According to the website for the National Funeral Directors Association, the cremation rate for funerals in the United States was 40.4% in 2010 and 47.9% in 2015. It is projected to be 56.4% by the end of 2020, 63.5% by 2025, 69.7% by 2030, 74.8% by 2035, and 78.7% by 2040.
Currently, the highest percentage rate for cremations in the world is Japan at 99.97%. Nepal and Taiwan aren’t far behind with rates of 95% and 92.47% respectively. India and South Korea both have rates over 80%. In terms of sheer numbers of cremations per year, China leads the world. With that nation’s rate of cremation currently standing at approximately 50%, that equates to approximately 5 million cremations annually.
But now let’s get to the all-important question: “What does the Bible teach about cremation?” In answer to that question, I should first point out that the word “cremation” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. This doesn’t mean, though, that the Bible offers us no guidance concerning this topic. All it means is that we must consider the totality of scripture and glean from it the relevant truths and principles that apply.
First, the Bible provides us with several examples of bodies getting burned to ashes, and the vast majority of these examples involve God’s judgment and wrath. Here is a list:
- God rained fire and brimstone down upon the citizens of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 19:1-25; 2 Peter 2:6)
- After having received God’s law at Mount Sinai, Moses and the Israelites began making their way toward the land of Canaan. At some point along the way, the people complained enough to arouse God’s anger. That caused God to throw down fire among the people, a fire that consumed some of them. (Numbers 11:1)
- As part of a rebellion that was led against Moses by a man named Korah, 250 men carried censors that had fire and incense in them. After God caused the ground to open up and swallow Korah (as well as several others associated with the rebellion), God threw down fire that consumed the men who were carrying the censors. (Numbers 16:1-40)
- Nadab and Abihu, the two oldest sons of Israel’s high priest Aaron, violated the holy rituals associated with the Tabernacle. God judged their sin by sending down fire that devoured them. (Leviticus 10:1-2)
- Achan, one of Israel’s soldiers, violated God’s command about not touching any of the spoils from the nation’s victory over the walled city of Jericho. Once the sin was discovered, Joshua led Israel in burning Achan and Achan’s entire family alive. (Joshua 7:20-26)
- God was not pleased with the actions of Israel’s King Ahaziah. Consequently, God sent the prophet Elijah to tell the king’s messengers that Ahaziah was going to die from a recent injury the king had suffered. Upon hearing Elijah’s word from those messengers, Ahaziah dispatched a group of 50 men, led by a captain, to fetch Elijah and bring him to Ahaziah. But God protected Elijah by throwing down fire from heaven to consume the captain and the 50 men. After receiving this news, King Ahaziah dispatched another group of 50 men, led by another captain, to bring in Elijah. They too were all consumed by fire that fell from heaven. (2 Kings 1:1-12)
In the interest of being thorough, let me mention that the Bible also provides some examples of bodies that were incinerated apart from God’s judgment and wrath. Obviously, though, these examples are not God’s ideal for what He’d like to see happen to a body. The examples are:
- all the infant children whose bodies were burned as part of the hideous Canaanite worship practice of offering those children as burnt offerings to the false god Molech: (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 12:31)
- all the infant children whose bodies were burned as part of Israel sinfully engaging in the worship of Molech: (1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 16:1-3; 17:16-18; 21:1-6; 23:10; Jeremiah 32:34-35; Ezekiel 20:30-32)
- the bodies of King Saul and his three sons, whose bodies were all burned by the godly men of Jabesh Gilead in a devout effort to hide the fact that the Philistines had desecrated those bodies and displayed them as trophies of war: (1 Samuel 31:8-13)
Second, the Bible provides us with several examples of people burying their deceased with God’s blessing. Here is a list:
- Abraham buried his wife Sarah. (Genesis 23:1-20)
- Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham. (Genesis 25:8-10)
- Jacob buried his wife Rachel. (Genesis 35:16-20)
- Jacob and Esau buried their father Isaac. (Genesis 35:27-29)
- Jacob’s twelve sons buried their father Jacob. (Genesis 49:29-33; 50:1-14)
- Joseph’s descendants ultimately buried him at Shechem in the land of Canaan after his body had been embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt to await Israel’s exodus out of Egypt and into Canaan. (Genesis 50:22-26; Exodus 13:17-19; Joshua 24:32)
- God Himself buried Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)
- Israel’s leaders buried Joshua. (Joshua 24:29-30)
- Israel’s leaders buried Eleazar, Israel’s High Priest who was the third son of Aaron. (Joshua 24:33)
- Israel’s leaders buried Samuel. (1 Samuel 25:1)
- Israel’s leaders (presumably Solomon and the rest of David’s family) buried David. (1 Kings 2:10)
- John the Baptist’s disciples buried him. (Matthew 14:9-12)
- Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried Jesus. (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42)
- Some of the members of the early church buried Ananias and Sapphira. (Acts 5:5-10)
- Some of the members of the early church buried Stephen. (Acts 8:2)
Of this list, the burial of Joseph is particularly noteworthy. If cremation was ever a simpler option for the disposal of a corpse, surely it was in regards to Joseph’s body. I say that because his body remained in a coffin in Egypt for over 400 years awaiting Israel’s exodus to Canaan. Even when the Israelites finally transported that body with them from Egypt to Canaan, it would have been much easier for them to travel with an urn than a coffin. But cremation simply wasn’t Israel’s custom. Going all the way to Abraham, they buried their dead (Matthew 8:21-22; 27:7; John 19:40).
Someone might say, “Yes, but the fact that the ancient people of Israel did something doesn’t mean that we have to do it today. They also offered up animal sacrifices and practiced capital punishment by way of stoning.” That’s true, but there are three New Testament verses that make it clear that God wants us to learn some valuable lessons from Israel’s examples. Those verses are (all from the N.K.J.V.):
For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness… (2 Timothy 3:16)
Third, the Bible teaches that the Christian’s body should be buried as a way of evidencing the Christian’s expectation of the future resurrection and glorification of that body. Consider the following passages (all from the N.K.J.V., added emphasis mine):
- Romans 8:22-23: For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of the body.
- 1 Corinthians 15:51-53: Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
- Philippians 3:20-21: For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.
- 1 John 3:2: Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
You see, Christian, there is a valid reason why Christians have been burying their dead for 2,000 years. Actually, the word “cemetery” comes from coemeteria, the Latin word for Christian gravesites. This word literally means “sleeping places,” “resting places,” or even “bedrooms.” The point is that Christians don’t expect the corpses of their Christian dead to remain in their gravesites forever. They only put those corpses there for a while until Jesus will resurrect the corpses and glorify them, making them suitable for eternity.
It is no coincidence that the further the United States drifts from its Christian moorings, the more the national rate of cremation rises. (Did you know that in the U.S. in 1962 only 5% of funerals were cremations?) Needless to say, any nation that is dominated by either a lack of religion or a religion other than Christianity — i.e., Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc. — probably isn’t going to see the need to bury bodies. Of all the world religions, only Judaism, Islam, and Christianity teach the resurrection of the body. Not surprisingly, these are the three religions that trace their roots back to Abraham.
The Bible’s best passage on the topic of Christian resurrection is 1 Corinthians chapter 15. There, the apostle Paul links up Christ’s resurrection with the promise that all Christians will have their bodies resurrected in similar fashion. In verses 35 through 44 of that chapter, Christian burial is likened to the sowing of a seed in the ground. As any farmer will attest, the harvest that eventually comes up from the ground doesn’t look like the seed that initially went into the ground. However, this should not be taken to mean that Christians are wrong to bury their dead in mausoleums. If you think about it, Jesus’ burial tomb didn’t involve His body being literally planted in the ground, did it?
Of course, God’s basic plan isn’t always possible when it comes to burial. For example, untold numbers of corpses have ended up at the bottoms of oceans by way of shipwrecks, tsunamis, and the flood of Noah. Other corpses lie at the bottoms of caved-in mines. Others have been more or less obliterated by explosions such as bombs being dropped. Others have been incinerated by house fires and car fires.
And then there are all the Christians who have been burned alive as martyrs for their faith. That list includes the likes of Polycarp and many other Christians from Rome’s persecution of the early church. Similarly, the Catholic Church used to employ the practice of burning supposed heretics at the stake. Some of these “heretics” were Christian notables such as John Huss and William Tyndale. The Catholic Church despised John Wycliffe so much that four decades after his burial they dug up his remains and burned them.
Still, whenever possible, the Christian should be buried rather than cremated. Again, the reason has to do with the Christian’s confident expectation of an eventual resurrection. Speaking as a pastor who has served multiple churches that owned cemeteries, I know all too well the problems that can come with that particular realm of church work. No matter how many rules and regulations a church writes up for how its cemetery will be used, it’s almost impossible to cover all the bases. If nothing else, the cost of the upkeep of the cemetery can run into many thousands of dollars for the church. This explains why most church start-ups today have no interest in getting into the cemetery business. For that matter, some churches that have cemeteries are trying to delegate the responsibility for them to outside groups. Is God pleased with this modern-church attitude toward cemeteries? The more I think about it, the more I suspect that He isn’t. If we are serious about our Christian faith, that ought to translate into providing a place for our church members to have their bodies buried in expectation of resurrection.
Finally, let me say a word to anyone reading this who has had a Christian loved one cremated. Perhaps you chose cremation because it was much cheaper than burial. Perhaps you chose it because you honestly had never grasped the fact that a Christian burial is a public object lesson for the promise of resurrection. Perhaps you chose it for some other reason. Whatever your reason was, please know that you cremating your Christian loved one will not prevent God from resurrecting and glorifying that body when the time comes.
In science, there is The Law of Conservation of Matter. That law states that matter, once created, cannot be destroyed in an isolated system. This means that the matter that makes up each human body can never go completely out of existence within the confines of God’s creation. That matter can change forms, such as a human corpse withering down to dust, but it cannot fade into nothingness. The takeaway from this is that the matter from each and every body that God calls into existence will always be somewhere within God’s creation.
Therefore, when God is ready to resurrect that body, He will have no trouble pulling all of that matter back together to reconstitute that body. Whether that matter is lying inside a casket in a grave or whether it long ago became a part of the ocean depths by means of ashes being scattered upon the sea, God will be able to locate it. This doesn’t lessen the Bible’s teaching concerning the importance of burial rather than cremation, but it does at least provide some comfort to the individual who has had a Christian loved one cremated.