The Bible is not explicit in condoning or condemning the act of cremation and thus we should be careful about making any absolute mandates beyond the text. While I think that neither is "right" nor "wrong," I do believe that burial is to be preferred for historical and theological reasons and thus I would always encourage it where possible and practical.1
The practice of cremation spread quickly in the ancient world under the theological context of the pagan rejection of the importance of the physical body. For most ancient philosophers, mankind was essentially spiritual and the body was viewed not as a fundamental aspect of our nature, but rather as a prison from which we must escape. Both Judaism and early Christianity rejected this theological conviction and consequently refused the cultural practice of cremation. In fact, the preference of burial over cremation and respect for the physical body was actually seen as a distinguishing characteristic of Jews and Christians from the rest of the peoples and customs of the ancient world.2
The consistent biblical practice is burial, but it must be remembered that this is within a descriptive and not prescriptive framework.3 In other words, the Bible states that certain persons were buried; it does not command that all believers must be buried. While something akin to cremation is mentioned in a few passages, there is no hint that such was approved or consistently practiced.
To stress the significance of the body, early theologians argued along three related streams of biblical revelation: creation, incarnation and resurrection. That God created the physical body (Genesis 2:7), Christ joined Himself to a body (John 1:14; Hebrews 2:14), and our bodies will one day be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:12-57), argues decisively for the consequence of the body in the biblical text. We are not essentially spirit or soul housed in non-essential flesh and our hope is not disembodied existence. Our bodies are an essential aspect of our very nature. If a Christian today chooses to be cremated, it must not be from a position of disdain for the human body.
As mentioned, I do not think that there is an absolute and universal answer to the question of whether or not one should be buried or cremated, but I do think that one better communicates the Christian hope. Death in the Scriptures is frequently portrayed using the metaphor of sleep.4 While cremation seems to communicate a picture of the destruction of the body, burial better signifies lying to rest awaiting awakening. The death of a Christian is not the end life, but is rather a parenthesis between two lives, a life of perishable mortality and a future life of imperishable eternality.5 The body which is laid to rest will one day rise and burial better depicts this reality.
One day our bodies — whether buried or cremated — will be resurrected and restored. This hope is not increased or decreased by the form of the funeral and thus the question of cremation or burial is not of ultimate consequence. God is able to raise any body, whether from dust or ash, whether our bodies have been subjected to decomposition, disintegration, or destruction of some other form. The redemption of our bodies is our hope (Romans 8:23-24), and God will certainly accomplish what He has promised.In trying to think through this issue I would ask those considering cremation a few questions to help work through the issue:
- Why do you want to be cremated?
- Why do you not want to be buried?
- Do you recognize the importance of your physical body and believe that it will one day be resurrected?
- Have you discussed this possibility with your survivors and considered carefully their thoughts and concerns?
- Are there extenuating legal, medical, environmental, or other factors involved?
While I do not believe that cremation is unacceptable, I would almost always encourage burial given its continuity with the biblical tradition and the imagery which it communicates.
1 Obviously one would have to take into account factors such as the legal requirements of certain countries, financial resources of survivors, and the exact nature, location, and timing of the death. In certain cases, cremation might not only be acceptable, but also preferable.
5 See this article for more on the intermediate and eternal states.