HOUSMAIL HM#132 -     Thoughts About Cremation                                                                  July 2009

Many Christians seem to be fairly strongly convinced that BURIAL is the only Scripturally acceptable method for dealing with the remains of the dead. Further, some go so far as to condemn cremation as SINFUL. Other Christians seem to regard Cremation as acceptable for others, but retain a personal preference as “not for themselves”. And a smaller number have no problem with it at all.

In this short article we will seek to place the subject in its proper Biblical context – which is that the Bible does NOT clearly discuss the subject at all!

1. Of course there is no question that almost all records of deaths in both Old and New Testaments indicate Burial as the “normal” Jewish practice. However it is noteworthy that King Saul and his three sons were cremated! (1 Samuel 31:11-13) And we note in passing, that there were a few cases under the law of Moses where the penalty for certain sins was burning. (It is unclear whether this was meant to be carried out alive, or after death by other means. We do know that in first century Jerusalem, the bodies of criminals who had already been executed were often burned in Gehenna, a garbage disposal area outside the city.)


1. None of those OT stories contains anything at all to suggest that burial is the only acceptable method for disposal of dead bodies.

2. The Bible is VERY specific about the differences between what is sinful and what is not.

3. If God does not want believers to practice cremation He would have said so in the Scriptures, very clearly, to leave the matter beyond all doubt.

4. There is NO Bible verse which specifically says that cremation is a sin!

5. It is certainly NOT listed amongst “the works of the flesh” which exclude people from the Kingdom of God.

6. It would be most unjust for God to condemn someone for an alleged sin that isn’t clearly defined!

1. The end result of cremation is the same as for Burial. The body is reduced to dust and returned to the earth. This is done by either burying the ashes in an urn in a cemetery plot, or scattering them somewhere. e.g. at sea, or in a garden.

Of course there are cases where ashes are kept by relatives at home. However, the location is not important. The main point is that in these cases, the ashes are not ‘buried” in the conventional sense. This is little different in its effect, to the Jewish and middle ages Christian practice of recovering the bones after the rest of the body had decayed and storing them in an ossuary.

2. Jewish “burials” mentioned in the Bible, were NOT burials in the modern sense of the word. i.e. They were not literally buried in the earth. The bodies of the patriarchs were buried in CAVES (Genesis 25:9-10; 49:29-31) Kings were buried in man-made SEPULCHRES. (2 Chronicles 32:33) In NT times Jesus was placed in man-made above ground TOMB. (Matthew 27:60) The bodies of many early Christians were disposed of in CATACOMBS.

3. The practice of burning heretics was thought, at the time, to make resurrection impossible. It was believed that God could not resurrect a cremated body! Some modern day Christians who oppose cremation as sinful, still give the impression that they believe that!

Of course this belief is clearly NOT supported by the Bible. It is based on a VERY inadequate understanding of the power of God. The God who made Adam from the dust of the earth as unique being doesn’t need the remains of a dead body to get a resurrection started!

This subject should NOT be made a matter of controversy, or a test of fellowship. Nor should brethren criticize or despise one another because of differing opinions about it. Nor should any brother or sister be made to feel outcast or rejected if, in good conscience, they choose cremation for their departed loved ones. The Scriptures do NOT resolve the issue beyond question. In the absence of any clear instruction either way, the Bible leaves it open for the personal conscience of the individual to choose between Burial and Cremation.

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. …… first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

The body which is buried will decay and return to the dust. Cremated bodies also return to the dust. Cremation merely hastens that process.

Nowhere does the Gospel say that our hope for the resurrection is affected by the method of disposal of our bodies after death!

The Scripture promises that those who “sleep in the dust of the earth” “will be raised to everlasting life” in which the “wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament” and “those who turn many to righteousness will shine like the stars for ever”. (Daniel 12:2-3)

The body which sleeps “in the dust of the earth” is NOT the same as the body which will be raised! What is sown is perishable. What is raised is glorious, imperishable, powerful, spiritual, in the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:42-49)

The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

Archaeological discoveries indicate that the practice of cremation dates back thousands of years to the early Stone Age, c. BC 3000. It is known to have been practiced in Bronze Age England, c. 2500-1500 BC. It was common amongst the Vikings c. AD 800-1000. Open air cremation has been practiced by Hindus for centuries.

In Old Testament times amongst the Jews, Burial was almost universal. In Rome, during the first couple of centuries of the Christian era, cremation was popular amongst pagans. Roman funeral clubs often deposited cremated remains in a collective tomb, called a columbarium, or "dove cote", each urn receiving its own nidus, or "pigeon hole." The ancient Greeks also practiced Cremation, although not exclusively. Amongst the Jews it was not tolerated at all until relatively recent times, when some liberal Jews began to embrace it. However the majority of Jews still favor burial as the preferred option.

In the Western World, cremation only began to be promoted in the late 19th century. I suspect that this long standing reluctance to embrace cremation was largely due to the influence of the Christian Church which has almost universally practiced burial, from the time of the early Church all the way down to the middle of the 20th Century.

The first crematoria in Europe were built in 1878 in Woking, England and Gotha, Germany, and the first in North America in 1876 in Washington, Pennsylvania. In England in 1884 a certain Dr William Price cremated his infant son and was prosecuted for “the illegal disposal of a body”, but the judge ruled in his favor. The first commercial cremation in Britain took place on 26 March 1886 at Woking. However it was not until 1902 that formal legislation declaring cremation legal was passed.

In Australia, cremation began to be seriously advocated from the 1860s onwards, but faced considerable opposition. It was not until 1890 that the first Cremation Society was formed by a certain Dr Creed. Other Australian states quickly followed suit, forming their own local cremation societies, and organizing campaigns to advocate legislation to make it legal, and conducting campaigns to make it popular. It was vigorously opposed from many quarters, with the strongest opposition coming from the Catholic Church which banned cremation for its members in 1886, and did not finally remove the ban until the 1960s.

In 1891, South Australia became the first Australian state to enact a Cremation Act, but it took more than a decade of fund raising before the first crematorium was built in May 1903. In Victoria, after a Cremation Bill was passed in 1903, a simple outdoor furnace was constructed at Melbourne's Springvale Cemetery and used from 1905 onwards. It remained in service until 1927 when a second modern crematorium was built. Before the construction of commercial crematoriums the only alternative was open-air funeral pyre cremations, and a number of these took place on the outskirts of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth in the 1890s.

Until the middle of the 20th century, cremation was practiced by only a small minority, but after World War II it began to increase in popularity. Statistics from “The Cemeteries and Crematoria Association of New South Wales” indicate that, cremation has become the method of choice for some 50-70% of funerals. (The number seems to vary depending on proximity to a crematorium) Possibly one of the major factors in this choice is that because there is no need to buy a burial plot, cremation is significantly cheaper than burial.

Similar statistics apply in England. In USA the numbers are lower at about 50%. In France and Germany the numbers are 26% and 40% respectively. Not surprisingly in Italy it would seem that the influence of the Roman Church remains very strong. The number remains below 10%.