as possible.)
Today the average cost of a funeral is between $12,000 and $15,000. That does not include the cost of a burial plot in a cemetery nor the opening and closing of a grave nor the cost of a gravestone. Yet there is the matter of allowing grieving survivors time to deal with the passing of a dear one. Many believe the services offered by funeral homes provide needed time for closure.
In recent years, some churches have begun setting aside space for memorial gardens. These gardens usually include a wall on which to attach plaques that state the name and dates of birth and death of people whose remains were cremated.
When considering cremation, sometimes Christians ask about the wisdom of it in light of our belief in the resurrection of the dead. Burial does conform to the imagery Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 15.
However, we should not assume from Paul’s metaphor that we are required to bury a body and provide an identifiable grave before we can count on God’s promise to one day raise the dead. After all, most bodies buried throughout history have decomposed, and no remains can be identified by anyone. Many bodies have been destroyed at death; many have been buried in unmarked graves. It’s important to remember that God does not need material with which to work when the day of resurrection arrives.
We don’t know what is involved when God gives someone a spiritual, glorified body. All we know is that Jesus could do things in his resurrected state that were beyond human ability or comprehension. When Paul reflects on this, he writes: “And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).
Grief is a difficult process. We each deal with it in different ways. Whether burial or cremation is the better option for a loved one or for ourselves should be left to personal decision. Whichever choice we make, believers can look ahead with confidence to “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”