Cremation is more popular in America than it has ever been. Even though the church has a longstanding tradition of burying our departed loved ones, cremation is growing in popularity among Christians as well as non-Christians.
Is there any reason that Christians should avoid cremation? Is cremation prohibited in the Bible? And will a cremated person miss out on the resurrection?
Christians are free to choose cremation. Cremation is not a sin, and the Bible does not prohibit the practice. A Christian who is cremated may still be resurrected with a new, glorified, spiritual body.
Cremation: A Growing Trend
Although cremation has been practiced for thousands of years across the globe, it has only recently gained traction in the United States and other western nations. Throughout the history of Christendom, burial has been the preferred practice for caring for and disposing of a deceased relative’s remains.
However, in the 1980s, the rate of cremation in the United States doubled from the previous decade and has been growing in popularity. In the mid-2010s, for the first time in US history, instances of cremation exceeded the instances of burial.
Several factors contribute to this trend:
- Technology: In ancient times, cremation was done on open-air funeral pyres. Today, enclosed and insulated high-heat kilns offer a cleaner, safer, and more efficient alternative to open-air burning.
- Cost: Traditional burial, which includes a casket, a burial plot, a monument, and embalming costs from $8000 to $15,000. By contrast, the cost of cremation averages only $1500 to $2500.
- Planning: In addition to the expense, the purchase of a burial plot involves time and preparation. In the 21st century, westerners are reluctant to enter into a contract for goods and services that may not be needed for decades.
- Environment: In densely populated areas, land is limited and burial is simply not a feasible option for everybody. Also, some environmentally conscious people are opting to transfer a loved one’s cremains into biodegradable urns containing saplings and planting the trees in the deceased’s memory.
The Church and Cremation
Not all Christians are embracing the cultural trend toward cremation. It is most popular among mainline Protestants and evangelicals, who are driving the adoption of cremation among American Christians.
The Catholic Church prohibited participation in cremation until the 1960s and continues to discourage the practice.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has always prohibited the use of cremation and continues to do so today. While the Orthodox Church neither condemns cremation as a sin nor teaches that it interferes with resurrection, it views cremation as a violent act of desecration that is not consistent with Christian conduct.
Cremation in the Bible
In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s people practiced burial whenever possible:
- Patriarchs: Sarah (Genesis 23:9), Joseph (Genesis 50:25)
- Exodus and Conquest: Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)
- Kings: David (1 Kings 2:10)
- New Testament: Lazarus (John 11:17-19), Jesus (Mark 15:46)
Still, cremation is not entirely absent from scripture. Perhaps the best-known instance is the cremation of King Saul and his sons:
When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their valiant men marched 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. Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.1 Samuel 31:11-13
In the case of Saul, cremation was a necessary exception. He and his sons had been killed in battle and left to decay publicly in enemy territory. It was neither practical nor ceremonially clean to transport bodies in such a state to their final burial site. So Saul’s men burned away all but the bones before making the long trip home.
Other Old Testament passages depict death by fire as a means of execution (Leviticus 20:14), suicide (1 Kings 16:18), and sacrifice (2 Kings 21:6). Even though the deceased bodies were consumed by fire in these instances, we should not count these acts as cremation events because they involved the use of fire against the living to bring about death.
Cremation and Pagan Practices
This is what the Lord says:
“For three sins of Moab,
even for four, I will not relent.
Because he burned to ashes
the bones of Edom’s king,”Amos 2:1
The prophet Amos makes indirect references to cremation (also in verses 6:8-10) as it was practiced in some of the neighboring nations. The desire to stand apart from neighboring nations contributed to the negative perception of cremation throughout ancient Israel.
This perception carried into the church age, particularly as the church spread into Europe, where cremation was widely practiced and highly ritualized among the native pagan cultures.
Cremation and Resurrection
For Christians, our hope for resurrection is a prominent factor in our preference for burial. When Christians ask, “can Christians be cremated?” we might really mean to ask, “can God resurrect a cremated body?” since this is the most pressing matter behind our question.
The answer is yes, God can resurrect a cremated body. As Christians, when we die, our spirits are united with Jesus in the spiritual world:
- Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-8
- I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. – Philippians 1:23-24
So we do not need our bodies to enter into the afterlife.
Similarly, when the final resurrection takes place i the end times, our earthly bodies will be replaced with glorified bodies:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” …
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body… As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.1 Corinthians 15:35, 42b-44, 48-49
So there is no need to preserve the bodies of loved ones to ensure proper passage into the afterlife. We are secured by the Holy Spirit through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And it is this security that guarantees our hope for eternity with our Heavenly Father.
Burial and Symbolism
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.Romans 6:4
The symbolism of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the reason that immersion is the preferred method of baptism among evangelical Christians. However, the fact that Jesus was buried has also informed the preference of burial that has been handed down throughout church history.
As a matter of conscience and reverence, many Christians prefer to maintain this longstanding tradition of burial. The funerary practices that have developed around burial have indeed facilitated the celebration of God’s work in the deceased, comfort and closure for families in mourning, and a message of hope to all who hear it. There is benefit in all of these things.
But ultimately, Christians are not beholden to either burial or cremation. There is no sin in choosing one or the other, so we are each free to act according to our conscience, customs, and preferences.
Like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, we understand that eternity is a spiritual existence and that our bodies—whether buried or burned—will ultimately return to dust.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.Ecclesiastes 12:6-7