May we Cremate Bodies?

This is a sensitive topic for two reasons. On the one hand, some oppose cremation passionately as being unchristian; on the other hand, others’ dearly departed have been cremated, so any objection raised against the practice is likely to offend. There is a third position, which has usually been my own, of ambivalence. Yet others whom I know and respect feel strongly about it, so my ambivalence might be symptomatic of not having invested sufficient thought, to which I hope that this research offers redress. I even encountered a fourth position in the autumn, at a minister’s funeral. I was talking to the father of a former school mate who was present, who expressed disdain for burial as opposed to cremation. When I enquired why, he stated that “the earth is for the use of the living, not the dead”. Although I do not intend to explore this opinion further, it does demonstrate that this is an issue about which there are many perspectives.

‘Cremation’ means to dispose of a corpse by burning it to ashes, and then either scattering them, burying them or even keeping them in a jar. By ‘traditional burial’, I refer to lowering a corpse into the ground, and covering it with soil.

Here I list some common objections to cremation:

It is a pagan practice

Christian opponents of cremation sometimes look to its pre-Christian origins; its increasing popularity in the previous century seemed to be concurrent with the West’s de-Christianisation. Yet we also know that plenty of pagan civilisations and cultures believed in burial, such as the Norse, the Saxons and the Celts. In biblical times, we note that the Egyptians practised burial, not only of their kings and queens, but the ordinary population:

Numbers 33:4 For the Egyptians buried all their firstborn, which the Lord had smitten among them: upon their gods also the Lord executed judgments.

If burning bodies by the hands of pagans makes the practice questionable, so too the practice of burial.

It is contrary to belief in the resurrection of the dead

Scripture is clear that the human spirit does not just depart the physical world to remain in that state, but shall be reunited with its physical form upon the day of judgement. As Christ rose physically, so too shall rise His people, as well as those who rejected Him. It was God’s original plan that we be embodied; death, which is the separation of the spirit from the body, was a consequence of the Fall, which the Judgement’s re-ordering shall restore. Medieval graves typically face east in the anticipation of resurrection and traditional understandings of resurrection have depicted graves opening and the re-embodied dead emerging from their coffins, to receive God’s sentence or commendation.

To cremate a body means to destroy it; flesh and blood, even decaying flesh and blood, is reduced to a pile of ash, which may blow away in a breeze. This might be thought to be more consistent with materialistic and atheistic understandings of death in which the end of the body means the end of that person who once occupied it. We Christians have a certain hope of future life, and so we traditionally have buried the cadaver, as a whole.

I would point out that even buried corpses decay to dust. After a few decades, all that might be left of the body is a skeleton and some hair, depending on the moisture and worm population of a given piece of ground. After several centuries, even the bones decay, so that ancient graves are characterised by the odd recognisable bone which failed to decay. Even bone dust effectively merges in with the soil, leaving little trace. This is of course a natural process and occurs over millennia, but the end result is the same as a cremation; it is more a difference of speed. They who died three thousand years ago and whose bodies are now dust will be subject to resurrection as much as one who was buried and whose remains are still ‘fresh’. The act of cremation merely hastens the end result, serving as a catalyst. I must therefore ask: what is the difference? If Ango-Saxon men and women of whom little trace survives will be resurrected and re-embodied, why would they who were cremated in the 2010s be at any disadvantage?

Only the burial of bodies was practised in the Bible

The most famous burials are those from the time of the patriarchs:

Genesis 23:19: And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan

Genesis 35:19-20 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.

Although these three examples cited are for the patriarch’s womenfolk, the same places were used for the burials of the men, also:

Genesis 49:31: There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.

Clearly, the method of disposal is not cremation. Yet we should also observe that they were apparently buried in caves or hewn rock, as was Lazarus, the Lord Jesus Himself, and, presumably, Joseph of Arimathea when his own time came. A cave is not a hole in the ground. Those who insist on burials often cite the above examples to justify ground burial, but the two are different. Although the corpse would have been placed 'under' rock, we have no evidence that they were covered in soil, to which practice the ancients might even have recoiled. Furthermore, all the people mentioned, save the Lord Jesus Himself were wealthy, having the means to purchase caves or rock-hewn tombs. Where were the poorer folk interred? Of that, we have no record. I suspect that it was in a hole in the ground, but scripture on this matter is silent, and cannot therefore be marshalled. Nevertheless, we read in Genesis 35:8:

But Deborah, Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth.

There is no evidence that there was a cave at Bethel, so we might have here a burial more closely resembling our own practice, an interment into the ground. As oaks grow in soil rather than rock, I think this a plausible explanation, and which might lend some support to those who reckon earth-burial the primary Biblical practice.

Cremation in the Bible

The book of Amos is often cited as a condemnatory text regarding cremation:

Amos 2:1-3 Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime...

Either the Moabite King killed his Edomite colleague and disposed of his body by cremation, or he exhumed him and then cremated. Whether it is the burning itself, or the desire to obtain lime from the bones which draws ire, I am not clear, though the action is indisputably censured. Yet burning bones as an act of judgement is smiled upon elsewhere in scripture. King Josiah’s cremating activities are first prophesied, and then fulfilled:

1 Kings 13:2 And he cried against the altar in the word of the Lord, and said, O altar, altar, thus saith the Lord; Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men's bones shall be burnt upon thee.

2 Kings 23:16 And as Josiah turned himself, he spied the sepulchres that were there in the mount, and sent, and took the bones out of the sepulchres, and burned them upon the altar, and polluted it, according to the word of the Lord which the man of God proclaimed, who proclaimed these words.

2 Kings 23:20 And he slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars, and burned men's bones upon them, and returned to Jerusalem.

Cremated remains evidently made unclean these pagan altars, yet so too would contact with a dead body that had not been burned (e.g. Numbers 9:10). Again, note that these pagan priests were burying their dead colleagues, and not burning. In the book of Joshua, Achan is cremated:

Joshua 7: 25 And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones unto this day. So the Lord turned from the fierceness of his anger. Wherefore the name of that place was called, The valley of Achor, unto this day.

Achan was a sinful man and cremation may have been an additional curse on top of his execution. Another interesting case of cremation occurs in 1 Samuel 31:11-13:

And when the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead heard of that which the Philistines had done to Saul; All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.

This is clearly a unique event, and the cremation is of bodies that have been mutilated, but the act was performed by ‘valiant’ men who are seen performing a noble task, not an ignoble one. Presumably, the speedier destruction wrought by flame would prevent an exhumation and repeated mutilation. This seems a strange practice or commendation if the act of cremation were intrinsically wicked. It is therefore possible that the King of Moab’s cremating endeavours were condemned because of his dishonourable motives and his using of Edom’s King’s bones for agricultural lime.

It desecrates the body

Human bodies should be treated with respect. Although they are not alive, being but empty shells or tents, they should be disposed of in a respectful manner. Pagan cultures have sometimes seen fit to amass collections of enemy skulls or other body parts, which subsequent Christian culture rejected. It is thought that to burn something is to offer it disrespect or insult, such as American flags being publicly burnt by anti-Vietnam protestors, or crosses by self-confessed pagans. Yet burial, although it can be conducted in a dignified manner, slowly lowering down the coffin on its black cords, hardly offer a corpse much dignity thereafter. The unstoppable forces of decay begin their grim work, rotting away the remains until little or nothing is left. Creatures such as worms will eventually make their way into what was once the coffin and further contribute to its state of decomposition. This may not be as sudden or complete as cremation, but it is hardly much more dignified. All deaths and deteriorations are grizzly and dishonourable, there is really no way of getting away from this. Whether we bury or burn, the human form becomes ashes and dust, increasingly unrecognisable for what it once was. There is no dignity in death, only in Christian resurrection.

Scripture’s relative silence

If cremation is so obviously wrong, one must wonder why scripture does not ban it categorically? There are clearer guidelines on animal husbandry and dealing with mildew than there are on the disposal of cadavers. This might mean, as opponents of cremation may claim, that it is so obvious that only burials can be practised that Moses never took the trouble to forbid the alternatives; or can it mean that God’s people are to use their own judgement subject to the resources and cultural expectations of the times and places in which they live? The general absence of instruction about post-mortem disposal of bodies might indicate that it is a ‘thing indifferent’, as no-one will be able to escape the resurrection’s summons:

John 5:28-29 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

Philippians 3:20-21 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

Our current bodies may be accounted vile on account of their disabilities or pains, but their disintegration is an even less glorious manifestation.

Other objections to cremation

The crematoria with which I am familiar sometimes have an air of industrialised disposal. Queues of mourners await the ending of one cremation that their turns may begin. It seems like a production belt, coffins lining up and waiting to go behind the curtains; services are short and the staff sometimes surly. Yet this is no objection to cremation per se, but the manner with which English crematoria operate. Careless grave diggers and unkempt cemeteries are no arguments against burial.

Heating up human remains to the required temperatures costs a fortune in fuel and releases fumes and smoke into the atmosphere. Indeed, lead fillings and fitted pacemakers can cause much damage if they are combusted. People living in the vicinity of crems must put up with this and it is surely unjust. This seems a light argument, but it is one worth considering.

It will sometimes be pointed out that cremation in Britain was a positive reaction to Hinduism and revived Pagan influences. Certainly, the Welshman who first attempted to burn the body of his deceased child in 1885 employed pagan Celtic prayers over the fire, and our links to imperial India increased awareness of Hindu funeral rites and customs. In contrast, conservative protestant churches generally opposed it, and the argument goes that the most theologically faithful  denominations remained fierce opponents. With them however, was the Roman Church until Vatican II and the Latter-Day Saints. So unsound groups also preferred burial and discouraged cremation.

Objections to burial

I suspect there are no actual objections to burial, and few advocates against it, but there are some points to consider. Until recently, when environmental protections were imposed on crematoria, cremation was by far the cheaper option. Burial required the purchasing a plot of land often costing hundreds of pounds, as well as paying someone to dig it. This imposed a heavier financial burden on the grieving family and seemed unjust; like those strictly Sabbatarian churches which censure worshippers for using public transport on a Sunday but approve of car owners driving themselves, there is a rich-poor issue to be overcome. This point is thankfully less valid as once it was, as the cost of cremations has risen (rather than the cost of burial plots having fallen). Although both options may squeeze the family finances, the disparity of burden between the two options has fallen or does not now exist. Nevertheless, Burial-Only advocates should heed somewhat the family’s financial position when offering judgement on cremations.


I began this study with a relative impartiality and am little persuaded to change my ambivalence. I naturally prefer burial but cannot forbid cremations, nor can I refuse to officiate at them. If, as a Bible-believing Protestant, I am bound to scripture’s teaching, it means not going further than the inspired writers were prepared to go. They did not condemn the practice in an obvious way, and a case can be made for its positive usage in the forms of Josiah and the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead. Furthermore, the sixteenth-century Protestant martyrs were burned and cremated, cruelly denied a grave by the Roman Church, but this will only add to their Lord’s commending welcome. A more pertinent question is where will I go once my body is disposed of? Will I be forever cremated in the fires of hell, or will I take part in the first resurrection, out of death’s reach thereafter?  

The real Christian knows which, regardless of his former body's method of disposal.