In the last century or so, cremation technology, available land for burial, and a changing view of death in secular culture has shifted the favoured form of funeral from burial to cremation. Too often, this decision is made with an ethic of pragmatism (ends justify means) or utilitarianism (what will bring the family the least pain/ what will cost the family the least is best).
Before considering cost and convenience, Christians would do well to consider certain other facts. Biblically, there is no explicit command to bury or cremate. This is precisely what places this topic in the realm of ethics. Instead, we have to gather some historical, theological and cultural information.
History of Burial and Cremation
From the book of Genesis, we find God’s people burying their dead (Gen 23:19, 25:9, 35:8, 35:19, 35:29). This pattern continues right throughout the Old Testament and into the New. The Bible does not contain a single account of a believer’s body being cremated. (King Saul’s dismembered body was burned, and the bones then buried out of respect, 1 Sam 31:12-13).
Being narrative, these do not become imperatives. There could be many reasons they buried and did not cremate. There could have been instances of cremation not recorded. However, it is instructive to ask: “Why did God’s people not bury and burn the way we do?” We could argue that technology is part of the answer, but many ancient cultures did cremate. At the very least, the absence of cremations in Scripture should give us pause before embracing it wholeheartedly.
This practice of burial continued well into the Christian era, as the Roman catacombs prove. It seems that wherever Christianity spread, cremations ceased. The Roman Church generally frowned upon cremation, as did the Eastern Orthodox church. Protestants universally buried until the late 19th century, when the technology to cremate more simply and practically was pioneered.
Cremation was present in Ancient China, and sometimes in Ancient Greece. In the western Roman empire, cremation was the standard until the first century A.D., often associated with military honors. With the spread of Christianity, cremation was frowned upon and disappeared for the most part in Europe by the fifth century A.D., except in unusual cases such as epidemics or war. The Vikings practiced cremation until around 1050, by which time Christianity had penetrated most Viking nations.
Modern cremation began in the late 1800’s with the invention of a practical cremation chamber by Professor Brunetti, who presented it at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. Championed by Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, and driven by public concern for hygiene and health and clerical desires to reform burial practices, crematories slowly began opening in Europe and abroad. The first modern crematory in America was established in Pennsylvania in 1876.
The View of the Body As Seen in Funeral Rites
The view of the body’s relationship to the soul influences the view of what to do with the body in death. Religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, mandate cremation. According to Hindu traditions, the reasons for preferring to destroy the corpse by fire, over burying it into ground, is to induce a feeling of detachment into the freshly disembodied spirit, which will be helpful to encourage it into passing to its next destination, lest it remain near its former body. Islam and orthodox Judaism forbid cremation, demanding that the body be treated with respect in life and death, and some even claiming that cremation will affect resurrection.
Scripture’s View of the Body
What are the images used for the body in 2 Corinthians 5:1-9? Tent, habitation, clothing.
It is possible to be absent from the body and still be alive. It is better to be with the Lord, but is is not desirable to be absent from the body. What then is the best situation? Is the body you or is it not you? Russell Moore: “The Gospel of John tells us that “Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days” (John 11:17). The Holy Spirit chose to identify this body as Lazarus,communicating continuity with the very same person Jesus had loved before and would love again. After the crucifixion of Jesus, the Gospels present us with an example of devotion to Jesus in the way the women—and Joseph of Arimathea—minister to him, anointing him with spices, specifically anointing, Mark speaks of him and not just “his remains” (Mark 16:1), and wrapping him in a shroud. Why is Mary Magdalene so grieved when she finds the tomb to be empty? It is not that she doubts that a stolen body can be resurrected by God on the last day. It is instead that she sees violence done to the body of Jesus as violence done to him,dishonor done to his body as dishonor to him. When Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, she tells him she is despondent because they “have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). This body was, at least in some sense, still her Lord, and it mattered what someone had done to it. Jesus and the angelic beings never correct the devoted women. They simply ponder why they seek the living among the dead.
Your soul apart from your body is an unclothed you. There is a very real way in which the body, even in death, is identified with the person.
Does it matter how we treat the body? (1 Cor 6:19-20) How you treat the body defiles or does not defile you. Does it matter how you treat the body after you die? Is it possible to dishonour someone after they have died? (e.g. Wickliffe) When pagan armies have wanted to show the deepest dishonour to conquered enemies, what would they do? They would dismember and mutilate the bodies of those they had already killed. They would pile the bodies in heaps and burn them. They would leave the bodies exposed for carrion and animals. Conversely, respect for one’s enemies in warfare has always been shown in burying the bodies.
– David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa