Is it okay for Christians to be cremated?
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The relationship between Christianity and cremation is complicated to say the least. Cremation has experienced a relatively recent increase in popularity, and it is often considered a modern and affordable option as compared with more traditional forms of burial; however, cremation has a long history as a funerary tradition going back thousands of years, so to answer this question, it may be helpful to examine the history of cremation and how Christian communities have responded to this practice along the way.
Of course, like many other methods of handling human remains, various cultural groups throughout time have alternated between seeing cremation as a pervasive norm or an irreverent taboo. The way cremation is viewed varies widely across time, regions, and spiritual communities. Many well-documented ancient societies preferred cremation to burial at one time or another. For example, by 800BC cremation was the norm in Greece, and by 100AD Romans were building columbaria to house urns filled with cremated remains. Today, over 99% of the Japanese population opts for cremation. In fact, cremation is preferred in Japan to such a degree that burials are banned in several municipalities for space and hygiene reasons. Even though cremation is accepted, or even preferred in many cultures, it remains controversial in regions in which Christianity is the dominant religion.
The historical Christian objection to cremation may stem from the Judaic roots of Christianity. In ancient Israel, entombment was the preferred way to care for the dead, and cremation was shunned. As part of their funeral rite, the bones would be collected and kept in a bone box, or ossuary, after the rest of the remains had decomposed in the sepulcher. They believed that the soul could feel whatever was done to the body after death. With that in mind, it's easy to see why they would have opposed immolation of their dead. This preference for keeping the body intact after death persisted in early Christianity, and has since been strongly linked to belief in the physical resurrection of the body. As early Christianity spread across the European continent, cremation began to be associated with indigenous, non-Judeo-Christian cultures who had their own established spiritual traditions predating Christianity, and who often preferred cremation over burial. By the time Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, those who didn’t follow Christian customs were killed or exiled. The burial preference became so deeply engrained in the culture that in 789AD, Charlemagne made cremation an offense punishable by death. Until the late 1800s in Europe, cremation was considered socially appropriate only in the event of a battle, famine or epidemic illness, like the black plague during the middle ages.
Eventually, this strict stance against cremation eased, and many people, even some Christians, began to reconsider their opposition to this method of disposition. By the enlightenment period, many secular philosophical movements began to promote cremation, and cremation societies were formed in Europe and the United States. These are the roots of cremation in Western society as we know it today. The first crematorium was built in Milano, and soon crematories were popping up all over central Europe. By the 1870s, the Queen’s surgeon advised cremation as the more sanitary choice, which led to cremation becoming legalized again in England in 1884.
During this 19th century surge in the popularity of cremation, many Christian leaders in Europe and the US disapproved. Even to this day, the Eastern Orthodox Church strictly prohibits cremation, and the Catholic Church reacted to the secular promotion of cremation by banning the practice in 1886 through canon law. As a result, cremation was forbidden for Catholics until the 1960s, when the Church lifted its prohibition on cremation. Even then, the Church required that the intact body be present at the funeral mass, which meant ashes could not be substituted for the body of the deceased at a funeral until the rule was revised again 1997. Today, the Catholic Church still forbids the scattering or display of cremated remains as part of their belief that the bodies of the deceased should be treated with reverence.
On the other hand, since protestant churches enjoyed a decentralized organization of leadership, individual congregations were free to allow or disallow cremation as their religious leaders saw fit. German protestant reform churches were strong early proponents of Enlightenment era cremation, primarily because they were concerned about the sanitation and health impact of cemeteries and conventional burials. Though bear in mind that this is not true with all protestant churches. Presbyterian churches typically frown on cremation, though they don’t explicitly prohibit the practice, and Mormons are also discouraged from choosing cremation. In general, the congregational stance on cremation is considerably more flexible in protestant churches than in many Catholic or Eastern Orthodox communities.
In some cases, the objection was based on a belief that the bodies of the dead needed to be intact in order for Christ to be able to resurrect the righteous when the end times arrived, though many Christian communities, like Pentecostal churches for instance, argue that if God could resurrect bodies that had returned to dust centuries ago, he would certainly be able to resurrect a recently cremated one. For many other churches, the opposition to cremation has little to do with the issue of physical resurrection of the body, and more to do with what they believe constitutes respectful treatment of human remains, though this sentiment is based on tradition and not any explicit biblical requirement. Many Christians may reject cremation as an alternative to traditional burial because burning is often associated with punishment in the bible, though in some situations it was used to protect the remains of loved ones from enemies, as in the story of Saul and Jonathan:
1 Samuel 31, verses 11-13
“And when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard concerning him that which the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan; and they came to Jabesh, and burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days."
They were cremated to prevent the Philistines from further desecrating their bodies, and the Father took no offense to their choice. Although the communities described in the bible tended to favor burial, this was a matter of preference. Burial is by no means mandated in scripture; however, your church may have it's own funerary traditions that may be expected of their members. If you are not strongly affiliated with a particular church or other religious organization, then the choice is entirely up to you.
Clearly, opinions vary, and Christians are by no means a homogenous group. So what’s the final answer? If you are a member of a Christian church and you have spiritual concerns regarding cremation as opposed to traditional burial, it would be wise to consult your pastor.