Why Cremation Is Unscriptural

It is abundantly clear from our newspaper obituary columns that cremation rather than burial is rapidly becoming the normal mode of disposing of the bodies of the dead. Moreover it is often urged upon one that hygienic considerations in lands of ever increasing population make cremation highly desirable, if not absolutely essential. Others adopt an attitude of 'please yourself'. What is the original significance of cremation? What does the Bible say about the matter?

Historical picture

First let us consider the practice of cremation historically. Cremation has been the practice of Hinduism from time immemorial. It is common among the aboriginal peoples of India1 and among Buddhists. It was once widely practiced among some of the Indian tribes of North America. Among ancient Greeks and Romans it was fashionable, particularly among the official and wealthier classes, where "economy or convenience had a good deal to do with choice" (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1950).

In Europe it is amply illustrated in the tombs of what are known as the Stone and Bronze Ages, and occurred down to the beginnings of the Christian era. But note if you will this statement: "There can be little doubt that the practice of cremation in modern Europe was at first stopped, and thereafter prevented in great measure by the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body" (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Hence the interesting observation: "Both Jew and Christian objected to cremation" (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1970).

Anthropologists inform us that among some civilizations the idea prevailed that the spirits of the departed would return to the buried bodies to plague the living, and that cremation must be practiced to prevent this. Others had the notion that cremation set free the Spirit of man for ever from the ties of this life, and enabled it to enjoy unfettered bliss in the life beyond death. Clearly all such teachings are unScriptural.

However, there were some national exceptions to cremation. The practice of embalming and then burying was observed in Egypt, as can be verified by the vast number of tomb pictures and papyrus records. The Chinese custom was particularly evil, as it was associated with the worship of one's ancestors, being pact of their moral code that the bodies of the dead should be buried in China's earth. In more modern times, Italy was in the vanguard for cremation, and it was legalized there in 1877.

As for England, the idea of cremation reappeared in the middle of the nineteenth century. Sir Henry Thompson, an agnostic, was chiefly responsible for the founding of the first Cremation Society in 1874. But it was not until 1902 that an Act of Parliament legalized the practice of cremation, while at the same time guaranteeing exemption from participation for any minister who found it repugnant to his convictions. This coincided with the liberal theology that began to invade the churches and today finds its expression in rejecting the belief in the resurrection of the body and the literal physical resurrection of Jesus himself. This view rejects the idea that the hope of redemption includes also that of the body. Yet Jesus said to Thomas: "Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing" (John 20:27).

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Old Testament practice

Jewish reasons for rejecting cremation lie at the very root of true Christian thinking. Disposal of the dead body by burning is not a Jewish custom, and inhumation (that is, the practice of burying in the ground) is considered by traditional Jews, even today, to be obligatory and a religious commandment. Many verses are advanced as Scriptural proof, such as: "his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day" (Deut. 21:23); acknowledging as it does the principle: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19).

In respect of this practice it is of interest to note that according to the Roman historian Tacitus the Jews "bury rather than burn their dead" (Hist. 5:5). Hence the Mishnah the Jewish oral law, considers the burning of a corpse to be an idolatrous practice (Av. Zar. 1:3). The Talmud (Sanh. 46b) deduces that burial is a positive command, and, together with such as Maimonides (Sefer La-Mitzvot 231, 536), it considers that cremation is a "denial of the belief in bodily resurrection and an affront to the dignity of the human body". This reminds us of our Lord's death: "Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury" (John 19:40).

We see, then, that we are not concerned with the argument of science that it makes no difference to the ultimate dissolution of the body whether this takes place in the ground or in the furnace of the crematorium. Rather we are concerned with the principles underlying Scripture, and here the Old and New Testaments witness to the need for burial, which militates against the modern plea for cremation. The faith of Martha and Mary in Jesus as "the resurrection, and the life" (John 11:25) would have been nullified had Lazarus's corpse been burnt instead of being buried in a tomb.

As we examine the Scriptures it becomes clear that we should be bound by the practice of burial, and that we are not advocating this simply because its custom is ancient, but rather on the basis, "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isaiah 8:20).

Continued... Why Cremation Is Unscriptural - Part 2

Author: Paul P. Maher
Source: The Testimony - February 1997

1. A comment received from a reader: "The rite of inhumation was practiced by ancient Indians who first occupied India. It was the Indo-Europeans who came to India brought the rite of cremation."