Cremation: Is it a pattern that Christians should follow?

January 17, 2013

Rogers---Ronnie---Staff-100by Ronnie Rogers

Ronnie Rogers is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., a university city cited by the North American Mission Board in 2006 as the most unchurched in the state. Pastor Rogers’ expositional sermons draw large collegiate crowds during the school year as he preaches and teaches (and writes) from a biblical perspective that boldly challenges popular culture.


Throughout history, inhumation (burial) and cremation have been practiced, sometimes simultaneously in the same culture (Roman and Greek). Each have enjoyed various times of prominence and preference within various cultures. However, the Christian era brought with it the practice of inhumation and sought to eliminate cremation, basically reserving that for times of plague or for “heretics,” e.g. Wycliffe.

The trend in America is toward choosing cremation over inhumation (burial). I believe this trend is evidence of the desacralizing of human life and a loss of a Christian cultural conscience. This trend is viewed not only by many non-Christians as a viable alternative, but to many Christians as well. This is not to say that cremation is new to human history or that it is even sin, but rather that it does, historically and biblically speaking, seem to deemphasize the biblical sacredness associated with the body. Consequently, I think Christians need to consider rejecting this trend. We should always ask, are Christians, once again, being naively led by the trends of an ever-increasing secular milieu, is this trend based upon some newfound biblical truth, or is burial a tradition that has no biblical support? I believe it is the first of these for the following reasons:

1. When God created everything, including man, He pronounced it good (Gen. 1:31). This included the body. God created man’s body from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and pronounced that when man died the body was to return to the ground (Gen. 3:19; Ecc. 12:7). This does not seem to imply a return via a broken jar or the scattering one’s ashes.

2. We bury presidents, popes, and other societal notable’s bodies with significant pomp and circumstance. Why would we treat any human who is created in the image of God with less respect? By that, I do not mean parades, etc., but how we should treat a body created by God, whether it is that of a president or pauper.

3. The Jews buried their dead in tombs or in graves. There was a lot of ceremony attached to funerals because of their reverence for human beings, including the human body. Consequently, cremation was never normalized in Judaism.

4. Pagan cultures regularly saw cremation as appropriate, often associating it with pagan rituals or totally unbiblical concepts of creation, life, death, and eternity. Some, like the Egyptians, did use inhumation based upon an elaborate system of the transmigration of the soul to the next world. Consequently, the Jews were well aware of cremation, and yet, they buried their dead.

5. Fire is commonly used as a symbol of judgment in the Scripture, e.g. Matt. 8:11-12, 13:42-50; Rev. 19-20.

6. The Bible predicts the resurrection of the body. When Jesus rose from the dead, He rose in a physical body. Although our body will be changed and glorified, it is sacred and will be used in the future. And while it is true that God can raise up one from an urn as easily as the ground, that does not seem, in and of itself, to neutralize the biblical principles and precedence. It is consistent with biblical revelation that one should not burn that which is going to be used at a later date.

7. Burial is the final Christian testimony of our belief in the resurrection, and cremation is the pagan testimony that your spirit has been forever delivered from the prison of the body.

8. Christians throughout history have followed the same tradition as the Jews of not burning the body. Even until modern times, cremation was virtually unknown in

America and still only accounts for approximately thirty percent of deaths. This is because of the strong presence of Christian beliefs. Even today, states with a higher percentage of Christians, especially evangelicals, have fewer cremations. As a matter of fact, traditionally, bodies have been buried facing eastward based on the fact that Jesus said He would come out of the east at the resurrection (Matt. 24:27).

9. Even in our own time, with few exceptions, fire is seen as a destroyer. We protect our most prized possessions from fire. The body is something God created and something for which the Lord Jesus Christ died. He did not die merely for our bodies, but His death did include the redemption of our bodies; consequently, to burn what Jesus died for seems to be at best incongruent.

I believe the rise in the number of people being cremated in our country is directly proportionate to the rise in the humanist and pagan mentality of our country. Though I do recognize that funerals are expensive, and many are against the whole procedure, the funeral itself serves us well for many reasons. It reminds us that death is an enemy to be conquered by our Lord Jesus Christ. It gives us an opportunity to show respect, not only for the person, but also for the body that God created. It serves a great purpose in allowing people to mourn and go through the grieving process so they may go on with their lives after the funeral service is over. It allows us one last time to witness to our faith in the resurrection.

While many attend the interment of the body as an important part of caring for the deceased loved one, few, if any, desire to gather at the actual 1700degree incineration of their loved one’s body, a disinclination which should not go unnoticed.

I always think of the reality that humans burn trash, but we delicately and thoughtfully bury treasure. It seems like an obvious parallel with how Christ’s body was handled and how Christians have cared for the bodies of the deceased through the centuries.

Consequently, burial seems far more biblically compatible with Christianity both from the vantage point of being created and redeemed by God, as well as how the Jews, Christ, and Christians throughout history have treated the body of the deceased with reverence.

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Adam Harwood

This is an excellent biblical-theological treatment of an important but neglected topic.

    Ronnie Rogers

    Thank you, Adam.

kainos

A very good, thoughtful piece, Ronnie!

I have heard two challenging questions on this topic:

— If cremation is invalidated by God’s pronouncement that when man died, the body was to return to the ground, what are we to think about the great lengths we go to today to prevent the buried body from actually returning to the ground?

— If a body is buried so that it truly does return to the ground, how is that ultimately different than cremating the body and spreading the ashes?

    Johnathan Pritchett

    It isn’t. In fact, many of the martyrs feared that had their bodies been burned, will God be able to resurrect them, and the answer was a resounding yes.

    Also, unless Ronnie and other Christians across the country are gonna step up and fork out the cash for the poor to bury their dead, one should not look at being dogmatic about this issue.

    I don’t think paganism, a rejection of the body, rejection of bodily resurrection, etc. even crosses the mind of many believers too poor to opt for the rather expensive cash cow of burying their dead these days.

    While his points here are interesting, it ultimately amounts to non-sequiturs that reads like those arguments that recommend Christians not celebrate Christmas because of the pagan tree, Santa, its pagan historical roots (before Christ’s birth was deemed to be celebrated that day), Jesus not being born in December, etc. .

      kainos

      I think a person could argue there is a difference, related to what Ronnie says about the sacredness of human life, respect for God’s creation of the natural process of death, and testimony to the resurrection. But I’ve heard an argument that if a society is not going to allow natural burial and decay of the corpse, cremation may actually comes closer to bearing witness to the truth of Genesis 3:19 – “You will return to the ground from which you came, for you were made from dust, and to the dust you will return.”

        Johnathan Pritchett

        Perhaps, but the body rots either way, so I don’t think there is an “argument” either way. It is one of those “it is what it is” in both cases.

        My point is that I don’t think there is room for dogmatism.

        I don’t think Ronnie is being dogmatic. I think what he has said is fine as far as it goes, though it is a bit of a non-sequitur on many things, as I pointed out.

        I think he raises some valid reasons as pointers. Perhaps my initial response seemed a bit harsher than intended.

        However, I am not a fan of even recommending anything, no matter how much it is framed in a Biblical worldview, that is incomplete. There is no mention of the cost of burial and the plight of the poor in this article as a consideration.

        Whenever I write for this website, I never end without offering recommendations and applications. I try to turn over every stone. I guess I’d like to see more of that from others.

        If a recommendation for an approach to an issue is made, exhortations like this should include ways of dealing with contingencies.

        Someone may well read this and say, “gee, I agree, I wish I wasn’t too poor that I could have buried my husband instead of cremated him” or whatever.

        In this example, if we are gonna say “burial, not cremation for the church”, then one needs to recommend how this can be achieved for everyone. Otherwise, it is just novelty.

          Ronnie Rogers

          Johnathan,

          Thanks for your comments and for observing that my comments are not intended to be “dogmatic.” I make no commands that the Scripture does not make; however, as you are well aware, the Scriptures do not speak to every set of choices in this life even though we should always seek to think Christianly. This necessitates the principlizing of Scripture and observing normal practices even though that does not necessarily make such a “norm,” i.e. ought. Consequently, it seems only fair to consider my recommendations at the level in which they are presented, and to concomitantly argue against such with equal contrary principles both in derivation and substance, which I do not believe that you offered.

          Non sequitur, REALLY! I am not aware of any statement that I made that is “illogical,” e.g. absurd, or that my conclusions do not follow my premise (like, I have an umbrella with me therefore it will rain). Maybe you said this because you understand “non sequitur” to mean that the statement must inexorably lead to only one conclusion, and that conclusion is given as the only logical answer (and this without due consideration to authorial intent and context), meaning that any other option is absurd. I do not know of anything I said that should lead one to believe I was being so dogmatic. I use the term, as commonly defined as “a statement containing an illogical conclusion.”

          The uncomfortable truth is that some facts or statements are justifiably and quotidianly used quite contrarily by those holding different views—this is not to justify all such usages. Some examples can be found in such prominent places as discussions of Calvinism, evolution and creation and church and state issues to name only a few. One can make a logical—non-absurd—argument that is not the only argument that can be made from the evidence. On a lighter note, if I said you can quench your thirst by drinking water, that would be perfectly logical while certainly not the only conclusion, e.g. you could also drink Coke or Mountain Dew; whereas, if I said you can only quench your thirst water or by eating a Big Mac, one might say I was being nonsensical.

          You would be correct in your dismissiveness if I meant or implied that the resurrection alone, unalterably, meant that all Christians must conclude the same based upon that one statement or be absurdly wrong—or maybe even sinful. If I did intend such, I would have offered only one argument undeniably reflective of the warp and woof of Scripture, which should suffice for any faithful Christian. But I did not because there is not such in this case, and I am only concerned with seeking to help Christians think Christianly, which I believe includes areas where dogmatism is rightly inappropriate and unhelpful. Also, I do not think characterizing my comments in the same class of “Christmas tree” notions is either justified or helpful. If I have treated your sentiments thusly, please forgive me. These kind of comparisons seem, to me, unhelpfully dismissive.

          Regarding the poor, you said, “unless Ronnie and other Christians across the country are gonna step up and fork out the cash for the poor to bury their dead, one should not look at being dogmatic about this issue.”

          First, and again, as you kindly noted, I am not being dogmatic. Thank you! Second, I fail to see the connection that you apparently see. Just for clarification, our church has paid for funerals of those who could not pay for their own, and we have found funeral homes to be quite helpful as well. I do not think that one should dismiss what I said based upon the fact that I did not say everything one might imagine (we are limited in this forum). Also, I do believe that Christian ministry to the poor should never be overlooked.

          However, I do not see the biblical logic between one’s financial ability to follow the commands or principles of Scripture and whether we suggest or recommend one do right. We do this, I think justifiably all of the time. Some examples might be encouraging a lady to have child rather than choosing abortion or recommending that our members consider adoption in the battle against abortion, which is actually cost prohibitive for many in our church (we do have a fund for adoptive parents, but it does not cover all of the cost). Even though many cannot afford to adopt, this in no way diminishes our encouragement of adoption. Also, I have dealt with couples living together, who did so because the tax structured favored such, without which they said they could not live. That did not dissuade me from recommending separation or marriage.
          There are many things in everyday life that are based upon explicit or implicit Scriptures or biblical principles that we recommend, while knowing that not all can afford such, e.g. attend college, feed your children the best nutrition, etc.

          None of this is to imply that we do not have a responsibility to minister to the poor, but rather it is to say that doing right—seeking to determine what is the most biblically evidenced option—in one area is not trumped by the need to figure out how to spread the practice. I believe we should base our decisions upon what is right, not whether it is affordable.

          As a personal note, I have never condemned anyone for cremating a loved one, but I shall continue to teach what I believe is the best biblical option—think beginning and end of life decisions, marriage, divorce, ad infinitum.

          Indebted,
          Ronnie

            Johnathan Pritchett

            Hey Ronnie,

            First, I hope my comments didn’t offend, as I agree with much of your content you presented. My scattered replies may have not read as well as I would have liked, or seemed more critical than they were. Please note, I work odd hours, and either write late morning after waking, or late at night when I get home. My mind may not be firing on all cylinders, especially congenial ones.

            So my apologies for that brother.

            I will try to respond briefly to the paragraphs in bulk.

            “Thanks for your comments and for observing that my comments are not intended to be “dogmatic.” I make no commands that the Scripture does not make; however, as you are well aware, the Scriptures do not speak to every set of choices in this life even though we should always seek to think Christianly. This necessitates the principlizing of Scripture and observing normal practices even though that does not necessarily make such a “norm,” i.e. ought.”

            Indeed, I agree.

            “Consequently, it seems only fair to consider my recommendations at the level in which they are presented, and to concomitantly argue against such with equal contrary principles both in derivation and substance, which I do not believe that you offered.”

            Of course.

            “Non sequitur, REALLY! I am not aware of any statement that I made that is “illogical,” e.g. absurd, or that my conclusions do not follow my premise (like, I have an umbrella with me therefore it will rain). Maybe you said this because you understand “non sequitur” to mean that the statement must inexorably lead to only one conclusion, and that conclusion is given as the only logical answer (and this without due consideration to authorial intent and context), meaning that any other option is absurd. I do not know of anything I said that should lead one to believe I was being so dogmatic. I use the term, as commonly defined as “a statement containing an illogical conclusion.”

            (and so forth for the next few paragraphs)

            I guess, by non sequitur in general parlance, I simply meant “does not follow”, and was not trying to say there is contradiction. What I am saying is that while I agree with much of your content, I guess I disagree with form. No, you are not positing an “ought”, but rather a “should” according to the data in your presentation.

            For me, I didn’t think the “should” that burial would be best in line from a Biblical worldview followed from your 1-9 points.

            “Also, I do not think characterizing my comments in the same class of “Christmas tree” notions is either justified or helpful. If I have treated your sentiments thusly, please forgive me. These kind of comparisons seem, to me, unhelpfully dismissive.”

            It was not intended to be dismissive. I was making an analogy that some people can offer 1-9 points about pagan roots for “Christmas”, and then end with a should (but not an ought) that believers should not participate in Dec. 25th activities whether in the sacred or secular senses. As a matter of form (not your excellent content of which I largely agree), it didn’t follow through the way those kinds of arguments about Christmas don’t follow through. Again, it wasn’t being dismissive, or at least I didn’t intend it to be, but rather, I made a comparison in relation to my disagreement.

            “Regarding the poor, you said, “unless Ronnie and other Christians across the country are gonna step up and fork out the cash for the poor to bury their dead, one should not look at being dogmatic about this issue.”

            First, and again, as you kindly noted, I am not being dogmatic. Thank you! Second, I fail to see the connection that you apparently see. Just for clarification, our church has paid for funerals of those who could not pay for their own, and we have found funeral homes to be quite helpful as well. I do not think that one should dismiss what I said based upon the fact that I did not say everything one might imagine (we are limited in this forum). Also, I do believe that Christian ministry to the poor should never be overlooked.”

            I applaud you and your church for that. My reference to you personally was not to say you never did such things, but that you were the author of the post, so I put your name there in my response.

            As someone who has both preached and attended funerals where the dead were cremated, not out of preference, but of financial necessity, I can tell you I often heard grumblings by many people, especially older ones, about how cremation is not Christian. Mind you, no one was offering to help pay for other arrangements, so for me, when we start talking about this kind of thing, you have to realize, unless Arkansas Southern Baptist Churches are different than the rest of the nation, more often then not, people will criticize something like this, but not help their fellow sister or brother out with other arrangements to deal with the body.

            So, pastors, as you are, speaking on these things can cause needless hurt feelings if saying that it is more Christian to bury than to cremate, but do nothing to assist those who can not themselves provide the means for other options.

            Surely you recognize this. Since you have a church that does put the burden sharing where the conviction is, then it isn’t a problem like it could be and very much is elsewhere.

            “However, I do not see the biblical logic between one’s financial ability to follow the commands or principles of Scripture and whether we suggest or recommend one do right…” (and so forth)

            Again, I applaud your church for providing assistance for these sorts of things like adoption. In the case of abortion, if one takes it to be murder, then that issue is an “ought not” rather than a “should not” regarding cremation, so the logic that applies is different in the two cases, so to me that analogy doesn’t work they way you intended.

            In any case, I could make arguments on other Biblical principles though that if a woman is in one’s sphere of influence, and she is talked out of abortion, then the believing community, in my reading of other texts from which principles are extracted, has a duty to provide, especially if the route of adoption isn’t taken. I completely agree with former SBC pastor and Governor Mike Huckabee from here in Arkansas about the “whole-life” approach rather than basic pro-life approach.

            I don’t think you disagree with that.

            Perhaps your next post should be an exhortation to SBC churches about “social justice” issues (or whatever label given to these sorts of things), since your church, unlike so many, are on track with it.

            “None of this is to imply that we do not have a responsibility to minister to the poor, but rather it is to say that doing right—seeking to determine what is the most biblically evidenced option—in one area is not trumped by the need to figure out how to spread the practice. I believe we should base our decisions upon what is right, not whether it is affordable.”

            I agree in principle, but “doing right” and “what is right” as to the issue of burial versus cremation, I guess I disagree, even if I agree with your content and personally think burial should be preferable. Whereas with abortion, I would agree since that is a “shall not” command, if one believes that it is the murder of a person. But again, even here, based on other principles the church should do what it can to help if abortion is averted.

            I understand a blogpost can’t say everything you think on every angle, which is basically why I wanted to raise the other issue about finances in the responses, since that too is what they are for. For many people, the expenses to bury are quite steep, and should we proclaim that burial as opposed to cremation is “doing right” according to Biblical principles (a should), and an entire church concurs, the money better be where the mouth is, like your church being a model for that. That was all I was trying to say.

            God bless,
            Johnathan

        Ronnie Rogers

        Thank you for your encouraging words and questions. Regarding your questions: First, I did not mean to imply that the Scriptures or the normal biblical or traditional practice of God’s people absolutely “invalidates” cremation because only the clear command of God can do such. Rather, I am suggesting that when both are considered in light of the evidence we have, burial seems to the better choice of the two. I would suggest that my recommendation is even stronger when considered in light of the paucity (or one may even argue the virtual non-existence) of biblical or traditional evidence for cremation by God’s people.

        Also, I think much of what has been done traditionally is to protect the body—caskets, vaults, etc.—in much the same way as tombs were used in biblical times. Some of the other practices that have been associated with burial are due to the sensibilities of the times. I am not seeking to justify all such practices, but I am merely offering some considerations to guide us in this area.

        Second, you are correct in noting that in both burial and cremation the body does in fact return to the ground; consequently, there is no essential difference in the final abode of the particles (one may also think of those who are buried at sea or die in catastrophic explosions). My emphasis is related to which chosen process seems more reflective of relevant Scriptures and Christian history. It is at least worthy of our consideration to ask why neither Jews nor early Christians, etc. interpreted such verses to mean cremation, an option which was available, cheaper, and significantly easier to accomplish.

        Indebted,
        Ronnie

      Johnathan Pritchett

      It is worth noting that Jews in the Biblical times, and Christians throughout most of history until perhaps the 1800’s in the West, were basically, to use an anachronistic term, “socialists” in practice (not in theory) when it came to helping one another out to cover expenses and duties associated with burials, and, well, just about everything else. Joseph of Arimathea offered up his tomb, performed burial rituals as did women unrelated to Jesus, etc.

      The Acts 2:44-47 model for the church is a dead one for the modern church, at least in the West. Such is the result of baptizing individualism and economic conservationism as church values.

      And I write this as an economic conservative, by the way. But while I see the capitalist model as appropriate for American economics, I do not see many of those principles as having a place in the church. But, they have filtered down anyway, especially in the SBC, generally speaking (not discounting exceptions) where in many cases the “social justice” issues raised by the prophets and Jesus himself are considered the evil heresies of mainline liberal Protestant denominations.

      But, I am getting way off topic.

Dean

Ronnie, thank you for your post. I would like to make a couple of comments and ask a question. In the first couple of centuries the church had to answer challenges to the final resurrection. The apologist pointed to divine omnipotence. If God made bodies out of nothing, He could make them again even if burned and scattered. I’m not sure the bodily resurrection is a good argument for your position.

I have not given the attention to our burial as being a Christian testimony. Though I am not convinced as you that cremation in our country is on the rise because of a pagan mindset, I see the value in the Christian burial as a testimony. Thank you for your challenge.

Finally a question, is it sinful for a Christian to cremate a loved one who is a believer in your opinion?

    Johnathan Pritchett

    I agree that bodily resurrection is not a good argument against cremation. However, it is a good topic for funerals, and this post indeed serves as a good reminder of that. Too often at funerals, there is an emphasis that the dead have gone on to be in the Lord’s presence, but little to no mention of the hope of bodily resurrection in the new heavens and new Earth.

    Cremation isn’t sinful, and Ronnie said “This is not to say that cremation is new to human history or that it is even sin…”.

    I think he is trying to put burial in a Christian context, and the importance of the body. Which I agree wholeheartedly. I think point 4 is fair, though in point 7. I wouldn’t say “cremation is THE pagan testimony that your spirit has been forever delivered from the prison of the body”, though it CAN BE viewed as that from a pagan perspective, Christians opting for cremation do not share that testimony or worldview though, so again, this sounds like those arguments that “Christmas trees are THE pagan testimony of tree worship”, etc. etc.

      Dean

      Johnathan, I read completely past the it is not sin comment. I have no idea how I missed that. Thank you for correcting me.

Carl Peterson

Intersting post however, some of the reasons to not cremate do not apply to cremation at all. For instance one can treat their loved one with dignity and the funeral can have some pomp and circumstance whether one is cremated or not. Also one can preach about the bodily ressurection at a funeral in which the body was cremated. In fact I think it could be argued that the very fact of the cremation could give one a great oportunity to bring it up and state our hope that God will ressurrect our bodies.

“1. When God created everything, including man, He pronounced it good (Gen. 1:31). This included the body. God created man’s body from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and pronounced that when man died the body was to return to the ground (Gen. 3:19; Ecc. 12:7). This does not seem to imply a return via a broken jar or the scattering one’s ashes.”

It does not really imply burying a loved one in a tomb either especially not in a coffin. I do not think these verses argue for or against any type of burial practice. Well almost any at least.

There was also much discussion about pagan and Jewish practices from 2,000+ years ago. While we should use scripture when interpreting what burial practices are permitted, Jewish and pagan burial practices do not shed much light on the subject. I do not believe most think about ancient Jewish and pagan practices when burying their loved ones.

I applaud and commend the article’s position that we should focus on the ressurection of the body but I think one can do this and still aprove of cremation.

Mary

I think the only reason why Christians choose cremation is the cost factor. It is significantly less than burial.

Steve

Quite a while ago, on a flight from Alaska to Georgia, I was sitting next to a man who was travelling South to bury his father. He had been drinking prior to getting on board, and continued to do so once we were airborne – he was trying in futility to stave off powerful emotions. He was crying. He relayed to me his mission, made all the more painful because he had spent years working for an undertaker. He said, “I know what they do to the bodies!” A good portion of his pain, he said, was imagining what they were doing to his father’s body.
On one hand, we may criticize cremation for is disregard of past tradition and the Christian-borne emphasis on respecting the body. On the other hand, our current burial practices are effectively mummification, and cost simply increases the effectiveness towards that end. Are plasticizers, embalming fluids, structural supports, plugs and stitches really more in keeping with Christian thought, or are they done for our own edification? I would agree that these ends need not be mutually exclusive, indeed should not be, but I also think an honest assessment here would lead us to conclude that we do not practice mummification in order to make God’s job easier but to abstract our sensitive selves from the effects of death on the body.
True, we needn’t mummify to bury – one could simply wrap the body in cloth, surround it with herbs and put it in a box (or not) and then in the ground. But we don’t, and I think my point here is to say that cremation is hardly less ‘defiling’ to the body than our current mummification practices. A mummified body is quite poisoned to its core, and it’s willfully done. A non-mummified body will be as much dust as a cremated body is ash in relatively short order.
Pushing more firmly against your position, I’d say that while your point about respecting the body is well taken, your prescription may be off if it is not also as critical of current burial practice.
As to the symbolism, I think we need to be careful about liberally making analogies such as, “we burn trash but bury treasure”. We also bury trash and recycle it. We bury treasure pretty rarely – usually when we’re hiding it. Rather than inspiring deep thoughts about how we treat our bodies, I’d just say these analogies are a distraction.

Robert Vaughn

Ronnie,

Somehow I missed this when it was first posted. I want to thank you for taking up the subject. Cremation will become more and more popular because of the cost savings, but burial seems to be the more respectful biblical option.

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