Thinking Cap #46 - Cremation

Some Background


There are currently about 1,100 crematories and 470,915 cremations per year in North America. Not only is it growing more common-place in the secular society, but more and more Christians are also turning to this alternative whether as a statement of cost, convenience or space. It has become an increasingly popular means for disposing of the dead. Some estimates indicate that by 2010, 34% of all Americans will cremate their loved ones. The question remains, is it a Biblical alternative. Those who opt for cremation often do so for emotional (it can bring about immediate closure to the grieving process), economically (it is measured in the hundreds rather than thousands of dollars) and ecologically (it is said to save valuable land for more productive purposes). This thinking cap is just a collection of my thoughts on the subject. It is not intended to condemn or making anyone feel like they have done anything wrong. It is written in the desire that more and more people will search the Scripture for guidance and direction in all aspects of daily life.


Maybe Its Okay


The aspect of cremation that worries some Christians is the thought of the total annihilation of the body. We must remember, that the body is annihilated just as completely in the grave as it is in cremation. The graves of our ancestors are no longer in existence, and soil in which they were buried has long since been removed elsewhere. We must therefore accept that what happens to the body or to the grave cannot be of any significance so far as the resurrection is concerned.


Our resurrection is related to that of Christ's in 1 Corinthians 15, and we must realize that the resurrection of Jesus was quite different from that of Lazarus. Lazarus needed the body that had been buried, but when Jesus came forth from the tomb, his body was so changed that he could not be easily recognized. It was different in dimension, destiny, dress, disposition, dynamics, durability and dynasty (but that is another Thinking Cap). In that chapter, Paul states of the burial of our bodies: "thou sowest not that body that shall be" (v.37). The body that rises is not made of the same substances as the one that was buried, but is immortal and incorruptible.


In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul makes the contrast between living in a tent, a temporary home that can be pulled down and put away, and living in a permanent home that will last forever. Our bodies are our temporary tents. Our resurrected bodies will be our permanent homes. They are similar in appearance but different in substance. Cremation is therefore no hindrance to the resurrection.


Maybe Its Not


So while it is possible to quickly dismiss objections, and give a Biblical blessing to cremation, I think that it would be wise to look a little more deeply at the issue. From an emotional perspective, cremation does not logically lead to a more satisfying sense of closure than does burial. Much of the therapeutic value of any funeral ritual depends on cultural conditioning, prior understanding of the death experience, the circumstances of the death itself, the relationship to the deceased, and the emotional make-up of the survivors. In addition, economic considerations should not be valued more highly than ethical or spiritual considerations. The ecological reasoning is also a part of the flawed ZPG (zero population growth) concept that grew out of the rebellious 60s. I see no data suggesting that we will run out of suitable land for burial sites anytime soon.


The body is very temporary, but it is very important. So important that the Bible calls it a temple. Dont ever take your body lightly, without sobriety or seriousness. It is a worship center for the Living God (1 Cor. 6:19). God places great value on the body. While I am not aware of any portion of the Bible that prohibits cremation, historically, throughout all the history of Christianity, theres been a disposition not to go the direction of cremation. The reason isnt because God is unable at the Resurrection to reproduce the person...(Because its a new body anyway -- Hes quite capable of doing that.) That isnt the problem. And the problem isnt because God would somehow necessarily be displeased, per say. But theres something about cremation that tends to make a statement of saying, this that has been a temple of the Holy Spirit of God somehow is burnt to the ground.


In the case of a believer, the body has been the temple of the Holy Spirit. And, while its a decaying temple (and then a dead one), its not a matter of attempting to enshrine it as though we were mummifying bodies to try and somehow protract life and memory by so frail a means. But its simply a matter of acknowledging that it has been a point of reverence for a person who once lived there and it was a place of worship to the living God.


It Probably Isnt the Best


The arguments for cremation are not all that strong. However, I believe that the arguments for burial are quite powerful. I believe that Scripture clearly favors burial over cremation. The Old Testament pattern was always burial, except in highly unusual circumstances. The exception that best proves the rule is the partial cremation of King Saul and his sons. The men of Jabesh-Gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons to prevent desecration by the Philistines --- and even in this case the bodies were burned, but the bones were buried (1 Sam. 31:12-13).


The bodies of criminals and certain immoral people were to be burned (Gen. 38:24, Lev. 20:14, 21:9, Joshua 7:15, 25). In Amos 2:1, the Lord rebukes Moab for burning the bones of the King of Edom.


As in the Old Testament, the New Testament pattern is always burial. Paul includes burial as an essential part of the gospel itself when he writes, For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3-4 emphasis added). Paul equates baptism with both burial and resurrection when he says that we were buried with Christ, by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:4)


The New Testament doesn't mention cremation. First Corinthians 13:3, which says, "and though I give my body to be burned" refers to martyrdom, not cremation. The Jewish custom was to honor the deceased by applying ointments and spices to the body. The body of Jesus was honored in this way (Luke 23:56). The early Church fathers preferred burial to cremation, which was practiced in the Roman world.


Burial symbolizes the promise of resurrection by anticipating the preservation of the body. Cremation, however, symbolizes the pagan world-view of reincarnation. Cremation better symbolizes pantheism, which in its Eastern forms is usually associated with a salvation from the body by escaping the cycle of reincarnation. So, while resurrectionists look forward to the restoration of the body (Rom. 8:11), reincarnationists look forward to being relieved from their bodies.


Finally, burial highlights the sanctity of the body. In the Christian world-view, the body is incredibly significant, in that it has numerical identity to the resurrected body and is uniquely designed to give expression to the image of God in man (Ge. 1:27; 9:6). While God has no problem resurrecting the cremated, cremation does not point to the resurrection of God. Ultimately, the hope of the believer rests in the one-to-one correspondence between the body that dies and the body that rises (1 Cor. 15:51-55).


Our motives are the primary consideration in everything we do. Why are we doing it? If a person cant afford burial, then cremation might be considered. Generally speaking, what is not forbidden in Scripture is permitted. Although cremation is not specifically forbidden, burial, I believe, should be the preferred method.

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