Over recent years, I have noticed that more and more Christians are opting for the cremation of their bodies after death. The primary reason for this seems to be financial, as cremation is considerably more affordable than the pricey cost of caskets, plus the other amenities of a funeral, visitation, and memorial service. The assumption seems to be that cremation versus burial is a matter of complete indifference, a subject about which the Bible has little or nothing to say. Let me admit, up front, that the Bible does not forbid cremation and loved ones have no reason to worry that a cremated body will be ineligible for the future resurrection. After all, bodies that have been in the ground for centuries have likely disintegrated as much or more than a cremated body. Moreover, the future resurrection is a miracle from start to finish. We may trust God, who made everything out of nothing, to sort out the molecules when it comes to the coming resurrection of our bodies. My own parents asked to be cremated, and we their children honored that request. So in raising the subject of a Christian view of cremation, I do not believe that ultimate matters are at stake.
This does not mean, however, that a fully biblical perspective will be indifferent when it comes to creation or burial. Rather, as I will argue, the Bible presents a strong argument in favor of burial over cremation. The Bible has a lot to say about death, after all.
From the earliest times in Scripture, burial was the normal means of dealing with dead bodies. When Abraham's wife Sarah died - and this is the first formal burial we find in Scripture - burial tombs were used (Gen. 23:4-6). Abraham's family were all buried in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre (Gen. 25:9). Many years later, when the first high priest, Aaron, died, we are told that he was buried (Deut. 10:9). The death of Moses is perhaps particularly instructive: "And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is" (Deut. 34:5-6). It was God who dealt with Moses' bodily remains and he buried him in the ground. In Deuteronomy 21:22, a stipulation is made that even a capital criminal who is put to death is accorded the right to be buried. Of course, the great example in the Bible is the record of the burial of Jesus Christ. Matthew 27:57-59 tells of Joseph of Arimathea gaining permission from Pilate to bury our Lord's body in a new tomb cut out of the rock.
From very early in the Bible we also find the use of perfumes and spices to prepare the body for the grave. 2 Chronicles 16:14 observes that this happened for the body of King Asa. The intent was not really preservation, as in Egyptian mummification, but purification of the body. John 19:39 tells of the great amount of myrrh and aloes and spices used by Joseph and Nicodemus for the preparation of Jesus' body. The body, though dead, still warranted love, care, and honor.
What about cremation? The Bible does mention it. In Joshua 7, Joshua proclaimed that whoever was found with the dedicated items stolen from Jericho "shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him" (7:15). When it was discerned that a man named Achan was the guilty party, the Israelites stoned and cremated his entire household, including his animal livestock (Jos. 7:25). Leviticus 20:14 calls for the burning of a man who marries a woman and her mother. The same was true for any priest's daughter who became a prostitute (Lev. 21:9). There are other examples, but you get the picture. Burning of human remains spoke of judgment on sin, which also will be, the Bible says, by fire.
It is always the case that our views of the afterlife will influence how we handle the bodies of those who have died. This is true not just of Christians but of everybody else. Our theology will shape the way we approach all of life's great events, be they childbirth, marriage, the coming of the annual harvest, etc.
Let's first deal with the theologies aligned with cremation. In the ancient world there were a variety of reasons. Some peoples seem to have feared the dead and so they wanted to get rid of them. More sophisticated people, like the later Greeks and Romans, who greatly favored cremation, seem to have been guided by philosophical views that downgraded the body in comparison to the spirit. Just about all the ancient philosophies had little use for the body. In general, cremation reflects a low view of the body after death, however one may view the fate of the liberated soul.
What about today? I earlier stated that the primary motive for cremation seems to be financial. But we can also observe that a new age mysticism is motivating, however vaguely, renewed interest in cremation today.
Some time ago, I ran across a touching story regarding the spreading of a loved ones' ashes. The man who had died was a mountain climber and his friends carried his ashes to the top of Mt. McKinley, the highest spot in North America. That is no small feat and it surely expressed real devotion. With great reverence, the friends observed a moment of silence, after which they let his ashes go so that "his spirit could float above the mountains." Then they turned around and left.
On one level, I am touched by the gesture. But Christians should also be grieved by the despair and meaninglessness that attends death apart from faith in the resurrection. The best we can do is 15 minutes of afterlife fame followed by nothing but warm memories and annihilation by dispersion.
Christian burial is motivated by a far different view of life after death. The New Testament describes those who have died as being "asleep" (1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51). This is not a description of the soul or spirit, for the believing dead are not asleep but with the Lord in heaven. It is the body that sleeps, and sleep is a temporary condition. The bodies that sleep are awaiting their wake-up call on the resurrection morning. I like to think in these terms when I find myself in a cemetery, especially the kind of church graveyards that one finds attached to older churches. This graves are not merely the place where long-dead bodies lie but also the ground on which those glorified bodies will rise to meet the Lord on the resurrection morning! What a valuable place a cemetery is!
Without doubt, it is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body that has motivated the Christian practice of burial and the Israelite practice before it. Everywhere Christianity has spread, cremation has given way to proper and respectful burial. Christians have a robust view of the body, both in life and in death. One of the great comforts that we have in this life as we face disease, sickness, and death is the knowledge that they will not have the last word. These bodies that are so integrally a part of ourselves will be resurrected in glory, imperishable and immortal. And though we acknowledge the physics of the grave we are not in alliance with them, nor with death at any level. The apostle Paul writes, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16:
"Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him... For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first."
Everything about this description tells us to honor, to preserve, yes, even to dedicate real estate to the bodies of our beloved family and friends who having died are with Christ in the spirit, whose bodies remain in union with Christ even in the grace, and which await their resurrection in glory at the dawn of a new and undying age when Jesus returns.
Nick Batzig "A Biblical Theology of Burial"
David Murray "Was Jesus Still God in the Tomb?"
David Jones "To Bury or To Burn: Cremation in Christian Perspective"