What Christians should know about cremation?

Today, cremation is a very popular form of disposing of the deceased. It is true even in the Christian world, which for years was opposed to cremation but has come to a greater acceptance of cremation of the past decades. In Christian countries, cremation fell out of favor because of the Christian belief in the physical resurrection of the body and as a mark of difference from the Iron Age European pre-Christian Pagan religions, which usually cremated the deceased.

Centuries after, cremation services are now back as an option of disposing of a loved one. In fact, for the first time in American history, most of the Americans have chosen cremation rather than the traditional burial after their death. The National Funeral Directors Association expects the trend to change from burial to cremation and to continue over the next 20 years, with the projected rate of cremation reaching 78.8 percent of death by 2035.

Here are some of the things that Christians should know about cremation:

What is cremation?

Cremation is a funerary process in which intense heat is used to transform the human body back to its basic elements. Most of the body, such as tissue, is vaporized, leaving only the remains of bone. The remaining bone particles of the deceased are commonly referred to as cremains or ashes.

What is the cremation process?

The cremation process occurs in the cremation chamber or retort, a masonry-lined enclosure that can produce and withstand temperatures in the range of 1800°F to 2000°F. The deceased body is then placed in a casket that is made of wood or cardboard and placed in the chamber. Within a few hours, the body is vaporized and is reduced to bone fragments. These fragments are removed from the cremation chamber and placed on a table where the crematory operator removes, by hand or with a magnet, all-metal debris such as nails, screws, surgical pins or titanium joints and limbs.

The fragments are then placed in a special processor that pulverizes the bone to a fine powder. These remains are placed in a plastic bag within an urn or a temporary cremation container and returned to the deceased’s family.

Does the Bible mention cremation?

The first mention of cremation in the Bible is 1 Samuel 31, where Saul and his sons are burned and then their bones buried. The Philistines had cut off Saul’s head, and the bodies were likely mutilated and decaying by the time the men of Israel retrieved the remains. Rodney J. Decker said that it was considered more honorable to cremate the royal retinue than attempt to haul the mutilated, stinking bodies elsewhere for the usual Jewish burial ceremonies.

The only other references to cremation are in the book of Amos (2:1 and 6:8-10). None of these references reflects the normative funerary practices of God’s people. On 200 occasions in the Old Testament burial is mentioned as the standard disposition of dead bodies.

Leviticus 20:14 indirectly mention cremation, since they involve capital punishment that requires the offender to be burned with fire.

Is cremation a sin, or is it an ethical option for Christians?

The consensus among most Christian traditions is that because the Bible does not directly forbid cremation, it is not a sin. Timothy George said that while the weight of Christian tradition favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation.

There is a divide about whether it is prudent and acceptable for Christians to choose cremation. John MacArthur said that the state of what remains of the old body is unimportant and that we do not need to focus on how to dispose of our bodies.

How should Christians determine whether to choose burial or cremation?

A professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, David Jones, outlines three questions that we should all consider: What moral norms apply in this situation, which method best demonstrates the love of God and love of neighbor and which method would bring the most glory to God?

Jones explains that despite the church’s historical preference for burial, not all deaths allow loved ones to choose the method of internment. Things such as the location and the manner of death, nation-specific legal parameters, and the resources of the surviving family will bear on funerary practices and decisions. However, if given a choice, contemporary believers open to cremation would be wise to carefully consider the practice and evaluate it in the light of God’s Word.

After all, within the Christian tradition, funerals are not simply ways of disposing of dead bodies, nor are they about remembering the departed or expressing grief. Instead, for believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying throughout to the message and hope of the gospel.

What about Christians who can’t afford non-cremation options?

A common reason why Christians choose cremation is to avoid the expense that is related to funeral service and burial. A traditional funeral can cost around $8,000 to $10,000 while the average cost of cremation averages only $1,500 to $2,500. Before choosing cremation, Christians should consider more affordable burial options.

In the United States, the Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, makes it possible for someone to choose only those services that they want or need and to pay only for those that they select, whether they are making arrangements when a death occurs or in advance. Included in the options that all funeral homes must offer are direct burial and natural burial.

A direct burial service includes wood or cardboard container, no embalming, and immediate burial in a cemetery within 24 hours. No state law requires either embalming or the use of a casket for burial so that a body can be directly interred in the earth, in a shroud, or a vault without a casket.

Almost every state also allows for a natural burial, which allows the body to be interred without having to pay the cost of a vault.

Because the average grave spot costs around $1,000 and the digging of the grave costs $1,000, the cost of burial can be about equal to the cost of cremation. The cost could be reduced even further if more churches would reinstitute the practice of using a portion of their land to be used for a church cemetery. If more grave spots were located on church properties, they could be provided for free to Christians unable to afford a burial plot.