A. In the ancient world, cremation was the normal practice of Greeks and Romans. Many of them believed in the immortality of the soul and saw no reason to give special attention to the body. Hindus, with their doctrine of reincarnation, practiced cremation, and still do today. At the other extreme were the Egyptians, who preserved the corpse by mummification.
As the catacombs in Rome attest, the early Christians insisted on burying their dead. Why were Christians so concerned about the body's proper disposal? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human is created by God, in his image, and deserves to be treated with respect; (2) When the Word became flesh in the Incarnation, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever; (3) The Holy Spirit dwells within believers, making their bodies vessels of honor; and (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed their burial was a witness to the bodily resurrection to come.
Many martyrs were burned to death, but Christians believed God would bring them forth undamaged at the resurrection. In the context of the early church, where cremation was associated with pagan rituals and beliefs, burial seemed a more loving, reverent way to bear witness to God's ultimate victory over death.
The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. Only 5 percent of Americans were cremated in 1962; by 2002, it was 27.78 percent. In Japan, where burial is sometimes illegal, the cremation rate is 98 percent. The rise in cremations reflects many factors: concern for land use; the expense of traditional funerals; the loss of a sense of "place" in modern transient society; and New Age-type spiritualities.
While Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation. Evangelist Billy Graham has noted (what Christians have always believed) that cremation cannot prevent a sovereign God from calling forth the dead at the end of time.
The Bible shouldn't be used as a proof text either for the necessity of burial or for "cremation on demand." True, there are several examples of cremation in the Old Testament (Achan, Joshua 7:25; Saul, 1 Samuel 31:12; the King of Edom, Amos 2:1), but they involved God's judgment. When the apostle Paul offered his body to be burned (1 Corinthians 13:3), he was speaking of martyrdom, not cremation. And when Jesus said, "Let the dead bury the dead," he was describing the cost of discipleship, not the method of funerals.
The real question for Christians isn't whether they choose burial or cremation, but the meaning given to these acts. Our modern funeral customs tend to anesthetize us from the ugly reality of death with soft music, plush carpets, and expensive caskets. Presbyterian preacher George Buttrick once said, "There is nothing more incongruous than dressing up a corpse in a tuxedo!" Cremation, too, can desecrate rather than respect the dead. For example, families now can have a loved one's "cremains" turned into a piece of pottery!
Regardless of whether a believer chooses burial or cremation, the Christian church should offer a funeral liturgy in which the reality of death isn't camouflaged and the resurrection of the body is affirmed. We solemnize our loved ones' departure by reminding ourselves that we brought nothing into this world, and that we carry nothing out.
Timothy George is an executive editor of Christianity Today magazine and dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. This article first appeared in the May 21, 2002, issue of Christianity Today magazine.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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