I once polled a group of Christians on a variety of questions they would most like answered on Heaven, and the question, “Is it okay to be cremated” won with 64% of the vote, which, as it turns out, isn’t an isolated trend. NBC reports that cremation is “the hottest trend in the funeral business,” disclosing that 42 percent of the 2.5 million people who die in America each year are cremated, which is double the rate of just 15 years ago. In some states the cremation rate tops 70 percent!
Cremation is all the craze today, and many Christians are wondering if it is okay to char grandma into a lump of ash.
Cremation, in some form or fashion, has been around for a long time, but the Christian Church has historically frowned upon it, as has its Judeo forerunners. Israel didn’t have a formal crematorium until 2004, and an orthodox Jewish group allegedly burned it down in 2007 as an act of rebellion. Several modern day Jews, especially those of the orthodox tradition, remember that six million of their brothers and sisters were denied a proper burial, several by cremation, and cannot fathom that any person, especially a fellow Jew, would willfully choose to have his body burned in a manner reminiscent of the Holocaust.
The early Church inherited the mindset of its Jewish ancestors. The Roman Catholic Church’s ancient catacombs and veneration of saints testify that cremation was not a popular option for its ancient adherents, which is exacerbated by the idea that heretics were burned at the stake.
For the early believers, incinerating a body with fire emblematized Hell, not Heaven.
This surface level look at the roots of the Christian faith show that the early believers valued the body, and that cremating it was never a real option. But this is changing. One scholar writes, “for a long time cremation was forbidden,” but discloses how “recently these strictures have eased” (Gassmann, “Historical Dictionary of Lutheranism,” 2001, pg. 48). In Surprised by Hope, NT Wright says, “Cremation, almost unknown in the Western world a hundred years ago, is now the preference, actual or assumed, of the great majority” (pg. 4). Wright further states, “Reasons of hygiene and overcrowding led reformers toward the end of the last century to propose [cremation], which, as not all Western Christians know, is still firmly opposed by the Eastern Orthodox (despite the shortage of land in Greece at least) as well as by Orthodox Jews and Muslims. But cremation tends, classically, to belong with a Hindu or Buddhist theology” (pp. 23-24).
Wright’s last line is of special importance. The Hindu and Buddhist religions are unique in that they believe in reincarnation, a religious concept that suggests that a living being can begin a new life in a different body after death. Cremation, an event that vaporizes cadavers into mineral fragments, offers a method by which Hindus and Buddhists can, by scattering ashes, merge a person back into the earth, encouraging the idea that that person can begin his new, reincarnated life as another earthly being.
As noted, there are at least two reasons (hygiene and overcrowding) why cremation has become more prominent in the church, but there are more, the greatest being financial. According to a 2014 report from the Huffington Post, a typical burial costs around $8,343, while a typical cremation costs around $3,190, which is around a third of the cost of a burial. Another major reason is convenience. It’s much easier to cremate than it is to meet with a funeral director about a casket, a viewing, a service, and a burial plot.
While hygiene, overcrowding, money, and convenience are notable reasons for the increase of cremations, there is a particular reason why it has become more accepted in the Church, and it has to do with how little attention we place on what the authors of Scripture considered our greatest hope—the physical resurrection.
Jesus’ physical resurrection is literally the apex of history itself. It is an event that reversed the course of history, putting Heaven on a track where it will come back down to earth, a bit like it was during the Garden of Eden (the Millennium), and then be uniquely united with earth in a new creation for eternity. The Bible teaches us that we, through Jesus, can be resurrected too, and that apart from this resurrection we could actually never experience the total blessings of Heaven (1 Cor 15:50).
The hope of a physical, bodily resurrection is something in which even the Old Testament saints—those who lived prior to Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection—believed. Job said, “Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26). Daniel shared a similar opinion, saying, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake … to everlasting life” (Dan 12:2). This is one reason why the Jews, to this day, still frown upon cremation, and why the early believers did too.
Paul describes the believer’s resurrection as the greatest element of a Christian’s hope (1 Cor 15:55), writing of our future resurrected body, “it is raised an imperishable body … it is raised in glory … it is raised in power” (1 Cor 15:43-43). He also describes the body as “a temple of the Holy Spirit,” furthermore stating that we “have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20).
Paul ascribes a lofty price tag to the human body—Jesus’ life—and the idea is that this should impact how a believer views and manages his earthly vessel, even after he has departed from it in death. The hope is that our souls and bodies will be reunited into a perfected, glorified state, where we will be impervious to the curse of the Fall, living forever.
For the most part, especially when it comes to the subject of Heaven, believers can undervalue the resurrection, and overvalue the idea of going to Heaven when we die. Going to Heaven is a great hope, but limiting our hope to this concept minimizes what God has in store for those who love him. God’s goal for his people and his creation isn’t abandonment, where we forever escape our body and our planet. This would mean that we would live forever in some kind of ethereal state, one in which we surrender God’s good creation to the Fall. God’s goal is to raise our bodies back from the grave, to reunite our souls and our bodies, and then to lead us back to earth where we will reign with him in his millennial kingdom, and then ultimately dwell forever in the new creation.
Does this mean that a person who is cremated won’t be raised from the dead? Of course not. God will raise every believer, regardless of how he was buried. Several believers have died by fire, and our physical bodies, even in proper burial, slowly decompose into dust. The point isn’t that God can or can’t raise a cremated body, the point concerns the testimony cremation leaves behind, which tells the unbelieving world that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t really matter.
Think of it this way. Southern Baptists (my denomination) believe that Christians should be baptized after salvation, but baptism doesn’t add or take away from salvation. It merely testifies of it. A proper burial works the same way. Old European churchyards reveal the custom of burying the dead with their feet toward the rising sun as a sign of hope and expectation that, one day, they will rise and meet Jesus eye to eye. These believers wanted the world to know of their greatest hope, something cremation simply can’t do.
NT Wright says,
When people ask for their ashes to be scattered on a favorite hillside or in a well-loved river or along a shoreline, we can sympathize with the feeling. But the underlying implication, of a desire simply to be merged back into the created world, without any affirmation of a future life of a new embodiment, flies in the face of classic Christian theology. I am not saying it is heretical … I am merely noting that the huge swing toward it in the last century reflects at least in part some of the confusions [on Heaven]. (23-24).
The Bible doesn’t speak specifically about cremation. There are instances of bodies being burned (1 Kn 16:18; 2 Kn 21:6) and of human bones being burned (2 Kn 23:16-20), but there is no law forbidding it, minus a story in 2 Kings 23:16-20, where burning human bones on an altar desecrated the altar. However, in the cultures of Bible times, burial in a tomb, cave, or in the ground was the common way to dispose of a human body (Gen 23:19; 35:19; 2 Chron 16:14; Mt 27:60-66). Partnering this with the believer’s hope in a resurrection should lead us to believe that, while cremation isn’t sinful, it simply doesn’t convey the hope we have in Jesus, and this should impact the kind of funeral service a believer should want to have.