Cremation is a topic that you don’t typically hear a lot about in Christian circles, but one the should be given a great deal of thought. As I have read about this topic over the past several days I have become even more convinced that cremation is an issue that demands a Christian perspective and response. I have read many articles and listened to many teachings on this issue. The most notable and helpful was a sermon by Alistair Begg entitled Death and Dying. Much of the information that you will read below is from Begg’s sermon on this issue as well as other articles.
I want to first offer what I believe to be the philosophy that should guide us as we think about this topic. How the Christian deals with the death, dying, and the body after death says a lot about our belief in the sanctity of life. Here are some thoughts that flow from this philosophy.
The manner of the disposal of a body is in and of itself of no real significance. Whether a body was lost at sea, burned in a house fire, or cremated, God will restore that body. Cremation does not alter God’s ability to restore and prefect the human body. The question that we have to answer is, should we put God in a position to have to do so? Is it in agreement with Scripture?
There are two main passages in the Bible that are used to attempt to show that cremation was used in the Bible and thus is acceptable today. The first deals with the death of Achan in Joshua 7:24-26. The second deals with the death of Saul in I Samuel 31. However, if you examine the passages you will see that there was nothing reverent or desirable or honorable about what was taking place. In Joshua the burning of the body was punishment. It spoke of judgement and was not attempting to show an alternate way of disposing of a dead body.
Historically, cremation was unknown in early America. The practice came primarily from people who wanted to shake their fist in the face of the biblical doctrine of the bodily resurrection of saints. It was an expression of their philosophical view of death and dying. To the left is a picture of a public Hindu cremation. According to the Cremation Association of North America, “Devout Hindus regard cremation as an essential rite that frees the soul from the body, enabling its journey to the next level.” Their view of death and how to dispose of a dead body flows from their philosophy of life and religious beliefs.
The question that we must answer is centered on God. Begg suggests that we ask: “How can we bring everything that we know about the doctrine of man in creation and preservation and the details of God’s creative order in line with this issue?” Begg suggests that burial fits the biblical picture that Jesus uses of sleep, it shows respect for the physical frame, and is in agreement with the Old Testament examples. Abraham wanted a suitable place to bury Sarah, Rebekah was buried in Bethlehem, Joseph was concerned with how his body would be handled after death. They each showed care for how the body was disposed of after death.
Another point that must be made is that Christianity believes that body is redeemed as well as the soul. We are instructed in the Bible to honor God with our body. This instruction should apply to the body in life and in death. Even after death, the body is still God’s creation and God’s handiwork. It still should be honored. In addition, in Scripture fire is a type or a symbol of destruction or of judgement. Over and over you see fire directly connected to judgement.
In one of the articles I read a picture was painted of the cremation process at one crematory. The author described standing at the pulpit in front of the family as he read the final committal. On the side of the pulpit was a little red button that he was to push a few seconds before finishing his reading. As soon as he pushed this button the coffin moved to his left through a velvet curtain. He went on to say that if he didn’t finish fast enough and the organ begin playing that everyone in the room could hear that furnace kick in. Every time that happened it was uncomfortable. The author also described the need to not let that family look back upon leaving the crematory. If they did they would see the smoke that was the result of their loved ones body burning in a 1700 degree furnace.
To sum everything up, how we deal with the body after death is a direct result of our philosophy of life. As Begg put it “Cremation is at best sub-Christian, not necessary unchristian.” But when all the views are examined we can conclude that burial is the more fitting end to the Christian life.