IS CREMATION MORALLY PERMISSIBLE?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 9:52am
IS CREMATION MORALLY PERMISSIBLE?
QUESTION: Is it wrong to cremate the body of a deceased person? Does this practice in some way violate the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead?
ANSWER: I have a book called “The History of American Funeral Directing,” written by Robert Habenstein and William Lamers (1955). On page 4 the authors point out the cultural diversity regarding the choice of methods of disposing of bodies: “Assume that we are confronted with the dead body of a man. What disposition shall we make of it? Shall we lay it in a boat that is set adrift? Shall we take the heart from it and bury it in one place and the rest of the body in another? Shall we expose it to wild animals? Burn it on a pyre? Push it into a pit naked to rot with other bodies? Boil it until the flesh falls off the bones, and throw the flesh away and treasure the bones? Such questions provoke others which may not even be consciously articulated, such as: ‘What do men generally think this body is?’ And, ‘What do they think is a proper way of dealing with it?’”
The customs mentioned above, plus many others, have been used throughout the history of mankind. The Biblical data show that in Bible times and among Bible people, the most common method of dealing with dead bodies was through some form of burial. Since there is no biblically recorded divine command to do this, we conclude that burial was a matter of custom rather than command. Burial of the dead was the practice of most of the pagan cultures mentioned in the Bible as well. (“Unger’s Bible Dictionary” , pp. 158-159, explains the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Philistine customs. Habenstein and Lamers explain the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman practices, pp. 7-46).
In the OT there are few references to the burning of dead bodies. In Leviticus 20:14 and 21:9 “burning” was the penalty for certain serious sins (see Gen. 38:24). Unless this refers to the death penalty by burning, it must refer to the cremation of the remains of one who has been stoned to death for such sins (see Deut. 22:21; John 8:5). We should not infer from this, however, that such cremation was regarded as inherently wrong or always negative. In 1 Samuel 31:12 the bodies of King Saul and his sons, subjected to humiliation by victorious Philistines, were rescued by certain Israelites and reverently burned.
In the NT there are many references to tombs and burial, most notably to the burial of the dead body of Jesus himself in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. We can make a strong case for the fact that God’s plan to raise Jesus from the dead required burial as the only compatible way to “dispose” of his body following the crucifixion. That Jesus lived and died in a culture that practiced burial was thus a part of God’s providential preparation for Jesus’ resurrection. This does not mean that burial is the only such method approved by God, any more than Jesus’s dying on a cross means that crucifixion is the only method of death approved by God. We must be careful to avoid the “Christological fallacy” of assuming that everything Jesus did puts us under a moral obligation to do the same. Such a fallacy obscures the uniqueness of Jesus’ mission.
The main consideration in determining the method of disposing of dead bodies is the fact that human beings are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). This puts us into a unique category among earthly creatures. Everything about the human race is special when compared and contrasted with the animal kingdom. Human life is not exactly like animal life, nor is human death exactly like animal death. As creatures made in God’s image, we should treat ourselves and all other human beings with deep respect.
This applies to all aspects of our nature as human beings, i.e., to both human souls (spirits) and human bodies. Strictly speaking, only our souls are made in God’s image, sharing his personhood; but the soul is given a compatible physical form by which to express its godly abilities and characteristics. This means that our bodies must be respected because they are in a sense the divinely-provided and divinely-intended habitations for our souls. (And, for Christians, the body is also the habitation of God the Holy Spirit himself: 1 Cor. 6:19-20.)
Thus we must have respect for our bodies while we are alive, and also after we die. We must always treat the bodies of the dead with reverential respect, but it seems to me that burial is not the only way to do this. No matter how careful and elaborate the burial process is, unless there are special circumstances (e.g., freezing or mummification), the dead body will ultimately decay and turn to dust (Gen. 3:19). As I see it, cremation is simply accomplishing the same result, only much faster (among other things).
The questioner, however, raises a specific theological issue: does cremation somehow violate or interfere with our Christian hope of resurrection of the dead on the day of Christ’s return? John 5:28-29 says, “An hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth.” Do our dead bodies have to be physically located in their graves (or tombs) in order to experience resurrection?
Without a doubt, our bodies WILL be raised from the dead. We must not assume too much about HOW this will take place, however. We need to remember that the new body will not be the same as the body that died (1 Cor. 15:36-41), which probably means it will not have the same kind of molecular makeup as our present bodies, much less the very same atoms and molecules. The event of resurrection will not be the restoration and reanimation of rotten corpses and scattered atoms, reconstituted into bodies that burst through the surface of the earth, zombie-like. It will be more in the nature of another act of ex nihilo creation, as God gives us not just a new body but also a totally new kind of bodily material, adapted to our eternal home (the new heavens and new earth) rather than to this present earthly one. We will simply be “resomafied,” or rebodied. This is the sense in which our bodies will be “transformed” (Phil. 3:21).
This does not mean we will have a completely different kind of shape. Our bodies will be like Christ’s glorified body (Phil. 3:21), and when Stephen saw Christ in his new body he readily identified him as the human Jesus (Acts 7:54-60). Thus we have every reason to believe that our new bodies will have the same form as the bodies with which God endowed the human race in the beginning. This implies that in our new bodies we will maintain the same recognizable identities we now possess; hence we will know each other in heaven. We do not know how this applies to infants and children, but we may speculate that the omniscient God will give to those who die young a body comparable to what their matured earthly bodies would have been.
The bottom line is that the resurrection of the dead does not depend upon the postmortem preservation of this present body in any form. Once we die, we are in reality finished with this body. We may be emotionally attached to the bodies and burial places of loved ones, but those bodies are no longer theologically significant. The souls (spirits) of the dead are what continue to exist ; we are in some sense in their presence (Heb. 12:1) no matter where we are upon the face of this earth, and regardless of what has happened to their bodies.
My judgment is that there is nothing wrong with the practice of cremation as a way of disposing of the body of anyone who dies.