Is Cremation Okay?

August 20, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments


From time to time, I receive questions concerning the practice of cremation.  After all, cremation certainly has its benefits:  it is less costly than a traditional burial and, if someone desires, he can keep a loved one’s ashes in his home rather than shipping them off to a cemetery.  But some people are reticent about the practice though, oddly enough, they often do not know why they have reservations.  When asked about cremation, I have heard more than one person say things like, “I heard the church doesn’t like cremation,” or, “Doesn’t the Bible teach against cremation?”  The responses to these statements are “no” and “no,” though these responses do come with some qualifications.

Cremation became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century because of a growing fear that one could be accidentally buried alive.  Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, writes about this phobia:

Newspapers regularly featured stories of individuals, given up for dead, waking up from trances just before being lowered underground.  And witnesses to exhumations testified repeatedly about finding corpses that had turned on their sides, gouged out their eyes, and even fractured their bones in what one medical encyclopedia termed “desperate struggle for escape.”[1]

The thinking went that it was better, if one was accidentally pronounced dead, to be quickly burned to death in a crematorium than to be slowly suffocated to death in a coffin.  Nevertheless, cremation, though widely touted in the secular society of the nineteenth century, was not universally embraced – especially by those in the church.

The Christian emperor Charlemagne elevated cremation to the level of a capital crime in 789 because it parroted the practices of ancient pagans.[2]  The Roman Catholic Church prohibited the practice in the 1917 Code of Canon Law which read, in part, “The bodies of the faithful must be buried, and cremation is reprobated. If anyone has in any manner ordered his body to be cremated, it shall be unlawful to execute his wish.”[3] In 1963, however, Pope Paul VI lifted this ban, noting:

There has been a change for the better in attitudes and in recent years more frequent and clearer situations impeding the practice of burial have developed. Consequently, the Holy See is receiving repeated requests for a relaxation of church disciplines relative to cremation. The procedure is clearly being advocated today, not out of hatred of the Church or Christian customs, but rather for reasons of health, economics, or other reasons involving private or public order.[4]

The prior ban on cremation by the Roman Catholic Church seemed to stem from a rationalistic rejection of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day by some heady antagonists and not from a theological objection to the practice per se.   There were some who used cremation as a way to defy Jesus, saying He could not raise a body from death upon His return if that body had been incinerated.  This is why even today, The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”[5]

Silly protestations against the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day aside, there is no demonstrable theological reason to reject cremation.  Scripture never explicitly addresses the practice and, for those who would be foolish enough to believe that Jesus could not raise a body burned to ash, they would do well remember God’s curse on Adam:  “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).  If God can raise Adam from death on the Last Day long after he has decomposed into dust, God can raise a cremated person from death on the Last Day long after he has been incinerated into dust.  And the Christian church has known this – and taught this – from her earliest days.  Felix, a Latin apologist from the second century, writes, “Every body, whether it is dried up into dust, or is dissolved into moisture, or is compressed into ashes, or is attenuated into smoke, is withdrawn from us, but it is reserved for God in the custody of the elements.”[6]  Even when our bodies return to the elements from which they were formed, Felix says, our God nevertheless retains custody over these elements and will reconstitute these elements into perfected and glorified bodies on the Last Day.

What is the upshot of all of this, then?  Each family must make their own decisions as to how to best honor a loved one after his or her passing.  Cremation is an option, as is a traditional burial.  There is no need to fret over either option theologically, for both are acceptable in God’s sight.  What God concerns Himself with is not how a person is buried, but how that person who believes will be ultimately raised to a life of eternal bliss with the Lord and with other believers.  And God’s concern should be our hope!


[1] Stephen Prothero, Purified by Fire:  A History of Cremation in America (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2001), 72.

[2] Cf. Lucy Bregman, Religion, Death, and Dying (Santa Barbara:  Praeger, 2010), 13.

[3] 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1203.

[4] Pope Paul VI, Piam et constantem, 3366.

[5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2301.

[6] ANF 4:34.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. revkev97  |  August 20, 2012 at 7:57 am

    Hi, Zach! This is a question that has long puzzled many Christians. The costs associated with cremation pale in comparison to a regular, “open casket” funeral. Christians are also adamant, recalling that, in antiquity, remaining unburied is a curse and, according to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, a body must be sown in death.

    However, I could go on about those who are vaporized, lost at sea, and the like. But, this isn’t my point, just as it wasn’t yours. I think most folks are afraid of somehow desecrating a body through cremation, which does address your point.

    The truth is, no modern burial practice can be justified by Holy Scripture. As I sometimes crassly ask, “Which do you prefer: drain and fill or burn and grind?” Both practices present their own brands of defilement, if you want to call it that.

    As you so rightly emphasize, the issue at hand really needs to be the resurrection and God’s power to raise the dead, whatever their state. For those who die in the faith, either practice is permissible. For those outside of the faith, well, you can guess.

    God bless!

    Reply

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