As Christians, we want to show respect for the body. Even though the spirit has moved on to an eternal destiny, the body is the tangible reminder of all that a person meant to us. In addition, the body is destined for resurrection, transformation and reunion with spirit at Christ’s return. To find out if cremation reflects the respect of body, the best place to turn to is Scripture.
Even though burning the remains of the dead is mentioned a few times in the Bible, Scripture is not specific about the today’s practice of cremation. The modern practice of cremation is not specifically addressed. Those incidences that are mentioned in the Bible include one account that describes a man being stoned and then burned due to his reprehensive behavior. The Bible tells us, “Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the rob, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.’ Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them” (Joshua 7:24-25).
The next incident refers to “valiant” men who rescued and burn the remains of Saul and his sons to prevent further dishonorable treatment of their bodies. The Bible tells us, “Then they put his armor in the temple of Ashtoreths, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan. Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and traveled all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth Shan; and they came to Jabesh and burned them there” (Samuel 31:10-12).
Scripture does not prohibit cremation in the New Testament, neither favoring nor prohibiting the process. While there are some Christians don’t favor cremation for personal reasons, there are many individuals who are comfortable with the idea of cremation because it is the spiritual body that is allowed to enter Heaven, not the physical body. There is nothing in Scripture that indicates that the modern practice of cremation is inappropriate. Decisions on how to treat the remains of loved ones is more guided by the culture in which one lives. There is also nothing in the Bible to indicate that the Hebrew practice was based on God’s instructions. God didn’t decree a right or a wrong on the subject. However, burial was a normal practice.
Though many don’t look at it this way, cremation is a form of liturgy. It is a form of dealing with matters of eternal consequence. Because of this, it in turn communicates a message. That message does speak against the Bible’s understanding of death. Cremation, however, subtly suggests that our bodies are of no significance. Burial, on the other hand, communicates something far more consistent with the Bible. It affirms not only that the human body has dignity, but also that it has a future. It affirms that death is not the end of the body. Have you ever thought about the fact that so many cemeteries have in their name some variation on the notion of “Garden.” We know that cemeteries are well kept, that is not what Garden in this context is expressing. Because of the promise of the Gospel, because of the promise of the resurrection, we are not so much burying the bodies of our loved ones when they pass, as planting them. We are put in the ground to wait for the return of Christ when our corrupt bodies will be made incorruptible.
There are some who believe the Bible forbids cremation, making it a controversial subject for many families. Some believe that the Bible says you can’t go to Heaven if you’re cremated. This isn’t what the Bible says. There is nothing in the Bible that forbids cremation as a means of disposing a person’s body. It’s true that burial was the common practice in the Bible, and cremation was rare. When cremation was practiced in the Bible, it showed contempt of person as mentioned in Joshua 7:25. Cremation is often practiced in many cultures that have no respect of the human body or see it as evil. And in those societies, Christians reject cremation. We believe God gave us our bodies, and they should be treated with respect. After creating the human race, “God saw all that He had made and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). However, that’s not what cremation means for many in Western culture.
One reason many Christians have preferred burial over cremation is because Scripture teaches that one day those who die in Christ will be raised from the dead and given new bodies. But we know from Scripture that God is able to bring together whatever has been scattered: “And he will send His angels and gather his elect from the four winds, and from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heaven” (Mark 13:27). While cremation is an issue that divides some families, know that the Bible doesn’t reject it. Remember, we have eternal life because of Christ’s death and resurrection for us.