The Matter Of Cremation From A Biblical Context[i]
Over the last couple of years I’ve been asked what the Scripture has to say about cremation as an alternative to burial. Admittedly, there was a profound silence when this question came up because the occasion to study the topic had not been presented in a manner to warrant such a study. But with an increasing number of people asking, the time has come to provide some answers about cremation and the Christian answer.
There are a few passages that deal with a body being cremated after death. These are listed below for rumination. I have not been able to find any others dealing with disposal of the body by fire anywhere else in the Scripture.
Joshua 7:24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 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. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since.
1 Samuel 31:8 The next day, when the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on MountGilboa. 9 They cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. 10 They put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan. 11 When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard of what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all their valiant men journeyed through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamari
2 Kings 23:19 Just as he had done at Bethel, Josiah removed and defiled all the shrines at the high places that the kings of Israel had built in the towns of Samaria that had provoked the LORD to anger. 20 Josiah slaughtered all the priests of those high places on the altars and burned human bones on them. Then he went back to Jerusalem.
Amos 2:1 This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath]. Because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king,
Amos 6:8 The Sovereign LORD has sworn by himself-the LORD God Almighty declares: “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” 9 If ten men are left in one house, they too will die. 10 And if a relative who is to burn the bodies comes to carry them out of the house and asks anyone still hiding there, “Is anyone with you?” and he says, “No,” then he will say, “Hush! We must not mention the name of the LORD.” 11 For the LORD has given the command, and he will smash the great house into pieces and the small house into bits. 12 Do horses run on the rocky crags? Does one plow there with oxen? But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness- 13 you who rejoice in the conquest of Lo Debar and say, “Did we not take Karnaim by our own strength?” 14 For the LORD God Almighty declares, “I will stir up a nation against you, O house of Israel, that will oppress you all the way from Lebo Hamath to the valley of the Arabah.”
Thought 1: With these stated, it must also be noted that there is no expressed prohibition, or authorization, found anywhere in the Biblical text. Therefore it seems difficult for any person to be dogmatic in their assertions that cremation is either forbidden, or warranted, in Scripture. But such a declaration does not answer the question in it’s entirety. For this reason there are a few other thoughts that will be presented as gleaned from several sources which are contained in the appendices at the end of this paper.
Thought 2: The cases in the Biblical texts where a body was cremated seem to involve people who have sinned against God (Achan in Joshua), rebelled against the Lord (Saul in 1 Samuel), led in false worship (Priests in 2 Kings), as a judgment on Moab for burning Edom’s king (Amos 2), and in regards to Jacob’s pride (Amos 6).
The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. It seems that cremation is associated with rebellious and sinful actions, and in recent American history, accompanied by a non-biblical ceremony at death.
Thought 3: The practice of Old Testament characters was burial in tombs or in the ground (Genesis 23:4-6, 25:9; Deuteronomy 10:9).
Thought 4: Jesus was buried in a tomb. He was not cremated.
Thought 5: Early Christians followed the practice of burial, as is evidenced in the catacombs of Rome.
Thought 6: Of more importance is what is communicated about the body and soul during the service of committal. What should be affirmed is salvation through Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead.
Conclusion. What is written in the Bible, and has been practiced by Christians historically, is burial. While there is nothing found in the Scripture to prohibit cremation, it seems that tradition would indicate that burial, not cremation, is the preferred method for disposing of a body after death. Yet there is nothing expressly stated in God’s Word that would condemn a person if they chose to be cremated.
[i] January 20, 2004