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Topic: Good Question


August 20, 2002
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The question...

Dear Rev. Schlissel,

Does the Bible have anything to say about cremation as opposed to burial?


The response...

Cremation- the practice of reducing a corpse to its essential elements by burning- seems to have been introduced to the Western world by the Greeks about 1,000 years before Christ. They may have borrowed it from others who practiced it to ensure a homeland burial for soldiers killed in foreign wars. Those killed on battlefields would be cremated and their ashes brought home for ceremonial entombment.

While the history of cremation is long and its practice widespread among the pagan nations of this world, it has not found ready acceptance in Christendom. It was only in 1884 that cremation was ruled a legal procedure in Great Britain. The first crematorium in the USA was built in Washington, PA in 1876; 100 years later less than 10% of the dead in America were cremated. Of the major North American religions, only Orthodox Judaism forbids cremation.

While there is no text of Scripture forbidding cremation, there are good reasons to reject it and choose burial. Perhaps we should first mention the obvious and say that God is certainly able to resurrect saints (and sinners) who were, whether by accident or design, reduced to ashes by fire. Be that as it may, Christians should be familiar with the rationale for burial.

While Abraham did confess to the Lord that he was but dust and ashes, the word ashes (Hebrew: epher) is one which is used figuratively for what is without value (Is 44:20) or loathsome (Job 30:19). It is associated with humility, contrition and repentance. Thus we do not believe Abraham was speaking of ashes as if they were his constitutional elements. However, Scripture does reveal that man was indeed made from the dust. Significantly, God says to Adam in the pronouncing of the curse, You (will return) to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Following this, we find burial to be the universal practice of dealing with the bodily remains of the righteous dead throughout Scripture. Space forbids anything but a brief survey of the evidence. Abraham purchased a burial field for his beloved wife; Joseph asked that his body be brought back and reinterred in the land of promise when God would fulfill His word to Israel; God Himself buried Moses; even Saul's bones were buried after the men of Jabesh Gilead retrieved them; Daniel spoke of those who sleep in the dust of the ground; and, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ's body was properly and honorably cared for by means of burial in the earth. Further, after His resurrection, many of those OT saints whose tombs had broken open, came out of the tombs and appeared in the city. It is exceedingly obvious to anyone reading Scripture that burial of the dead was regarded to be the unquestionable norm for the honorable disposal of the remains of the dead.

The exceptions, however, are even more powerful in their instructional value. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire. God cremated them. (Yes, I know that He buried the Philistines with Samson, but the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is specifically said to serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

The first covenant cremation in the Bible was that of Achan and his family in Joshua 7:25, who were burned with fire after being stoned. Burning is set forth as the portion allotted to the accursed as part of their disgrace and punishment. The branches that bear no fruit are cut off, cast into the fire and burned. Babylon the whore will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.

Again, And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind. (Isaiah 66:24) The rich man in the story of Lazarus found himself in agony, engulfed in flames. Hell is repeatedly set forth under the figure of fire, a fire that had been prepared for the devil and his angels. They (and all the wicked) will be cast into the Lake of Fire and the smoke of their torment will ascend forever.

It is not at all surprising that as unbelief in the church increases, so would the acceptance of, or preference for, cremation. The righteous, however, should be content to follow the example of all the saints of Scripture, and be laid in the ground while they wait for the resurrection to life which will occur simultaneously with the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. Therefore, on this score, chalk one up for the Orthodox Jews.

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