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Does the Bible Allow Cremation?
With the popularity of cremation increasing in Canada, it is worth examining what the Bible says about cremation.

Cremation of human remains is an increasingly popular alternative to traditional burial in North America. In parts of Asia cremation has been common for some time – in Japan it is required by law. Nearly three-fourths of Europeans choose cremation, mostly in the cities. In Canada’s western provinces and Quebec, more than half of the funerals involve cremation. British Columbia reportedly has the highest rate of cremations in North America: 80 percent.

What considerations are important if a Christian might be thinking of this alternative?

It’s worth examining whether the Bible approves of cremation or rejects it. While the trend may be relatively new in North America, in some other cultures the practice dates back thousands of years before Christ. The Greeks and Romans of Jesus’ day followed it as the norm in keeping with their philosophy of soul immortality and an accompanying devaluation of the human body after death.

Jewish stress on soul embodiment involved much more respect for the body. Proper burial was important to God’s people in the Old Testament, although bodies were sometimes burned as a sign of God’s judgment. Examples include those found guilty of adultery (see Leviticus 20:14), prostitution (see Genesis 38:24, Leviticus 21:9) or extreme violations such as that of Achan at Ai (see Joshua 7:27). The Bible also mentions the curse on Moab for having burned the bones of the king of Edom (see Amos 2:1) and Josiah’s defilement of the altar at Bethel by burning of human bones taken from tombs (see 2 Kings 23:20).

Yet there is no clear, categorical prohibition of cremation in the Old Testament. Early Christians generally continued the practice of traditional burial, perhaps in part because some pagan philosophies and practices were associated with cremation. But their most significant reasons, surely, were that burial seemed more in keeping with the reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and with their appreciation of believers’ bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s strong emphasis on resurrection of the body in 1 Corinthians 15 might suggest to some that traditional burial is the proper, biblically supportable choice. Yet we also know that the state of the physical body at time of death is not consequential for the resurrection body planned by God. What is clear in both the Old and New Testaments is the importance of showing proper respect and dignity for the physical body in death as well as life.

Today, Christians seek to maintain our biblical respect for the physical body while giving fair consideration to growing ecological and financial concerns. Cremation is somewhat less expensive. Cremation results in less invasive chemicals in the soil because embalming is usually not required. One new cremation process uses liquid nitrogen to pulverize and collect the remains, thus reducing the threat of pollution even more. Mobility and crowded cemeteries also add to the appeal of cremation. A decision about cremation should not finally depend upon these practical aspects, as important as they are.

Because the Bible has no specific injunction prohibiting the practice, it boils down to a matter of personal preference and family decision-making. As long as proper respect is given to the memory and body of the deceased, whether to cremate or not can then simply remain something family members need to discuss and decide.

The preference of the individual is key – in most areas it is required by law that an individual’s expressed preference for burial or cremation be followed. Both cremation and traditional burial are biblically acceptable. Emotion, aesthetics, philosophical issues and personal preference may influence one way or the other but, as Martin Luther said, what the Bible does not condemn, neither should we.

Jimmy Cobb of Cochrane, Alberta, is professor of theology, ethics and history at Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary and College.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2008.

 

 
 
 
 

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