Does Cremation Conflict With the Bible?
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 1 November 2011; Revised 19 December 2014
NOTE: Citation titles in brackets refer to sources listed in the Sources section at the end of the article.
Biblical View of Death and Resurrection
Reality of Death
Thanks to the sin of Adam everyone dies (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:22). There is a time to die (Eccl 3:2). Death is a shadow, an enemy (Ps 23:4; 1 Cor 15:26). However, death is not the end; we must all face God. We will spend eternity somewhere, fully conscious and aware (Luke 16:22-23; Heb 9:27).
Mourning is normal and expected (Deut 34:8; Rom 12:15). Although not specifically commanded in Torah, the ancient Hebrews observed 30 days of mourning (Gen 37:34; 38:12; Num 20:29; Deut 34:8; Dan 10:2) and that is still Jewish practice. Jews facilitate the expression of grief through the Shiva (Heb. "seven"), a seven-day period following the burial in which friends visit the bereaved and share in the grief and offer comfort (Gen 50:10; 1 Sam 31:13).
God grieves, too. When Lazarus died, Yeshua wept (John 11:35). When John the Immerser was killed, Yeshua withdrew privately to grieve (Matt 12:14-15). God promises comfort and hope for those who mourn (Isa 61:2-3; Matt 5:4).
Promise of Resurrection
See my article The Mystery of the Resurrection. I will only summarize the key points here. In Scripture resurrection is the blessed hope of all God's people (Job 19:26; Isa 26:19; Dan 12:13; Matt 22:30). While a number of people who died in Bible times were raised to life, they eventually died again. In effect they were healed, rather than experiencing true resurrection. The end result of resurrection will be having an immortal and incorruptible body like that of Yeshua (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:42-54; 1 John 3:2). Even though we know the eventual result of resurrection, Scripture gives paradoxical explanation of what actually happens. Thus, there are two ways to interpret the mechanics or physics of resurrection.
Historically, Christians and Jews have believed in resurrection as re-creation (or restoration). In the resurrection God will reassemble the constituent elements of every physical body that has died and then perform the transformation for the person's spirit reoccupation. In other words, bodies will come out of graves and be transformed (John 5:28-29). However, this interpretation of the teaching in John 5 is by no means conclusive. This method requires God to engage in “dust collection,” because eventually the bodies of the deceased return to dust according to God's decree (Gen 3:19).
A more likely interpretation is the new creation (or new tent) view of resurrection. The body is a temporary sanctuary for the spirit and upon death the spirits of believers go to heaven (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 5:8; 1 Thess 4:14). Instead of having to come back to earth to get an overhaul of the old body, there is a new body waiting for us in heaven (2 Cor 5:1; cf. Rev 6:11; 7:9). Just as there will be a new heaven and a new earth, so there will be a brand new body for all the saints.
Treatment of the Dead in Scripture
The act of burial refers to the placement of a corpse into an excavation in earth or rock. The Heb. word qabar used in the Tanakh and the Greek word thaptō in the New Testament simply mean "to bury." The basic idea of "bury" is to cover in order to conceal from sight and thus the verbs do not by themselves indicate the means or location. In Bible times corpses were typically placed in natural caves (Gen 23:19; 49:30-31), other above-ground tombs (Judg 8:32; Matt 27:60; John 11:17; Acts 2:29) or in the ground (Gen 35:8, 19). Burying at sea also accomplishes the same purpose (Rev 20:13).
While burial was practiced from ancient times (Gen 23:4), the only generalized command in Scripture to bury someone has to do with an execution (Deut 21:23). The burial was to take place the same day. The Jewish Sages deduced from this passage that the commandment pertained to all deaths and that burial should take place as soon as possible after death (Sanhedrin 46a-b). A number of biblical anecdotes mention the prompt action to bury after death (Luke 7:11-12; Acts 5:6-10; 8:2). However, there could be special reasons, including the wishes of the parents, for a delay in burial (Matt 9:23; Acts 9:37-39).
Consider the unusual case of the man who said to Yeshua "let me go and bury my father" (Matt 8:21; Luke 9:60). Yeshua responded by saying "let the dead bury the dead." Most commentators assume either that Yeshua's words emphasize the greater duty of proclaiming the kingdom over family obligations of caring for the dead or that the father had not actually died and the disciple wannabe asked for permission to wait until after his father eventually died. However, there is no reason not to take the man's request literally and with that interpretation Yeshua's words seem shocking. For Yeshua to say "let the dead bury the dead" in advance of the funeral would be the height of insensitivity and contrary to custom. In Hebrew culture burial of the dead was as urgent a duty as visitation of the sick. After all, God visited the sick (Gen 18:1) and buried the dead (Deut 34:6), leaving an example for His people to follow (Sotah 14a).
Not considered by commentators is that by the first century Jews conducted two burials. Exactly one year after death the bones of the deceased were collected and reinterred in a small container carved from stone called an ossuary. Many ossuaries have been found in archaeological excavations in the land of Israel. Inscriptions written on the ossuaries have been found in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. One found in a rock-cut tomb in the vicinity of Jerusalem had the Hebrew name Yeshua inscribed on it (Bivin 40). So, it is more likely that the man was requesting time to perform the second burial, which could have been done by any family member. In that light, the man's request really is just an excuse to avoid the cost of discipleship.
Very little is said in Scripture about cremation. The first mention of burning was the command given to Abraham for him to offer his son as a burnt offering (Gen 22:2), but God intervened and provided an animal as a substitute (Gen 22:13). Burning was prescribed for one guilty of particular types of immorality, although the burning would probably follow execution by stoning (Lev. 20:14; 21:9; cf. Josh 7:15). Achan and his family were burned after they were stoned (Josh 7:15, 25).
Cremation was also widely practiced as an expedient in dealing with the thousands killed in battles and wars (Josh 6:24; 8:28; 11:13). The bodies of Saul and his sons were burned after they had been killed in battle and then the bones were buried (1 Sam 31:12f).
Martyrdom by being burned to death was not uncommon. King Nebuchadnezzar tried to have the three friends of Daniel burned to death for refusing to bow to an idol (Dan 3:19-23). Paul alludes to being burned as a martyr (1 Cor 13:3) and in the history of Christianity many would die for their faith by this means.
The exact origin of embalming is not known with certainty. The practice existed in antiquity and identified with cultures widely dispersed from one another. Perhaps the greatest skill in embalming was that of ancient Egypt, which developed the process of mummification. They believed that preservation of the mummy empowered the soul after death, which would return to the preserved corpse. Mummified remains have also been found in China and Peru.
Embalming is mentioned twice in Scripture in connection with Jacob and his son Joseph in Egypt. Jacob did not request that his body be embalmed, because he directed that his bones be taken back to Canaan for burial (Gen 50:25). Nevertheless, Joseph had Jacob's body embalmed in accordance with Egyptian custom and later Joseph was also embalmed (Gen 50:2, 26), probably on order of his Egyptian wife. With the release of Israel from Egyptian bondage the Hebrews did not take the science of embalming with them along with the bodies of Jacob and Joseph.
The death and bereavement rituals of Jews feature a number of elements consistent with biblical practice.
Embalming is not allowed. This process of removing blood, discarding it down the drain and substituting preservative chemicals in the body, is considered desecration of the deceased person and is forbidden by Jewish law.
Cremation is not allowed in Jewish law because the body was given to us as a gift from God who expects us to take care of ourselves and return in the best condition possible.
Autopsies are not allowed according to Orthodox law, nor donation of body organs. A Rabbi must be consulted if an autopsy has to be done or an organ donation is being considered. It is acceptable, however, to donate a kidney during the person's lifetime.
Preparation for Burial
Most well organized communities offer the services of a sacred burial society (Chevra Kaddisha), which prepares the body for burial. Men prepare men and women prepare women. They wash the body with warm water from head to foot and, although they may turn the body as necessary to clean it entirely, including all orifices, they never place it face down.
The body is dressed in a simple white burial shroud (tachrichim) to avoid distinguishing between rich or poor. Men are buried with their prayer shawls (tallits). The body is then placed in a simple wooden coffin and closed. The coffin is not reopened for the funeral service.
From the moment of death, the body is not left alone until after burial. This practice, called guarding/watching (shemira), is also based on the principle of honoring the dead. A family member, a Chevra Kaddisha member, or someone arranged by the family passes the time by reciting psalms (Tehillim) as this person watches over the deceased.
The Church has historically opposed cremation because of the belief in the re-creation view of resurrection. That is, God needs the elements of the body in order to reassemble it for resurrection transformation. Cremation was made legal in England in 1884 and the Pope lifted the ban on cremation in 1963. Even so, cremation remains a controversial and emotional issue among many Christians.
Historically, there has never been any objection within Christianity to embalming. Funeral traditions among Christians reflect a great latitude of expression, depending on the family's desires and local custom. In modern times, especially in America, the funeral industry has been very influential in guiding funeral arrangements, particularly with respect to the practice of embalming, public display of the body and the use of a neutral site for the conduct of funerals.
American Way of Death
We might reasonably ask why the body is embalmed? Why is there public viewing of the body? Why are funeral services, whether at a mortuary or a religious sanctuary, decorated with flowers? Why do people wear black? And, why should funerals be so expensive?
In 1963 Jessica Mitford published a controversial book, American Way of Death, an exposé of abuses in the funeral home industry in the United States. Mitford believed that death had become much too sentimentalized, highly commercialized, and, above all, excessively expensive. Mitford's research documented the shocking ways in which funeral directors take advantage of the grief of the bereaved to convince them to pay far more than necessary for the funeral and other services. As a result of Mitford's consumer advocacy the public began to view the industry with a more critical eye and even legislation was enacted in various states to regulate the industry.
An updated revision, The American Way of Death Revisited, completed by Mitford just before her death in 1996, appeared in 1998. The new work indicates that little has actually changed in the sales tactics of funeral directors. An important point that Mitford makes is that the funeral director is a salesman, not a minister. In fact, the sales techniques employed at funeral homes could rank them lower than a used car salesman, since many funeral directors take advantage of someone's grief to guilt them into expensive services.
An important subject covered in Mitford's book that has a direct bearing on the subject of this article is the practice of embalming. Some important points for the consumer to consider are that (1) embalming is not a legal requirement; (2) embalming does not insure hygiene or make any contribution to public sanitation; (3) embalming is motivated by profit; and (4) embalming is strictly for public presentation of the corpse.
Considerations for Decision-making
1. The public display of the body, whether for visitation, a wake, or the funeral service is unnecessary for the process of grief.
2. There is no biblical virtue accomplished in the public display of the body. The morbidity associated with the whole practice of viewing the body by non-family members is unseemly and disrespectful in my view.
2. Therefore, embalming is unnecessary to prepare the body for burial.
1. Since the eventual state of the corpse is to return to dust, cremation only hastens that process.
2. There is no commandment in Scripture that forbids cremation.
3. God does not need a body intact to complete resurrection. If God were really going to recreate the original body before resurrection, He only needs one strand of DNA.
1. Burial of the body (whether above-ground or below-ground) was clearly the preferred method of caring for the dead by God's people throughout Bible times.
2. God's command to bury someone executed (Deut 21:23) would seem to apply to all deaths.
3. Yeshua was buried with the body intact, and although he had no choice in the matter, as his disciples we desire to emulate him.
No one’s salvation is going to hinge on whether a lifeless body is cremated, embalmed and/or buried above ground or in the ground. The choice is up to you, but the weight of Scripture would seem to weigh in favor of burial without embalming.
Resources for Further Study
David Bivin & Roy Blizzard, Jr., Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus. Rev. ed. Destiny Image Publishers, 2001.
Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
Death and Mourning in Judaism. Jewish Virtual Library.
Tracey R. Rich, Life, Death and Mourning. Judaism 101.
Copyright © 2011-2014 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.