Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What About Cremation?

Is it sinful to be cremated?

The Bible doesn’t expressly forbid the practice of cremation, but the examples we have in Scripture of the people of God caring for the remains of the dead are decidedly in favor of burial. And of course the burial of our Lord Jesus Christ serves as an example which Christians have generally wished to follow.

Normally in Scripture burning the dead was a sign of a person’s having died under God’s curse. It was a punishment inflicted upon the corpse of a particularly egregious offender. We see this punishment commanded, for instance, in the case of Achan (in the book of Joshua). By the command of God, Achan was stoned for his offense of stealing from God, and his body was burned (Josh. 7:15, 25; see also Lev. 20:14; 21:9).

A number of cultures, both ancient and modern, have at different times practiced cremation for various reasons—some for practical and others for religious reasons.

Burial seems at first to have been the usual custom among the ancient Greeks, but later cremation became widely practiced, especially in times of plague, or after a battle in order to prevent enemies from disgracing the corpses of the Greek warriors, or in order to more conveniently bring their remains home for burial.

The Romans (at least members of the aristocracy) also at certain points in their history practiced cremation.

It’s well-known that the Vikings practiced cremation; and Hindu’s still do.

One thing that will be noticed here is that all these cultures that have practiced cremation have been pagan cultures.

It’s interesting that wherever the Christian faith has been introduced and taken hold, the practice of cremation has been replaced by burial. The care of the body by means of burial has always been thought to be more consistent with the Christian’s hope of the resurrection.

Did you know that it’s the traditional Christian practice for graves to lie lengthwise from east to west, with the head of the deceased toward the west and the feet toward the east? This is in anticipation of the resurrection at the second coming of Christ, so that when the faithful are raised up they will be facing the east so as to witness the coming of Christ to Jerusalem. Even in burial the faithful Christian is giving a witness to Jesus Christ.

Non-Christian and post-Christian countries have very high cremation rates. The rate in Japan is 97%; in Great Britain its 70%; in Scandinavia it’s 65%.

About a third of those who die in the U.S. are cremated.

Some who choose cremation do so as a very self-conscious way of rejecting the Christian faith, particularly Christian teaching concerning the afterlife. They want to make a secular statement. They want to say by their cremation that they deny life after death; they deny the resurrection. It’s interesting that the cremation rates are highest in the most secular states of the country: 67% in Hawaii and Nevada and just at or above 60% in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. Throughout the Bible belt, however, the rates are under 10%.

"The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures." (Timothy George, Cremation Confusion).

Now of course not everyone who chooses cremation does so to make a secular statement. Increasingly people are choosing cremation for simple economic reasons. Cremation often runs between ¼ to ½ the cost of burial.

But is it sinful to be cremated? The Bible doesn’t expressly say so, but the pattern of Scripture is certainly instructive, and I think ought to be regarded as normative. And the pattern of Scripture is clearly in favor of burial as the only honorable disposal of the remains of the dead. Certainly, the care of the body in burial accords well with the Christian hope of the resurrection and it serves as the last testimony the Christian can give to Jesus Christ.

It is not at all surprising that as unbelief in the church increases, so should the acceptance of cremation as a viable alternative to burial.

Let me summarize by saying, although we have no express command in the Bible forbidding cremation, the universal practice of the saints in Scripture ought to be regarded as a normative principle. In other words, we ought to be content to follow the example of the saints of Scripture and be laid in the ground to await the resurrection.

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