Cremation rates in the U.S. are on the rise. Since 2016, the cremation rate has been above 50 percent, outnumbering burials by several percentage points. Funeral industry sources cite several reasons for the increase in cremation rates, including a reduction in religious commitment nationally as well as economic reasons—frankly, cremations are cheaper than burials
What is surprising to this writer is the number of Christians now opting for cremation rather than burial. Christian members of my own extended family and Christian relatives of Christian friends have recently opted for cremation rather than burial. In all of these cases, economic reasons were cited as the reason for the choice of cremation over burial.
As a theologian I cannot help but ask what the choice of cremation says about one’s theology and one’s worldview. For example, cremation has been the common practice of Hinduism and Buddhism for millennia. However, from its earliest days, Christians have buried their dead and even took up collections for the burials of the poor among them. This long tradition of Christian burial practice reflects a deep commitment to certain biblical and theological truths. When one considers these truths, the choice of cremation over burial becomes more than a mere economic choice. It can become a powerful statement about one’s commitment to central tenets of the Christian faith.
First, the Scriptures present embodied existence as God’s purpose for humanity. Humanity was created embodied (Gen. 1–2). The Son of God “was made flesh” as a man (John 1:1–14) and was raised bodily from the dead (e.g. Matt 28). The Apostle Paul points to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection as assurance that believers will also be raised bodily from the dead (1 Cor. 15). Taking into account Scripture’s high view of bodily existence, and the fact that it is God’s intention to raise us bodily from the dead, the idea of intentionally destroying this creation of God was unthinkable to Christians until relatively recently.
Second, consider that burning with fire is a common biblical form of judgment. During the conquest of Canaan, when Achan plundered items under the ban, his actions led to God’s Judgment. He and his family were first stoned with stones and then burned with fire (Josh 7:25). Jesus Himself, quoting Isaiah 66:24, describes hell as a place “where the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:45–48). The lake of fire in Rev 20:10 is the place of eternal judgment for the Devil, the beast, and the false prophet. If burning with fire is God’s chosen form of judgment for his greatest enemy, the Devil, then why would Christians willingly commit their bodies to the flames?
Third, building on the Christian doctrine of the bodily resurrection, the future eternal state of believers must be taken into account. Contrary to the popular Hollywood depictions of “heaven,” our future eternal lives will not be a soulish existence floating among the clouds strumming harps. No, the Scriptures envision us inhabiting the new heavens and a new earth. Both Christ and believers will be embodied in this future, eternal state.
The doctrines of creation, anthropology, and eschatology (the doctrine of the end times) all present embodied existence as God’s purpose for humanity. Beyond these fundamental theological issues, there is much else in Scripture that presents burial as the normative practice for God’s people.
Abraham refused to bury his wife Sarah in a borrowed grave but insisted on purchasing the land in which she would be laid to rest. He and his son Isaac would later be laid to rest at the same place.
When the Lord delivered the children of Israel from Egypt, they carried Joseph’s bones with them for burial in his ancestral lands (Ex 13:19).
An unnamed woman anointed Jesus with nard in preparation for his death and burial (Mark 14:3–10). Several women went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning in order to carry out the proper burial preparations for his body.
These biblical examples may at first appear to be merely anecdotal evidence in support of burial over cremation. However, when one considers the biblical underpinnings of burial and the associated biblical worldview that burial represents, the choice of cremation becomes less attractive.
As mentioned above, both Hinduism and Buddhism prescribe cremation. They do so because their philosophies are world negating while Christianity is world affirming. Depending upon one’s interpretation of Hinduism and Buddhism, both view physical, embodied, existence as either an illusion or as an imprisonment from which one seeks escape. Christianity, however, views both the physical universe and bodily existence as the good creations of a Holy God (Gen 1–2). These two worldviews could not be further apart.
For millennia God’s people have buried their dead because they viewed embodied existence as God’s good creation. If God’s creation is good, then it should be treated with respect. Furthermore, if we will spend eternity embodied, then why would our final earthly decision involve the destruction of our bodies with fire?
While Scripture nowhere prohibits cremation nor lists cremation as a sin, the choice of burial over cremation can still make a powerful statement. Burial shows respect for God’s creation, affirms the goodness of bodily existence, and to quote a common funeral ceremony, it demonstrates “a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Cremation may be cheaper than burial, but I intend my final decision to be a clear presentation of the resurrection hope that I have through Jesus Christ.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cremation-rates-reach-all-time-high-us-180964478/. Burial, cremation, and body donation for scientific purposes are the only legal ways of dealing with a dead human body according to U.S. law. The body donation rate accounts for the “several” percentage point difference between cremation and burial.
The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, 14; 15. (2ndcentury) http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html
Burial, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, TEC, 1979, p. 501, https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/book-common-prayer/burial-dead