Rev. Richard D. Phillips • Question Box
Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia • July 9, 2000
Copyright reserved • Internet access via http://www.tenth.org/
Tonight’s question is about the propriety of cremation for the bodies of Christians after death. The question reads as follows: “I recognize we should respect and care for the body God has given us. Does this rule out cremation for Christians? Is there any biblical teaching or guideline?”
Sometimes Christians worry that if their body is cremated they will be ineligible for the resurrection, mainly on physical grounds. If the body is consumed by fire, how can it be resurrected? The counter-argument is that bodies that are buried also disintegrate. When it comes to the resurrection I freely admit that a vast miracle is needed, and I trust God, who made everything out of nothing, to sort out the molecules. Therefore, I want to begin by stating that there is no reason to worry about the possibility of resurrection after cremation.
We always want to ask what the Bible has to say, and the Bible has an awful lot to say about death. First, I must confess that I find no command in Scripture against cremation. Nonetheless I think a summary of the biblical data will show if not a commandment against cremation, at least a clear hostility to this mode of dealing with human remains.
From the earliest times in the Bible, burial constituted the proper means of dealing with dead bodies. When Abraham’s wife Sarah died – and this is the first formal burial I find in Scripture – burial tombs were used (Gen. 23:4-6). Abraham’s family were all buried in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre (25:9). Many years later, when the first high priest, Aaron, died, we are told that he was buried (Dt. 10:9). The death of Moses is perhaps particularly instructive:
And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Dt. 34:5-6
It was God who dealt with Moses’ bodily remains and he buried him in the ground. In Dt. 21, a stipulation is made that even a capital criminal who is put to death is accorded the right to be buried (v. 22). Of course, the great example in the Bible is the record of the burial of Jesus Christ. Mt. 27:57-59 tells of Joseph of Arimathea gaining permission from Pilate to bury our Lord’s body in a new tomb cut out of the rock.
From very early in the Bible we also find the use of perfumes and spices to prepare the body for the grave. 2 Chronicles 16:14 observes that this happened for the body of King Asa. The intent was not really preservation, as in Egyptian mummification, but purification of the body. John 19:39 tells of the great amount of myrrh and aloes and spices used by Joseph and Nicodemus for the preparation of Jesus’ body. The body, though dead, still warranted love and care.
What about cremation? The Bible does mention it. In Joshua 7, Joshua proclaimed that whoever was found with the dedicated items stolen from Jericho “shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him” (7:15). When it was discerned that a man named Achan was the guilty party, the Israelites stoned and cremated his entire household, including his animal livestock (v. 25). Leviticus 20:14 calls for the burning of a man who marries a woman and her mother. The same was true for any priest’s daughter who became a prostitute (Lev. 21:9). There are other examples, but you get the picture. Burning of human remains spoke of judgment on sin, which also will be, the Bible says, by fire.
It is always the case that our views of the afterlife will influence how we handle the bodies of those who have died. That is true not just of Christians but of everybody else. Our theology will shape the way we approach all of life’s great events, be they childbirth, marriage, the coming of the annual harvest, etc.
Let’s first deal with the theologies aligned with cremation. In the ancient world there were a variety of reasons. Some peoples seem to have feared the dead and so they wanted to get rid of them. More sophisticated people, like the later Greeks and Romans, who greatly favored cremation, seem to have been guided by philosophical views that downgraded the body in comparison to the spirit. Just about all the ancient philosophies had little use for the body. In general, cremation does reflect a low view of the body after death, however one may view the fate of the liberated soul.
What about today? I took the liberty of checking out various websites advocating cremation on the internet and, to my surprise, the only incentive I saw listed was economic. Cremation is cheaper than burial. But I think there is also a new age mysticism that motivates, however vaguely, renewed interest in cremation today.
The other day I ran across a touching story regarding the spreading of a loved ones’ ashes. The man who had died was a mountain climber and his friends carried his ashes to the top of Mt. McKinley, the highest spot in North America. That is no small feat and it surely expressed real devotion. With great reverence, the friends observed a moment of sileence, after which they let his ashes go so that “his spirit could float above the mountains.” Then they turned around and left.
On one level, I am touched by the gesture, but mainly I think it speaks of the despair that attends death apart from faith in the resurrection. The best we can do is 15 minutes of afterlife fame followed by nothing but warm memories and annihilation by dispersion.
Christian burial is motivated by a far different view of life after death. The New Testament describes those who have died as being “asleep” (1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51). This is not a description of the soul or spirit, for those are not asleep but with the Lord in heaven. It is the body that sleeps, and sleep is a temporary condition. The bodies that sleep – yes, I suppose even those that are decomposed – are awaiting their wake-up call on the resurrection morning.
Without doubt, it is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body that has motivated the Christian practice of burial and the Israelite practice before it. Everywhere Christianity has spread, cremation has given way to proper and respectful burial. Christians have a robust view of the body, both in life and in death. One of the great comforts as we face disease and sickness and death in this life is the knowledge that they will not have the last word. No, it is these bodies that are so integrally a part of ourselves that will be resurrected in glory, imperishable and immortal. And though we acknowledge the physics of the grave we are not in alliance with them, nor with death at any level. The apostle Paul writes, in 1 Thessalonians 4:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him… For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (vv. 13-16).
Everything about that description tells us to honor, to preserve, yes, even to dedicate real estate to the bodies of those our beloved who having died are with Christ in the spirit, and awaiting the resurrection of their bodies in the morning of the new creation.