Is Cremation a Christian Thing to Do?

One question that I am asked at least a few times a month is whether or not cremation violates Christian values/teachings.  Cremation is becoming more and more popular today as an economic alternative to the rising cost of funerals and cemetery plots.  I thought I would write a blog post to hopefully shed some light on the subject.

Let me start with what I think is the easiest question concerning cremation which is the issue of how it affects our glorified bodies in heaven.  Paul, in his great treatise on the resurrection, taught that believers will one day be raised from the dead and receive incorruptible bodies: 1 Cor. 15:53- “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”  But, the question is asked, how do we receive these glorified bodies for eternity if our earthly bodies have been cremated?  Yes, I do believe that our resurrection bodies reconstitute our earthly bodies.  The resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples demonstrate that His resurrection body looked like His earthly body.

That said, it cannot make any difference how a Christian’s body is laid to rest in regard to the feasibility or appearance of the resurrection body.  To begin, if God wants to make a resurrection body that resembles my earthly body out of a pile of ashes He certainly has the power to do so.  I once had a person tell me that God doesn’t want people cremated because it’s so much trouble to make a glorified body out of ashes rather than an embalmed body.  My response to that statement was, “What trouble?  God created the entire universe simply by speaking a word (Heb. 11:3). If He can do that, He can make a body from ashes with zero trouble.”  Don’t forget that God made the first earthly body (Adam) from dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7).

We must remember that many Christians died in ways whereby their remains are not even gathered in a single pile of ashes.  There were Christians who were torn apart by wild animals under the violent persecutions of Rome.  There were believers thrown overboard on slave ships or died at sea whose remains were scattered throughout the ocean.  There were believers incinerated in explosions.  The list goes on.  In addition, the fact is God will be creating resurrection bodies for the most part from ashes.  The remains of the vast majority of believers throughout human history are no longer in the form of a corpse, but have decayed into dust.

Still others have stated that cremation is wrong because the eternal state of the body is related to the condition of the body at the time of death (i.e. people who die at an old age will look old in heaven, children who die will be children, etc.).  The support I have heard given for this is Jesus showing the scars from the nails in his hands and the spear in his side.  What He looked like in eternity is what He looked like at the time He died.  Yet, this couldn’t make sense as we see no indication that Jesus is the bloodied, bruised, swollen, and barely recognizable person He had to have been when He died on the cross.  Every indication is that He looks like the same Jesus (they think he is a ghost- an apparition of His former self) they walked and ministered with for three years.  They do not see him as some kind of disfigured zombie and we should note that the scars are not that noticeable because Jesus has to point them out to the disciples.  The scars are present simply as evidence that the person before them is the actual Jesus they knew and loved standing before them resurrected in bodily form.

Regardless of how a person dies or what is done with their remains, death for a Christian is the planting of a seed that flourishes into new life in the age to come (1 Cor. 15:35-44).  The bottom line is not whether it is possible for God to create a resurrection body from ashes, but rather is cremation the proper Christian response to handling human remains.

This is where the issue gets a bit sticky and people are divided.  In short, burning bodies has never historically been a Christian practice (or a practice of believers in the Old Testament- cf. Heb. 11:22).  A number of historians have traced the burning of human remains back to pagan rituals and practices.  Other historians, such as Stephen Prothero in his book Purified by Fire trace the cremation movement in the United States to atheists who did so as a statement of their disbelief in the resurrection.  And this is the issue.  Why is burial, and not cremation, the traditional Christian practice?  Because caring for the remains of the dead in a dignified way was a testimony to the belief of the resurrection.  In other words, Christians didn’t “discard” a corpse, but rather committed the person back to the earth from which they were made because of the belief that the Lord would one day raise them again.  This isn’t to say that Christians embalm and bury the dead trying to preserve it as long as possible so God can make a resurrection body.  No, we’ve already established God can do that from ashes or even nothing.  Christians have traditionally buried their dead as a witness to the world of their belief in the resurrection of Christ and His return one day to resurrect all believers (1 Thess. 4:14-16).

Burial has also been the Christian tradition because it best symbolizes the resurrection of believers (much like baptism by immersion symbolizes the burial and resurrection of Jesus as well as death to sin and new life in Christ).  There are numerous places in the New Testament where “sleep” is used as a metaphor for death.  In John 11:11 Jesus said that Lazarus had fallen “asleep” when in actuality he had died.  Paul makes the usage in his teaching about the resurrection body in 1 Cor. 15:51-52- “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”  For a Christian, death is in fact something like sleep- you lay down to rest to be awoken later (let me be emphatically clear that the Bible does not teach “soul sleep.”  Rather, the moment a Christian dies their soul has a conscience existence with Jesus- see 2 Cor. 5:8 and Lk. 23:43).  Thus, in burial, the remains of a Christian are “laid to rest” in preparation to be awoken at Jesus’ return.

So, does this mean that Christians should not participate in cremation?  A number of my colleagues firmly believe so.  However, I am not ready to be so adamantly opposed to it.  We should clearly not oppose cremation on the grounds that it has consequences for the resurrection body.  That is foolish.  Regardless of what happens to a believer’s remains, they will be resurrected to imperishable bodies upon Christ’s return.  If we do oppose cremation, it needs to be on the basis of the impact that may have on our testimony to the world about our belief in the resurrection of the dead.  If we support cremation, we need to instruct our loved ones that our memorial services clearly present belief in the resurrection of Christ and our resurrection bodies.  And regardless of whether you support cremation or not, the lives we live right now need to be testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his power to transform our lives today in a spiritual sense and one day in a physical sense for all of eternity.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

7 Responses to “Is Cremation a Christian Thing to Do?”

  1. If God could make a man’s physical body out of dust and a woman’s physical body out of a rib bone, I am convinced He can also make a glorified body out of ashes. Another tradition still practiced today is the way cemeteries are laid out. Graves are dug east to west. The deceased are laid on their back in the coffin with their feet to the east. When Christ returns out of the east, they will be resurrected facing east; hence, we shall see Him face to face.

  2. Todd, thank you for this solid word for families to consider and pray about. Loss and grief is tough enough for families at a loved one’s death and an issue like this can compound the tension. Wise words.

  3. Well said. One other matter that I hear discussed is the issue of stewardship. In terms of cost, maintenance, and space usage cremation comes out ahead. Also until recently in the history of the church we didn’t have easy access to the capacity to fully turn the body to ash. Thus there were often many bones that we still needed to bury. Anyway, nicely done and thanks for dealing with the testimony side of the issue, which I don’t often hear addressed.

  4. Thank you Todd for this insight into cremation. Never thought about the testimony side of this before — gives one much more to study and pray about. Many times families cremate due to the burden of the high cost of burial. Through your word and through prayer many families can come to an easier decision.

  5. Thank you Pastor for addressing this issue. I have thought about this a lot but have never heard an explanation so well spoken.

  6. Clear and concise friend. This was a significant issue for many I ministered to while working at Arlington. I often wished the resurrection of the dead in Christ would have occurred while I was working there! What a sight to see the Army of Christ rising over DC! Thanks for this practical piece.

  7. Good information, Todd. That last sentence said it all.