Question or Topic
What guidance do the Scriptures provide concerning the practice of cremation as a means of disposing of the body of a believer who has died?
Current Practices in North America
If this question had been asked in Christadelphian literature a generation ago, it would have brought forth a certain amount of incredulity, that such a question should be even asked. At that time, in the 1960s, the practice of cremation in North America was largely confined to Hindus and other eastern religions, who believed that the destruction of the body by flame had a religious significance related to their beliefs concerning the afterlife. The practice of cremation by Hindus is related to their belief that burning the physical body after death releases the soul more swiftly from the physical plane, enabling it to continue more naturally in its spiritual evolution. Cremation was also practiced by free-thinkers and liberals throughout the twentieth century to show their rejection of Judeo-Christian influence in burial of the body in anticipation of resurrection.
Cremation has gained rapidly in popularity and is now practiced by many that have no regard for Hinduism. Its appeal comes in part from the fact that it is viewed as more environmentally friendly as well as less costly. In new age thinking, cremation connects one again to the earth and ashes are often dispersed at the deceased person's favourite lake or stream. Accordingly to the Internet Cremation Society's website, cremation rates are about 45% in Canada and 26% in the US at the present time. These averages disguise the fact that in some regions of both countries, especially the West Coast, the rates are well above 50% and in one western Canadian province, the rate is 75%. In discussions with a local funeral director, he has advised that rates are higher in urban areas than in rural areas. He attributed this difference to the greater conservatism traditionally associated with the rural community.
Popular Practices Viewed from the Scriptures
As with any practice that is gaining in popularity among the society in which we live, it is wise to step back and ask, "What do the Scriptures say?"
There is no specific commandment forbidding believers' bodies being burned as a means of disposal. From this absence of express revelation, one might infer that there is a measure of liberty of conscience extended to believers in the matter. The Scriptures, however, do provide a one-sided example in favor of burial.
The only cases of the burning of bodies recorded in the Scriptures were associated with acts of judgment. (Achan - Joshua 7:25; King of Edom - Amos 2:1) There is also a record that the bodies of Saul and his sons were burned and then buried, after being recovered from the Philistines. (1 Samuel 31:13) The burning before the burial in this instance may have occurred because of the disfigured state in which the bodies were recovered. Saul had been decapitated.
For Jews, cremation remains an act of disgrace to a body, as evidenced by the decision to cremate the body of Adolf Eichmann, following his trial and conviction for complicity in the Holocaust. The general tenor of Scriptural teaching is that burning by fire is associated with eternal judgment, as in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 7) and those whose fate it is to be cast into the lake of fire.
The Weight of Scriptural Examples
On the other hand, there are many examples in the Scriptures of the burial of the bodies of believers in graves and tombs. This practice is specifically associated with the patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and David. All of these men of faith, who are also connected to the resurrection of the dead, were buried in the ground, a fact that is taken note of in both the Old and New Testaments. These ancient burial places of the patriarchs have not been forgotten but remain special places. In the current Arab-Israeli conflict there is a dispute as to who will control them.
Abraham Genesis 25:10/Luke 11:48, Acts 7:16
Isaac Genesis 35:29/Luke 11:48, Acts 7:16
Jacob Genesis 50:13,14/Luke 11:48, Acts 7:16
Joseph Joshua 24:32/Hebrews 11:22
David 1 Kings 2:10/Acts 2:29
Similarly, in the New Testament Scriptures, burial was practiced in the cases of Lazarus (John 11:17), of the Lord Jesus himself (John 19:40-42), and Stephen (Acts 8:2). In the post-Scriptural period, there is abundant evidence of Christian burial in the catacombs of Rome. The ordinance of baptism and its association with death and burial (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12) is further testimony to the importance of burial in the Scriptures of the New Testament.
Believers therefore need to decide how much weight to give to the force of example in the pages of Holy Scripture when making a decision on behalf of a deceased love one, or when giving directions in one's own will, concerning the manner of disposition of the body.
Disposition of the body by burning makes no difference to the Lord with respect to his power to accomplish the resurrection in the day of his coming. He can as easily accomplish the resurrection of one who has been cremated as one whose body has been embalmed and deposited in the earth. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (Revelation 20:13) There will be believers who were lost at sea, whose bodies were never recovered, who will be brought back to life at the coming of the Lord. Those who have died in flames, by being burned at the stake or burned in a building or an airliner will be resurrected in the same manner as those whose burial places are known to this day.
Nevertheless, as we weigh the importance of Scriptural example and the general tenor of Bible teaching, we would suggest the following arguments in favour of burial of the body as the preferred means of disposition of the corpse of one that has died in hope.
The practice of cremation has a stigma arising from its association, both with pagan (Hindu) customs concerning immortality of the soul and with those atheists who chose it to express their rejection of Judeo-Christian concepts. Burial of the body is therefore an increasing means of differentiation from the contemporary society and a form of witness to our belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Lest any should dismiss the manner of burial as being a kind of witness as far-fetched, scripturally we can cite the example of Joseph, whose commandment concerning his bones and their place of burial was cited as evidence of his faith. (Hebrews 11:22).
Cremation was the fate which Hitler and his co-executioners conjured up for millions of Jews in Europe who were gassed and then disposed of in specially constructed mass crematoria at the site of the concentration camps in Poland. Hitler's motivation for cremation undoubtedly sprang, not only because it was against the tenets of Orthodox Judaism but mainly to minimize any evidence of the atrocity. Choosing burial of the body over cremation is, however indirectly, a means of association with the Jews and is fully compatible with "the hope of Israel."
The practice of burial is symbolized in the act of baptism. Burial of the body provides a means of witness in the funeral message of a believer who is being laid to rest. The opening of the grave is a figure that is used commonly in the Scriptures, a figure that implies burial first.
We know with certainty, from the examples recorded in the Scriptures including that of the Lord himself, that there is no possibility of displeasing our Father by burial in the ground. The same point cannot be said with the same degree of certainty concerning cremation, in view of the associations it has developed and the absence of any positive example in the Scriptures. Thus, our conclusion is that it is best to choose burial in the ground when the circumstances of death allow such a choice to be made.