“The conclusion is simple. Cremation is devil worship and rejection of Jesus Christ and His gospel . . . the true followers of Jesus Christ will have nothing to do with it. His ministers and churches will not allow it, and they will speak boldly against it.” So concludes an article I had reason to come across recently and so begins a series on “Questions People Are Asking.” People have asked me whether it is ok for them to be cremated to which my normal response is “yes, so long as you no longer have a pulse.” So why do I not speak against cremation as the writer of the article would urge that I do? What is the Christian to think and plan to do in this matter?
The first thing we should note is that nothing can trump the power of God.
What happens to the matter we are made of now, really will not matter to God. Some people have a fear, namely “what if there is nothing left of me to be raised at the resurrection?” And what if one’s family has ignored the desire for burial and gone ahead with cremation then lost the urn, or what if the circumstances of one’s death has ensured that there is no body to bury? Grim, but it happens. Let us note however, that we are not to be equated with the matter that makes us up. Most of our cells will be replaced over our lifetime, but even more importantly, the very atoms that make us up are continually being swapped out, so much so that it is suggested that the majority of atoms are replaced yearly. If our bodies are independent of the of the particular matter that makes us up, then what actually are they? They are the result of the information that guides the matter into place. We can think of creation when God spoke everything into existence. It is interesting that the language of speaking and communicating is used, for creation is not just about the creation of matter, but about the vast amounts of information that guides that matter into place. This was no cosmic tweet! And so if each atom of your body is scattered to the air, don’t worry, for as one of the youth from my last church profoundly put it, “God’s got your DNA.” He knows who you are and who you are to be, so as a matter of fact it does not matter what happens to the matter that matters so much to you right now.
Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that we “will be changed.” In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul uses the analogy of a seed to teach about the resurrection body. As with all analogies, we ought not to press the analogy too far, for example expecting that only if our corpse is “planted” will we expect to be raised. That is not what Paul is saying, but rather he is pointing out the continuity and change that we can expect. There will be a continuity that points to individuality, so if you die, you yourself can expect to be raised again as an individual. But you will be different, in fact whether alive or dead when Christ returns “we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:52 NRSV) For “this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NRSV) which does not mean to say that these particular atoms are used, but that you, who once had a body on a journey towards death, will now have a body full of life.
Finally, the Bible teaches us that God’s purposes stand. Job says “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2 NRSV). We have not learned this truth if we are worried about the future of our remains. As a Christian your resurrection is not dependant on the circumstances of your remains but on the purposes and power of God.
So it is not a matter of God’s power and ability, but is it a matter of obedience?
It is not a matter of law. Curiously, there is no law in the Old Testament stating what you must do with a corpse, though there are plenty of laws for what you must do if you come into contact with one. And there is no law given in the New Testament either. In fact it is instructive that when Jews and Gentiles join together in Christianity with all the ethical sorting out that goes on when two peoples bring their baggage along to a merger, we have no mention of burial versus cremation. Jews tended to bury their dead and Gentiles would sometimes cremate theirs, yet when they come together into Christianity this is not an issue. It is interesting that the issue doesn’t get a mention at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 which would have been an ideal time to lay such to rest.
Though it is not a matter of law, burial was the custom. As already stated it was the norm for God’s people in the Old Testament to bury their dead, and while we hear of burials happening in the New Testament, we never hear of cremation. Throughout the history of the Church, burial has been the more common custom. But does the fact that burial has been more customary make cremation a matter of disobedience? We should note that our burial customs today are not the same customs practiced in Biblical times. Embalming was not a customary practice, and in fact we know that in New Testament times the custom was often to bury twice. First the body would be laid in a tomb (and not in a casket) where it would decompose, then after a year the bones would be collected together and placed in small box (just long enough for one’s femur bone) called an ossuary leaving the former space vacant for someone else. Now consider that when a funeral home hands you an urn, it is not filled with ash, but rather the pulverized remains that do not burn away into the atmosphere, namely bone. You could therefore almost make the case that cremation is closer to the Biblical model of keeping a box of bone than our current custom of embalming.
But if we opt for cremation are we not taking on a pagan custom? We might consider the one time we do hear of embalming happening in the Old Testament, with Joseph in Genesis: “And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:26). Embalming and use of a coffin was an Egyptian custom, and was related to the Egyptian theology of resurrection. That Joseph took on the pagan burial practice of the land he had made his home does not appear to have threatened his status as a godly hero of the faith. Further I have heard it said that Christians should not cremate their dead for Hindus cremate theirs. But Hindus also sing, and laugh, and breathe, and do all manner of things that we also do. Rather than ask what cultures and religions carry out the custom, we might better ask in what spirit we carry out ours. Chocolate itself is not an evil thing, but if I were to eat it in a spirit of gluttony, then I might be doing something bad. Right now I cannot think of any other spirit to eat chocolate in so perhaps that is a bad example, but if I could eat it in a spirit of celebration of God’s goodness in providing sweetness, then I would be doing something good. If I were asking for cremation in a spirit of willful rebellion towards and rejection of God, then yes, cremation would be a very bad thing to do, but if I ask for it in a spirit of trust and rejoicing in the power and grace of God, then it is not.
But if we opt for cremation are we not doing violence to a gift from God? Some will want to say “you cannot just do to a body whatever you want, it is a gift from God that is to be cherished in how it is handled.” Yes we certainly do want to cherish the gift of our body while alive, but does that carry over into death? The words of Paul are instructive here: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). Here our current bodies are contrasted with those to come, they are mere tents in comparison to proper buildings, and though gifts indeed, they are not ones Paul seems too keen on cherishing as he looks forward to a better gift to come. They are tents which are prone to destruction, in fact there is no dignified process ahead for one’s corpse whether pumped up with embalming, naturally decomposing, or cremated – it is all rather undignified and a violence to the body. For many of us the concept of dignity will be a personal matter, and speaking for myself, I would find it a most undignified end for my body to be done up with make-up and dressed up with a suit and tie.
If we began noting that nothing can trump the power of God, let us finish by noting that nothing can trump the grace of God.
While the writer quoted at first would imply that one would lose their salvation by choosing cremation, a “rejection of Jesus Christ and His gospel,” we must ask if our salvation is in jeopardy. From my study of the issue of burial versus cremation for the Christian, I have not found the case convincing that to be cremated is to reject Jesus and His gospel. If in fact I turn out to be wrong (yes it happens, ask my wife!) and cremation does sadden our Lord, at worst it is a misunderstanding on my part, not a willful rejection of a clearly stated will. Is God’s grace not sufficient to cover such misunderstandings? Is the love of God so weak so as to be so easily ended through my one decision?
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38,39 NRSV)
Dear reader, let us not belittle the grace, love, and power of God by taking salvation back into our own hands. Will you be buried? Will you be cremated? God’s grace, love, and power in Christ will shine through either way.