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Date September 18, 2008

And Joshua said, ‘Why have you troubled us? The Lord will trouble you this day.’ And all Israel stoned them with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones. (Joshua 7:25)

From time to time I am asked what the Bible says about cremation. First I realize this can be a very sensitive subject and I want to tread lightly here because the Bible nowhere directly says cremation is sin. We are never commanded not to cremate. I am going to make a case against cremation, and I am sure some of you have disposed of the remains of some of your loved ones in this manner. I do not, therefore, want to heap guilt on you. What is done is done. However, perhaps being a bit better informed, you may wish to reconsider it in the future.

While the Bible does not directly command against the practice of cremation it does indirectly speak against it. I say this for two reasons. One, Achan and his family were first stoned to death and then burned. Why? Achan deliberately took the spoil at the battle of Jericho, something which was directly forbidden by God. See Joshua 6:17-19. Also we know God directed his covenant people to burn with fire the man who married a woman and her mother since this is immorality and no immorality was to be tolerated in their midst (Leviticus 20:14). And the daughter of a priest who gave herself to prostitution profaned her father and was also to be burned with fire (Leviticus 21:9). During the reforms under King Josiah of Judah, all the priests of the high places were slaughtered on the altars of their false gods and their bones were burned on them (2 Kings 23:20). The prophet Amos, during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel, prophesied judgment on Moab because they burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime (Amos 2:1). The only passage I can find in the Bible which, at first glance, seems to speak well of cremation is 1 Samuel 31:12 where, after the Philistines have desecrated the body of Saul after he committed suicide, the people of Jabesh-gilead gallantly went across the Jordan River and retrieved his body, and those of his three sons, bringing them back to Jabesh-gilead and burning them there. It appears that this was a mere burning of incense over them, afterward burying the bodies. I say this because in 2 Chronicles 16:14 good King Asa of Judah dies and is buried in his own tomb, and it is filled with spices blended by the perfumers’ art, and they then made a great fire for him. He himself is not burned but instead a fire is burned in honour of him. Even more proof that Saul’s body was not burned is found in 2 Samuel 2:4ff when David is told that the men of Jabesh-gilead buried Saul; and David blesses them for doing so. And in 2 Samuel 21:12-14 we are told that David took the bones of Saul and Jonathan and his other brothers, which had been buried in Jabesh-gilead and brought them to Zela and buried them in the grave of Saul’s father, Kish. So, even the only possible pro-cremation statement in Scripture turns out not to be a cremation at all. Thus, the first deduction we can make about cremation is that it is a form of judgment on evil doers.

The second deduction is much more positive. It is clear that the body was held in high esteem among the Jews of the Old Testament. All of Genesis 23 is dedicated to Sarah’s death and the great pains to which her husband Abraham went to secure a tomb for her at Machpelah. And before Joseph died in Egypt he prophesied that Yahweh would surely bring his descendants back into the land promised to his father Abraham. He made his sons swear that when they returned to Israel they would carry his bones with them. Several hundred years later, after their mighty exodus and deliverance by Yahweh, they did just that. See Genesis 50:25, Exodus 13:19. Obviously many people had taken great care with Joseph’s remains for all those years. Deuteronomy 34:5, 6 says that God buried Moses in Moab, opposite Beth Peor but no one knows where his grave is. God took great care with the remains of his faithful servant. And then, of course, there is the burial of our Lord Jesus where Joseph of Arimathea gained permission from Pilate to bury Jesus in a new tomb (Matthew 27:57-59). John reports that Joseph and Nicodemus brought one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to the tomb of Jesus to prepare his body for burial. Obviously they were taking great care of the body, showing it respect. So it is clear that the Judeo-Christian view of death requires respect for the body by burial.

Then perhaps it is helpful to contrast the Judeo-Christian burial with practices in the Greek and Roman world of that time. Due to the influence of Platonism which honoured the spiritual and degraded the physical, both the Greeks and Romans of antiquity favoured cremation. And Hindus have long practiced cremation, believing that the body is insignificant, that due to reincarnation the annihilation of the body prepares the way for the next life. I once asked Christians in India if they disposed of the bodies of their Christian loved ones by cremation and I was told very quickly, ‘No, never.’ I wonder if our modern movement toward cremation is more influenced by eastern mysticism and neo-paganism than we might realize.

Finally, the Apostle Paul taught a very high view of the body. He said that those who die in the Lord are asleep (1 Corinthians 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51), and he does not mean soul sleep, as though they are not conscious of where they are. See 2 Corinthians 5:8. He is referring to the body being asleep, awaiting that great day when the risen Lord Jesus will descend from heaven with a shout, and the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet call of God, and those who have died in Christ will rise and meet him in the clouds (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16). He says in 1 Corinthians 15:51ff that though all will not sleep, all shall 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 all be changed, for the perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.

I know that eventually the body in the grave also decays and little remains of it; and I also know cremation is much less expensive than burial and some see this as merely an economic measure, being good stewards of God’s money. I suggest, however, that we reconsider our plans to use cremation for the disposal of the bodies of our loved ones. Burning bodies with fire in Scripture is portrayed as a terrible end, a judgment on the wicked. The burial of loved ones portrays respect for the body. They deserve far better than cremation. Again, I cannot say that cremation is sin, but the evidence in Scripture seems to militate against the use of it for those who honour Christ.

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Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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