A Scriptural Defense of Cremation

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In the town where I live, funerals have become rather rare. I hear this is true throughout our country. People now have a “Celebration of Life” with lots of pictures of the deceased person and sometimes a cremation urn will be present. Cremation has become the norm for most Christians in our country. It has replaced the funeral and the burial of the body of the deceased.

This has occurred with almost no debate about the issue of cremation. It has become an accepted doctrine of most Protestant groups (It also is fully accepted by the Roman Catholic Church). Almost every Protestant statement of faith begins with something like this:

“The Bible is the inspired Word of God, free from error, and is therefore the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.”

Putting this in simpler terms, most Protestants would simply say that they stand on the Word of God alone. With that as a foundation, here then is a defense of cremation taken only from the Bible.

First, since cremation is the burning up of the body, let us consider some of the verses dealing with the burning of bodies in the Bible. As you will see, the Bible is filled with great examples:

  • Genesis 19 – God burned up the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Leviticus 10 – God burned up Nadab and Abihu.
  • Leviticus 20:14 – A man who marries both a woman and her mother should be burned with fire.
  • Leviticus 21:9 – The daughter of a priest who becomes a prostitute should be burned fire.
  • Numbers 11 – God burned up some people for complaining against Him.
  • Numbers 16 – God burned up 250 men with Korah who rebelled against Moses.
  • Deuteronomy 12:29-31 – Nearby nations were burning their sons and daughters in the fire as a sacrifice to their gods. God forbid His people from doing this, but it does show that others were doing it. Haven’t you heard: “Everyone is doing it!”
  • Deuteronomy 18:10 – Even though God forbids His people, again we find that entire nations were sacrificing their sons and daughters in the fire.
  • Joshua 7:25 – Joshua had Achan and all his family stoned and then burned them up because of the sin Achan had committed.
  • Judges 9 – Abimelech burned up about 1,000 men and women in the tower of Shechem (Things didn’t go well for Abimelech right after that).
  • Judges 15:6 – The Philistines burned up Samson’s wife and her father.
  • 1 Kings 16:18 – Zimri burned up himself after things went bad for him.
  • 2 Kings 1 – The prophet Elijah called down fire and burned up the captains and their 50 soldiers (This happened two times).
  • 2 Kings 16 – King Ahaz cremated his own son (It was an abomination to God, but it was done).
  • 2 Kings 17 – The children of Israel were burning up their sons and daughters as offerings to other gods.
  • 2 Kings 21 – King Manasseh cremated his own son (It was an abomination to God, but it was done).

This brings us to the Major and Minor Prophets of the Bible who did mention cremation quite a few times, but since it was all in a rather negative light, we will not cite each passage. So let’s move on to the New Testament:

  • Matthew 18:41-42 – Jesus actually mentions casting people into the furnace of fire (which sounds like a crematorium).
  • Matthew 25:41 – Jesus does speak of an everlasting fire which certain ones will be cast into.
  • Mark 9 – Several times, Jesus mentions a fire that never goes out that some could be thrown into.
  • Luke 12:49 – Jesus said that He came to send fire on the earth. This may not be an actual reference to cremation, but could be used out of context.
  • John 15:6 – Jesus talks about throwing those who do not abide in Him into the fire to be burned up.
  • 1 Corinthians 3 – Our works will be tested by fire. Could this be a reference to cremation? Rats, that passage is about the Church, not individuals.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9 – The Lord will take vengeance with flaming fire on the disobedient.
  • Hebrews 12:29 – A very strong witness for cremation: “Our God is a consuming fire.”
  • 1 Peter 1:7 – Our faith will be tested by fire (compare with 1 Corinthians 3 above for the continuing debate regarding works vs faith).
  • 2 Peter 3:12 – In the end, looks like everything gets cremated anyway.
  • Jude – More thoughts on the vengeance of eternal fire.
  • Revelation – Almost every chapter has something in it about fire. Suffice it to say, there will be some kind of everlasting cremation going on.

“If the Bible says it, it is good enough for me!” Clearly, the Bible shows that that even God practiced cremation. Some of the Kings in the Bible practiced cremation. The nations mentioned in the Bible often practiced cremation. Furthermore, the Bible points out that there is actually some sort of eternal cremation available.

But wait, these are all rather negative references toward the practice of cremation. In fact, I honestly couldn’t find one verse in which God blessed the practice of cremation. Perhaps we should take a different approach to the Biblical concept of cremation.

WWJD – “What Would Jesus Do?” This phrase has certainly impacted the Christian world and perhaps we can use it to look at this widely accepted doctrine of cremation.

The greatest miracle in the ministry of Jesus occurred with the person of Lazarus. He had been dead for 4 days when Jesus raised him from the dead. Oops, my mistake, if Lazarus had been cremated, that wouldn’t have occurred.

Jesus Himself died. Hmmm…He wasn’t cremated either. If fact, when He rose from the dead, he did have a body, ate food, and insisted on being touched. Bummer, that won’t work either.

Instead of that, what about taking a look at what St. Paul taught. He wrote a lot of stuff in the New Testament. He talked pretty seriously about death in 1 Corinthians. Let’s take a quick look at chapter 15. In discussing the resurrection from the dead (which we are all interested in), he only talks about the body. He speaks of the body as if it were a seed planted in the ground which will eventually be raised. Earlier in chapter 6, St. Paul talks about our bodies actually being the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Hmmm, there is no mention of cremation by St. Paul. But, a fair question to ask at this point is: “Doesn’t the Holy Spirit simply leave the body of a believer after death?”

There is one passage of the Bible does come to mind regarding that question. In 2 Kings 13:20, we are told that the prophet Elisha died and was buried.  Well, let’s let the Bible speak for itself here:

“Then Elisha died, and they buried him. And the raiding bands from Moab invaded the land in the spring of the year. So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.”

The bones of Elisha still contained the Holy Spirit so that a dead man was brought back to life. Wow, if he had been cremated and his ashes scattered over the Jordan River, that miracle would have never taken place.

I confess to you the reader that I have failed miserably in giving a Scriptural defense for the practice of cremation. That does raise the question about why so many Christians are practicing something that is actually condemned in the Bible if they truly believe in their statement of faith:  “The Bible is the inspired Word of God, free from error, and is therefore the final authoritative guide for faith and conduct.”

What is guiding this doctrine of cremation? Please don’t tell me: “Everyone is doing it!”

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31 thoughts on “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation

  1. I have never believed in cremation. Three years ago I discussed this with my brother who is now 80 years old and he told me that he wanted to be cremated. A sadness came over me, as he was talking to me about it. I believe the body is sacred and we must treat it as “sacred” till the end. Respect for a dead body, is also respect for the living person. I f ear that if we believe in burning bodies, it will create a “holocaust” that is too easy to accept.

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    1. Thanks so very much for this comment from your heart. Truly we need to take serious our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit; along with the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God. People are often doing this without knowledge of what it really is or means. Thanks again for your note!!

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  2. David Mielke

    Two things: Who defined a “funeral” as a service with a body present? Funerals are a time of worshiping God, giving Him thanks for the life of the deceased, and turning over the care of the deceased to Him. A “celebration of life” trivializes the whole tradition of the Christian funeral.
    Secondly, the scriptural “references” to cremation are very shaky, as stated, and is just another example of using scripture in a marginal interpretive way to justify cultural practices that run counter to our traditional beliefs. The rise in cremations in our society is a testimony to the fact that most Christians today are not taking their faith seriously. Thank you Fr, Stephen Powley.

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    1. Hi David…thanks for your comments. I was confused about the reference to Scriptures…did you think I was trying to support cremation. It was the opposite. Forgive my confusion with your note.

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  3. Emmy

    What about those who die in an airplane fire/crash, have been burned up in and died in a house fire, the Christians who have been set ablaze as Roman candles…..and the countless other ways the body has been devoured/destroyed? God is greater than our physical constraints. Resurrection is miracle for all believers.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment. This is a defense often brought up in favor of cremation. However, there is a huge difference between the tragedies you mention and purposely choosing to burn the temple of the Holy Spirit made in the image and likeness of God. God is certainly able to do anything, but that doesn’t mean we can do as we see fit in our own minds. Christians didn’t begin burning their dead until 1963 when the Catholic Church made it permissible (not their first choice, but permissible). The Bible does not even suggest cremation might be okay. Thanks again.

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      1. Nathan

        Just to put fire to the conversation 😉

        So if Lazarus was burned in a fire, and Jesus came, he would not have been able to raise him from the dead?

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      2. Hi Nathan…glad you picked up on the humor! 😀 God can do anything, so that is not at issue here. Just because God is able to do anything does not mean that I can do whatever I please. Tragedies occur, plane crashes ( I am flying today) and other such horrible events, but these are much different than us choosing to burn up the temple of the Holy Spirit and something made in the image and likeness of God Himself. The Bible does not support such actions on our part. Thanks again for commenting…helps me think deeper too.

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  4. I think because “symbolism” has infected the denominations, life has left sacraments such as baptism, marriage, communion, and funerals. If it’s just a symbol, we can use cake and coke for communion. If it’s just a symbol, we can chose when and how and who to baptise – and IF! If it’s just a symbol, we can marry anyone, anywhere, by anybody. And if it’s just a symbol, we can do, or not do, any sort of funeral we want.

    Jesus is just a symbol, the body is just a symbol, the church is just a symbol; even “symbol” is just a symbol, and everything reduces to nothing. No wonder denominational Christianity is losing members even while it’s growing denominations. People were made for REAL, meaningful, “like-realities,” bread AND Body, water AND Remission, flesh AND Spirit. Lord have mercy, we are ignorant of our history.

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  5. Jeanie Price

    I would like to say that many people choose cremation because it is much cheaper than a traditional funeral and burial. Many people are stretched financially. I think this is a very important factor.

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    1. Hi Jeannie- actually an Orthodox burial without embalming and with a simple coffin is not expensive at all. We cannot let truth be swayed by finances especially when something less expensive is available. Please look into this option. Again thank you for your reply!!

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  6. HI Fr Stephen
    Great post and thank you for it. I think that ‘our’ ready acceptance of cremation is tied in with a deep material/spiritual dualism which is overcome in the Incarnation . . . but which is rampant in the World and sadly much of the Church in these days, to our infinite loss.

    Put another way, we don’t know who we are, those created with bodies to be the dwelling place of God in His Creation. I think that the widespread and unthinking acceptance of this practise is finally rooted in hatred of that which God calls Good, our bodies. One only needs to see how often the metaphors of warfare are used with respect to our bodies.

    For myself, I had my eyes opened on a visit ‘behind the scenes’ at a crematorium. I will say nothing except that it was the ‘industrialization of body disposal’. One step up from throwing out the garbage, except I don’t think there’s anything wrong with incinerating garbage, so perhaps it should be one step down from, or in deed below the basement . . .

    Interestingly I have had more than one conversation with a funeral director who told me that there is no way that they’d be cremated . . .

    Blessings in Christ
    Eric

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  7. Jacob

    If we were to dig up the body of Job, what would it look like? Given that he is one of the oldest characters in the Bible, we could assume he is now dust. Yet Job says in my favorite Bible passage “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.” I am 100% certain that no matter what happens to our earthly bodies, God can make us whole. Cremation just speeds up the process of returning to dust, it is actually a beautiful statement of faith if done for the right reason. I have told my family that they can cremate me, in fact I went so far as to say that they could chop me up and feed me to pigs because IT DOESNT MATTER once you are dead. This statement doesn’t come from a person who doesn’t value Gods gifts or who wishes to desecrate a temple of the Holy Spirit, that’s not where my heart is and our omnipotent God knows that. This comes from faith, faith in my God who has power greater than any destructive power on earth. Faith in a God who could breath life into dust to make Adam and who raised his Son from the dead to give us eternal life. Sorry but your “evidence” requires quite a bit of mental gymnastics to arrive at your conclusion. Either way, cremation would never damn a soul to hell so this is just another silly argument trying to uphold a man-made tradition.

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    1. Goodness Jacob, you certainly have a negative attitude toward the human body. You and I will definitely disagree on this point. I would offer you a few thoughts even though your mind seems made up on the topic. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!” It really is a package deal! The body is not some separate entity that we can simply burn up as a useless piece of garbage. It is important to God and it should be important to each of His children.

      Also, consider 1 Corinthians 15 where St. Paul compares the burial of our body with the planting of a seed. Again, it is the body being planted to be raised up a glorious body.

      Finally, your last sentence is so very troubling. No where in the article was there any suggestion about anyone being condemned to hell. You are the one coming to some conclusion never intended. As for a “man-made tradition”, consider that the entire Christian Faith never endorsed cremation until the 20th century. Think about what traditions do believe in cremation over the centuries. The Faith was handed down from Christ to the Apostles to their disciples to their disciples, etc…through the centuries. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That belief was always in the bodily resurrection of the dead…and they buried the bodies of the dead. Can we change our beliefs because society has embraced something never practiced in Christianity until the 20th century?

      As I said, we will disagree on this point. Thank you for sharing your own beliefs.

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  8. Entertaining article, and I agree that cremation is a sacrilege. However, I am curious about something: given that the many references to dismemberment in Scripture are equally unfavorable, why do the Orthodox dismember their relics? (For instance, having the left arm and two toes of St. So-and-so in an altar, with the rest of him who knows where.) I am an Evangelical who thought that sounded indecent since I first heard of it. I asked my Orthodox husband, and his priest, about it, and while they can readily defend the concept of relics, both admitted that, given the traditional Christian premises about the human body, they don’t have an answer to why it’s okay to send pieces of a person here and there.

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    1. Hi Jenny…thank you for your comments. Since you sent two very similar comments, I will answer the longer of the two. You asked a very good question. My response is simply my short opinion on how this practice came into being and continues today. This is a question that begs for more detail, so forgive my shortened response.

      In the early Church (and throughout history it seems), Christians were often brutally martyred for their Faith in Christ. The documented tortures they endured is beyond comprehension. Often they had body parts cut off and eventually they were beheaded. Other Christians would do their best to care for the dismembered parts of their bodies. Sometimes their bones and bone fragments were found to have a sweet odor about them and sometimes even a myrrh-like substance would appear. When this happened, they found that miraculous healings began to take place through these wonder-working relics.

      As Christianity became established in certain areas (and in Orthodox countries today), the bodies of Christians who died were diligently cared for. After several years, the tomb was opened for inspection. Sometimes the bones would be found with that sweet smell and sometimes that myrrh-like substance would also appear. These bones were found to be wonder-working and would be saved in the local Church and then shared with other Churches. Once in awhile, the entire body was found to be “incorrupt”, meaning their was no decay of their flesh whatsoever. That sweet smell was there and sometimes that myrrh-like substance flowed from their body. Obviously, their bodies were placed in a safe place and it stayed in one location. I have personally seen such a Saint on the island of Zakynthos where the incorrupt body of St. Dionysius is found…he was died over 400 years ago! There is so much to say about this Saint, but that will have to be another time.

      All of this is completely under the category of “Mystery”. We have no idea how these things happen, but we accept them as a blessing from the Lord. When it comes to relics being in various Churches, the Orthodox Church always treats the body with utmost respect. When relics are found to be wonder-working they are certainly shared with other Churches for the benefit of many just as the early Christians did. Even then, they are treated with great reverence and care. The Lord has given us such things for a blessing and certainly as a witness of life after death.

      Again, thank you for your wonderful comments and question. May our Lord guide your path always.

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  9. MdH

    I find this article a bit … ridiculous.
    The fact that our human bodies, given enough millennia, eventually disintegrate (flesh, bones, everything–and that our physical cells/molecules do indeed then become “dust” and scatter to the four winds of the earth) negates the premise of this article.
    God tracks every atom in the universe–surely He is able and willing to “reassemble” or recreate (or whatEVer) each of us in our widely-varying bodily states of decomposition.
    Some guy on the radio says cremation is just an accelerated decomposition program and I agree.
    “Dust to dust…”

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I would absolutely agree that God is not limited. He can do whatever He thinks best. The issue is not about what God can do. The issue is about our choices. Do we choose to burn up a body (made in the image and likeness of God which has become the temple of the Holy Spirit) simply because God is able raise it up? Do we choose to sin more because God is able to forgive us and where sin abounds, grace abounds even more? I hope you will read a follow-up article coming soon that goes into more detail on the questions people asked. Thanks again…

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  10. MdH

    Thanks for your response–
    Other thoughts: These earthly bodies are “corruptible,” and the bodies we will be given are going to be “incorruptible.” We don’t know how that impacts the “stuff” we are currently made of. It might mean that the very substance our new bodies are made of have no relation whatever to earthly materials-cells, physical atoms, etc.
    Also, if the Holy Spirit is currently dwelling in my bodily temple while I’m alive, what happens to Him when my body dies? My dead body is no longer a (living) temple of the Holy Spirit. What then?
    Finally, maybe the transformation into resurrected bodies will be something like old wineskins to new wineskins–they look similar, but are totally different containers. In which case, the old wineskins have served their purpose and are replaced by the new ones.

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    1. Great questions…thank you. First, surely we do not know what our glorified bodies will look like. But we do know that they have something to do with the bodies we currently have when we read St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our bodies to a seed placed in the ground. That seed will bring forth a plant that looks nothing like the seed itself; yet the seed is vital. St. Paul then tells us that the body is planted in the ground like a seed and we have no comprehension what it will look like when it to becomes a glorified body…but that does not lessen it being vital to the end result. Of course, God is able…but we are called to do what is right in caring for this temple of the Holy Spirit.

      Second, when we speak of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we mean that He permeates every cell in our bodies if we will allow Him. We can go back to the example mentioned in the article of the Prophet Elisha: He was dead, in a tomb, and his flesh was gone leaving only bones. When the dead man was thrown into his tomb and touched the bones of Elisha, the dead man came to life…the Holy Spirit was still present in the bones! We do not understand this…but that’s is totally okay. God is beyond our comprehension! We should not ignore everything the Bible has to say about the human body in death. To call a human body that has died “soulless” is a total misunderstanding of the Bible and the Christian Faith that has been followed for almost 2000 years now.

      Lastly, your “wineskin” analogy would be answered easily by St. Paul’s use of the seed comparison. We still need to plant the seed if we want to have the plant. We bury our bodies by faith that God will raise them up looking totally different, yet having a connection to our original bodies.

      Truly we unite ourselves to Christ in this earthly life, so that we may dwell with Him in His Heavenly Kingdom for all eternity. That union is not ended with our bodily death! This issue of cremation versus burial is not to be taken lightly. It has everything to do with our beliefs regarding who we are as Christians, what happens to us at death, and what takes place at the resurrection of the dead.

      Thanks again for you most excellent comments and questions!! God’s blessings to you always.

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      1. I wonder if a lot of our problems in accepting this would be to some extent diminished if we knew our life to be rooted in the eternal – from above

        So many of the criticisms are rooted in time and history
        ‘What will happen when . . .’ Yet these things are passing away, whilst not illusion, they are not The beginning and the End of all things.

        Our resurrection is manifested, if dimly, in the present within these mortal bodies

        Just a thought

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  11. . . . and surely the Spirit sanctifies all that it inhabits?

    Christ assumes our flesh, and takes it into the heart of the Godhead.

    Cremation seems to me to suggest disdain for that which Christ in humility assumes? Its violence also speaks against the Gentle Spirit?

    Thank you for a stimulating post, Fr.
    Eric

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  12. Jeanie McGee

    Wow,. I just read one of Father Alexander Schmemann’s writings on the Orthodox Christian idea of death. It is quite stirring and gave me a totally new perspective on death as a Christian. I have been orthodox for 6 years and continue to read all I can to fully know my Orthodox faith. I highly recommend this article to the many who responded to your cremation piece. I think they will understand more fully where you stand. I agree completely with you, Father Stephen. I try to convince others to not be cremated. It is a tragedy in America today. As a registered nurse for 51 years, I know how “ fearfully and wonderfully made” our bodies are! Only our great God could fashion such a wonderful creation! And purposely burning our bodies is Not something God approves of. Our bodies are made by Him. Why would we destroy His creation on purpose? Thank you, Father for this wonderful article. Fr. Schmemann’s article can be found at Schmemann.org. Sincerely, Jeanie McGee

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