To Bury or to Burn? Cremation in Christian Perspective
Lacking explicit moral guidance from Scripture, cremation has become an increasingly popular option for contemporary believers and unbelievers alike. Yet for much of history, cremation has been avoided and discouraged by nearly everyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition. So how do we develop a biblical ethic of cremation?
I'd like to suggest Christians begin to address this issue by considering three questions foundational to any ethical methodology.
1. What Moral Norm(s) Apply in This Situation?
There are three passing references to cremation in the Bible worth considering (1 Sam. 31:11-12; Amos 2:1-3; 6:8-11), but as I've explored elsewhere, these references are largely incidental and give no explicit moral guidance. An appeal to the moral law as embodied in the Decalogue may be helpful, however, because the eighth commandment addresses material stewardship. The embodied moral norm is stated negatively as "Do not steal" (Exod. 20:15). However, it could be stated positively as "Respect material goods" or "Properly steward material possessions." And stewardship is not synonymous with frugality. To steward means to properly care for something, and thus the cheapest and easiest option---usually cremation---isn't necessarily the moral one.
As mentioned earlier, the Judeo-Christian tradition has historically understood the biblical call to proper stewardship of material possessions to teach that burial is the best way to handle (or steward) the body of a decedent---regardless of a cost-benefit analysis. As the apostle John wrote, "The custom of the Jews is to bury" (John 19:40). By way of example, significant individuals in Scripture who were buried---not cremated---include: Rachel (Gen. 35:19-20), Joseph (Gen. 50:25; Exod. 13:19; Josh. 24:32), Aaron (Deut. 10:6), Moses (Deut. 34:5-8), Joshua (Josh. 24:30), Samuel (1 Sam. 25:1), David (1 Kgs. 2:10), John the Baptist (Matt. 14:12), Lazarus (John 11:17-18), Stephen (Acts 8:2), and, of course, Jesus Christ (John 19:38-42).
2. Which Method Best Demonstrates Love of God and Love of Neighbor?
Scripture teaches us that love of God and love of others (even deceased others) is a mark of Christlike character (cf. John 11:1-44). So which method of interment best demonstrates love of God and of neighbor? Assuming a holistic view of human beings, the body of the decedent itself should be respected and shown neighbor-love by those choosing the interment procedure---including the person making plans for interring his or her own body. Among doctrines that shape and inform such neighbor-love toward a corpse---including one's own---are the dignity of the human body and the future bodily resurrection.
The dignity of the human body is supported by such biblical teachings as God's "very good" (Gen. 1:31) creation, humanity made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), the incarnation of Christ (Heb. 2:14), and the redemption of the human body (Rom. 8:23). Likewise, the future bodily resurrection is taught in passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 and Philippians 3:20-21. Note, too, that in Scripture buried corpses are referred to as persons---often by name---not as things or former persons (cf. Mark 15:45-46; John 11:43). Moreover, the most prevalent word used in the New Testament to describe the death of a believer is "sleep," a term employed by both Jesus (cf. Matt. 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52; John 11:11) and Paul (1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 2 Cor. 5:6-8; 1 Thess. 4:13-16).
In view of these passages, we understand the body is more than just a temporary shell inhabited for a season. The real "me" has both material and also immaterial components. Indeed, man is a holistic being with a body, soul, and spirit. Though at death the human body no longer houses a soul/spirit, the body nonetheless needs to be shown respect and dignity. Just as the soul/spirit is renewed at conversion (2 Cor. 5:17), so the physical body will be renewed and reunited with the soul/spirit at the end of the age (1 John 3:2; Rom. 8:23). Such reasoning begins to give moral direction to the ethics of cremation.
3. Which Method Would Bring the Most Glory to God?
The main options available to most are cremation and burial. For a variety of reasons, those facing this decision may lean more toward one option or the other---yet rarely is the glory of God cited as a rationale. Rather, funerary choices are usually based on utilitarian factors such as expense, environmental concern, and ease of transportation, among other pragmatic rationales. Again, the cheapest or easiest option isn't always (or even usually) the path that brings the most glory to God.
From biblical times until the middle of the 19th century, the church was nearly united in the view that burial brings the most glory to God. Believers have reasoned that burial best reflects proper stewardship of the body and the divine value in the material world, most visibly depicts the gospel message, most clearly communicates the hope of future bodily resurrection, and most plainly expresses the promise of an eternal physical existence. Certainly not all will agree with this position, but the church built this view on biblical and theological moorings (and not on the the Platonic dualism widespread in the biblical world). Indeed, given that cremation was common in the Greco-Roman world, we know the church's consistent preference doesn't reflect utilitarian ethics or cultural accommodation. Rather, burial reflects a distinctly Judeo-Christian worldview.
Despite the church's historic preference for burial, not all deaths afford loved ones an opportunity to choose the method of interment. Factors such as the location and manner of death, nation-specific legal parameters, as well as the resources of the surviving family will bear on funerary practices and decisions. However, if given a choice, contemporary believers open to cremation would be wise to carefully consider the practice and evaluate it in light of God's Word.
After all, within the Christian tradition funerals aren't simply ways of disposing of dead bodies, nor are they about remembering the departed or expressing grief. Rather, for believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying throughout to the message and hope of the gospel.