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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Cremation: Is It for Christians?

Burial or Cremation?
Christians today are being confronted with the reality that friends and relatives are being cremated rather than buried. One of the questions we want to investigate in this position paper is whether cremation is an acceptable form of burial for the Christian. Should a Christian attend a funeral where the body of the deceased has been cremated?
To some, this is a moot issue. Some will participate in this type of funeral unreflectively. What we want to do, therefore, is to search the Bible to see if we can learn what the Word of God has to say to us about this procedure. We do not want to bring our preconceived notions to the Scripture and expect it to conform to our ways of thinking. Rather, we want to be obedient listeners to God’s infallible Word and to let it form and inform our thinking (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

A Brief History
In ancient Rome and Greece, cremation was a know entity. From the side of the Greeks we can read about the cremation of Hector and Achilles. History also records for us that at least four Roman emperors were cremated: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero.
In 785AD, Charlemagne forbade cremation upon the penalty of death. What was his reason in doing this? He considered cremation to be a “rite of the pagans.”[1]
In the history of the world, death by burning has traditionally been for heretics and witches. The church is aware of the deaths of Johann Huss and Savonarola in the flames as well as Thomas Cranmer, Nicolas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer. Even up to and including the nineteenth century, witches were still burned at the stake.
The French Revolution saw the advent of propaganda in favor of cremation. During 1800s many books were written in support of cremation as a means of caring for the deceased. Italy became known as the “motherland” of cremation. In 1873 the first of Italy’s crematoriums was built in Milan. A second followed in 1878 in Gotha. As might be expected, the Vatican was vehemently opposed to both of these crematoria.
The Roman Catholic Church remained opposed to the procedure until 1964. In that year, it was decreed that a Church funeral could not be refused based on cremation.
The Increased Popularity of Cremation
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the number of crematoriums in the United States today. Suffice it to say that almost every funeral home can make arrangements for cremation.
The usual procedure for cremation is to heat an oven to approximately 1,000 degrees (Celsius). When the desired temperature is reached, the flame is extinguished and the corpse is placed in the oven. The cremation process then takes about one hour.
The ashes of the deceased are then placed in a zinc urn and soldered shut. In some cases, where the family wants to spread the remains in a yard or at sea, they may do so.
What has brought about the popularity of cremation in our time? Certainly, there are numerous factors, but let me give you some of the most salient arguments that are made in favor of cremation. This is, by no means, meant to be an exhaustive list, but the following summarize the pro-cremation arguments: (1) It is the desire of the person dying. (2) Cremation is more hygienic than burial. (3) Cremation is substantially less expensive than burial. (4) Cremation takes less space than a burial plot and is therefore to be preferred. (5) Cremation is aesthetically better than burial. (6) Cremation requires less care of the plot than burial. (7) There is the quasi-New Age “Phoenix” symbolism. Let’s look at each argument in turn.

Cremation is the Request of the Person Dying
For some reason, people today seem to be requesting cremation. Either through the advice of a physician or a friend or relative, a person either with a terminal illness or reaching old age will request to be cremated.
I believe it is incumbent upon the Christian to take the time to ask why. There may be several biblical reasons (see below) to suggest burial instead of cremation. If the time permits, there should be Bible study and prayer—together—about this request.
All too often, out of mere sentimentality—the dying person’s “last request”—people agree without presenting the loved one with the biblical approach to the matter. Certainly, God is in control of the method of death of each person. Sanctification is a process that does not end until each of us breathes our last breath. A loved one might request cremation, but for all the wrong, (secular) reasons. If the Lord grants the time to discuss this matter, the biblical approach should be presented.
What if the person—even after hearing all the biblical evidence—still insists on cremation? In that case, the relatives may proceed with cremation without feeling as if they have violated a specific biblical command that prohibits cremation in the case of a believer.

The Argument from Hygiene
Some of the proponents of cremation speak about the possible problems that can accompany a graveyard. Cremation, on the other hand, they argue, presents no sanitation problems and is to be preferred.
This is a very specious argument. The current graveyards pose no problem in terms of hygiene and health. The specifications vary from country to country, but there are local requirements pertaining to the distance dwellings can be built in proximity to graveyards. There are also regulations and prohibitions regarding the distances between grave sites and water.

The Economic Argument
Another argument that is presented in favor of cremation is that it is less expensive than burial. A couple of things need to be said here. As a pastor, I have done many funerals. Christians need to be aware of the obvious, which is that funeral homes are in business. Burying the dead is their livelihood. Many funeral undertakers are sensitive to the grief of the relatives and friends, but they are also in business.
Certainly not all, but some funeral directors will take advantage of family members who are extremely vulnerable immediately after the death of a loved one. Many emotional as well as psychological factors come into play. It might very well be that the family will insist on nothing but the most expensive vaults, caskets, etc. In these cases, the funeral home merely complies with the wishes of the family. Make no mistake, funerals can run well into five figures.
That need not be the case, however. There are very “affordable” burials. It would be a cold and callous person that would only be thinking about finances when it came to the burial of a loved one. The argument for cremation on the grounds of costs involved is usually made by those who are already convinced that cremation is the way to go.

The Argument regarding Space
Except in the case of extremely densely populated areas, this, too, is a very specious argument. Even a densely populated country like Holland has no problem providing adequate gravesites for its deceased. The argument that cremation is better because it takes substantially less space than traditional burial holds no water.
Certainly here in the US, we don’t have to worrying about not having enough ground to bury our dead. This argument sounds like something Planned Parenthood or the Environmentalists would come up with, but it is an argument without substance. The choice of cremation over traditional burial should not be made on the basis of scarcity of land!

The Aesthetic Argument
This argument is closely related to the hygienic argument. The argument goes something like this: the nature of human decomposition is ghastly and unseemly. Even if good procedures are used in embalming the deceased, the process is not eliminated but only slowed down. Decomposition will still take place in the casket.
Cremation speeds up that process so that it is completed in about one to two hours. Looking into a casket that has been exhumed is definitely no pleasant task. We must keep in mind, however, that it would be equally displeasing to gaze into the oven of a crematorium while the corpse of a loved one was being cremated.
This is a downright silly self-seeking argument. Most people who have lost loved ones will ever have to gaze upon the remains that have been exhumed. The exhuming of a casket is definitely the exception and not the rule. Even when that does occur, the family members are not required to be present.

Cremation Requires Less Care than a Burial Plot
Again, we’re dealing here with a self-seeking argument. There are a couple of factors that come into play. In the first place, this is an argument used by those people who do not want to be “bothered” with caring for another person. This argument is just as valid for the “living” as for the “dead.” That is to say, some people are so self-absorbed that they don’t want to be involved in the lives of their children.
One of the maladies facing America today is that parents no longer want to be parents. They are, as often as not, more concerned about their pleasure and entertainment. I’m not trying to paint all parents with the same brush, but there is an obvious problem among the “baby-boomers” who are used to being catered to and getting what they want. They are a spoiled generation and not many have been able to extricate themselves from the notions they grew up with.
On the other hand, there is a general lack of respect for life in the US today. Our abortion and (impending) euthanasia laws point inexorably to this truth. We are faced today with drive-by shootings, murders in high schools, young girls giving birth to babies during proms and then dumping their new-born into a trash can in the bathroom! If people have so little concern about the living, why should we expect them to care about the dead?
The argument about the care of the gravesite comes from a mindset that is opposed to caring for the living, especially if it causes them any inconvenience. I think it’s safe to say that no one possessing a modicum of common sense—let alone the revelation from the Word of God—would object to the (minimum) care a gravesite requires. That a person would be unwilling to wipe a tombstone with a damp cloth speaks volumes.

The Flight of the Phoenix
Antiquity records the saga of the Phoenix. The Phoenix was a mythical bird that felt his end approaching. He used his remaining strength to fly to Heliopolis, which, as its name states, is the city of the son. The Phoenix gathered dry sticks and built his own funeral pyre. The purpose of the funeral pile was not merely to burn the Phoenix to ashes, but also to prepare his “rebirth.” Apollo appeared and shot a flaming arrow into the funeral pile and told the Phoenix that it was released from being a senior citizen (which meant that the Phoenix lost its AARP card and all its discounts at Mickey D’s), and that it was to fly away to a new and better life. According to the legend, the Phoenix rose from the ashes and flew away into the blue horizon. And they all lived happily ever after.
If this sounds “New Age,” it is. Christians must be on their guard about such fanciful arguments. Fire in Scripture has a very different purpose than secularism ascribes to it. For example, we are told in Hebrews 12:29 that our God is a consuming fire. The fire referred to here has to do with judgment and not rebirth or renewal.
This same image is used by John the Baptizer (he really wasn’t a Baptist) in Matthew 3:12 (Luke 3:17).[2]

What Does the Bible Say?
It is important to note that the Bible does not offer an explicit prohibition against cremation. The notion of an “argument from silence” does not help us much one way or the other. For example, the Israelites knew of cremation from the unbelieving nations around them and yet they buried their dead. By the same token, the apostles encountered the practice of cremation during their missionary and expansion journeys, and yet they did not prohibit it.
My personal belief is that the “standard” for Christians remains burial. Let me give you a number of reasons why I hold this position.

The Practice of Burial in the Old Testament
Over against certain Christians today (many Dispensationalists),[3] I hold that whatever the Old Testament teaches is still normative for the New Testament Church unless the Bible itself abrogates or modifies it. Therefore, the Old Testament has a great deal to teach us about what is normative after the death of a loved one.
We read about the extent to which Abraham went to find a suitable grave for Sarah’s burial (Genesis 23:3ff.). We also read how Isaac and Ishmael (a non-believer) took care to bury their father in the same place (Genesis 25:9).
Joseph gave explicit instructions about carrying his bones out of Egypt to be buried elsewhere (Genesis 50:25ff.; Joshua 24:32). Moses was buried as was Miriam and Aaron. The case of Moses is especially instructive. In Deuteronomy 34:5-6 we have a brief synopsis of Moses’ death and burial. We are told that Moses died in the land of Moab and that God Himself buried Moses.

The Example of the Lord Jesus Christ
One of the most compelling arguments for burial is fixed in the example of Christ Himself. Not only was Christ’s body prepared with spices and then buried, but this burial was prophesied in the Old Testament. Isaiah, in his well-known fifty-third chapter foretold Christ being placed into the grave (53:9).

The Example of Death and Resurrection
The New Testament is replete with examples about the Christian life in terms of death (burial) and resurrection (see Romans 6). The Bible also speaks of the relationship between sowing and reaping (1 Corinthians 15:36ff.).
This doesn’t mean that any Christian that was ever burned at the stake or cremated is not saved! There have been many Christians who, during war times, lost their lives at sea, in the air, and on land. There are always exceptions. The rule, however, is that the symbolism given to us in the Word of God points clearly to the relationship between burial and resurrection.
What Does the Bible teach about the “Judgmental” Character of Fire?
As we look to the Bible to teach us about proper burial, we do well to examine cases where people were intentionally burned. What was the purpose of the burning? I’d like for us to consider several Old Testament texts that speak to the issue at hand.
The burning of corpses in the Old Testament is sometimes viewed as an act of desecration.[4] A couple of examples will suffice here. The first is the burning of Achan’s body in Joshua 7:25. How did that biblical narrative unfold? After the destruction of Jericho, Joshua and the troops took on Ai. The army of Ai came out and gave Israel an industrial strength thrashing. The reason this happened is because of Achan’s sin. He coveted some items that God had commanded to be completely destroyed (Josh. 7:21). The result was that Achan (and his entire family) were first stoned and then “burned with fire.”
In Amos 2:1, the Lord speaks to the king of Moab and tells him He will not revoke his punishment because he burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime. Burning corpses was seen as an act of desecration.
Another way of disgracing conquered enemies was to leave their corpses unburied on the battlefield. To be subject to that kind of exposure was considered a disgrace. It denied the deceased a proper burial. This explains why the people of Jabesh Gilead strove so hard to recover the dead bodies of Saul and his sons from the hands of the Philistines (see 1 Samuel 31:11-13). For exposed corpses to be eaten by worms or burned was a disgrace.[5]
Fire was also a symbol of God’s judgment upon and punishment of evildoers.
Again, a couple of examples must suffice. In Genesis 38:24 we read the narrative of Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar (NAB Genesis 38:24 Now it was about three months later that Judah was informed, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot, and behold, she is also with child by harlotry.” Then Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”) The accusation had to do with the perception that Tamar was to have a child out of wedlock. Her punishment for such a sin was to be death by burning. Lest we think that Judah was over-reacting in this sordid episode, let’s look at two other texts from Leviticus.
The first text has to do with the immorality of marrying both the daughter and mother of one family. In Leviticus 20:14 we read, “If there is a man who marries a woman and her mother, it is immorality; both he and they shall be burned with fire, so that there will be no immorality in your midst.” Such immorality was not to be tolerated. There was no “three strikes and you’re out” law. It’s a great idea for baseball, but falls short of morality and the punishment of sin.
The second example from Leviticus is located in 20:14. (“Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.”) Here the situation is the daughter of a priest who “sleeps around” and gets pregnant. The disgrace she brings upon her family (in the father as head) is worthy of death by burning. Obviously, this is a punishment.

Conclusions
The Bible is conclusive in describing burial as the normative care of the bodies of the deceased. The grave is an apt form of care and is reflective of the Old Testament standard, of the example of our Lord, and as a symbol of the relationship between death and resurrection.
In unusual circumstances (war, plague, or epidemic) cremation may be employed for sanitation purposes. These forms are exceptions and not the rule.
Christians ought to be counseled to follow the biblical standard of care of the corpses of the deceased. Herein lies an opportunity for Christian care and pastoral advice. Pastors and other church leaders ought to be teaching their congregations about these matters. Sunday School classes and home visits provide ample opportunities to discuss these important matters.
If there are Christians who have had loved ones cremated, they should be comforted that they have not violated any specific biblical prohibition. They should lose none of their assurance regarding the eternal resting-place of their believing relative. In addition, Christians should not be hesitant or judgmental about attending funeral services of other cremated Christians.
Our goal, in all things, should be—first and foremost—the glory of God and obedience to His Word of truth. We must take the time to search the Scriptures in order to discern what God’s perfect will for our lives is. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) says that “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture. . .” It is my hope that this little position paper has served—in some way—to help Christians decide what is pleasing to the Lord on this subject.

Pastor Ron Gleason, Ph.D.
Yorba Linda, CA
[1] Cf. J. Douma, “Crematie,” in Christelijke Ethiek, (Kampen: van den Berg, 1976), p. 68.
[2] NAB Matthew 3:12 “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
[3] See my workbook entitled Dispensationalism: Tenets and Texts, available through Renewed Life Ministries, 1118 N. Corrida Place, Orange, CA 92869-1220.
[4] Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1995), pg. 31.
[5] Ibid., 32.

5 Comments:

Blogger SolaMeanie said...

Ron,

Very interesting and thought provoking. Would that we all looked hard at Scripture to build our ethics rather than current fads or knee-jerk reactions to economics etc.

Good work!

10:21 AM  
Blogger Peculiar said...

I was googling info on Christians choosing burial over cremation today, so that I could give good solid information to my sister and came across this post. While my own explanations to her were good, this is the best explanation, brought about by truth and solid Biblical history, that I've ever read. Very good! I really appreciate this. I'd love to read more of your blog. Thanks.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Peculiar said...

I was googling info on Christians choosing burial over cremation today, so that I could give good solid information to my sister and came across this post. While my own explanations to her were good, this is the best explanation, brought about by truth and solid Biblical history, that I've ever read. Very good! I really appreciate this. I'd love to read more of your blog. Thanks.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Thanks very much for your kind comments. I am in the process of working the article into a chapter in an ethics books for the man and woman in the pew. If you are interested in a longer Word doc, I could send it to you.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Peculiar said...

I would very much like to see the article. Thanks. Email address is bizzybeez4@yahoo.com

10:03 PM  

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