Cremation and the Christian

Should believers bury their dead only?

While many believers may never have given this a passing thought, some others might think quite a lot about it, and may even have some concerns about it, especially as they or their loved ones grow older. The issue is this: is it right for a Christian to be cremated upon death? Or is burial the only real option for the believer?

Some general things can first be said. Often for the believer and non-believer alike a main consideration is the price. Cremation is simply much cheaper than a burial. Poorer folks – including poorer Christians – may thus think twice about a burial if they know a much cheaper option is available.

But mere pragmatism alone is not the best way to resolve this matter. “What does Scripture say about this” is the first question the Christian should ask. And on this topic we have some descriptive texts, and perhaps a few prescriptive ones, but in the main, we do not have clear and direct biblical teaching on this.

Yes, burial has always been the norm for believers, but are there hard and fast biblical rules that tell us one way or another? An important and long standing theological and hermeneutical principle has to do with “things indifferent”. The term used is “adiaphora” – this has to do with those things which are neither sanctioned nor prohibited by Scripture. See more on that subject here:

That is, there is some room to move here, and we need not go to the wall over such matters. Certainly, the salvation of the believer is not at risk regardless of which way he proceeds on this. And there are plenty of questions we still have about the resurrection body.

Jesus was recognisable when he came back from the dead, as were some other biblical characters. But let’s say I die at age 100. Will my resurrection body take on the form of that 100-year-old? Or a 50-year-old? Or my current almost 71-year-old? How exactly we will appear in our resurrection body is not exactly clearcut from Scripture.

And plenty of people can be horribly disfigured in their death, say from explosions, fires, and so on. In some cases there may be no real bodily remains left at all to bury. Yet we know that these folks will have a new resurrection body, presumably complete and intact – and recognisable.

Sure, there are plenty of things that happen in life, often by accident, that we don’t go out of our way to emulate or imitate. But just in terms of imagery alone, the biblical notion of falling and rising, of death and resurrection, is nicely captured in being lowered into the earth, awaiting the return of Christ. That picture is not seen so readily in cremation.

Cremation, in terms of religious traditions, is much more routine in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. In those belief systems the body is seen as something to escape from, not celebrate. But in cultures where Judaism, Christianity and Islam dominate, burial is the main option. These faiths do have a much higher view of the human body – especially the Judeo-Christian tradition. Bodily resurrection is certainly crucial in the biblical worldview.

The Biblical data

I already mentioned that we do not have all the much clear and direct biblical material to draw from here. Some Christians have said that burning was a part of God’s judgment when dealing with sinners, and so we should stay away from that.

In Joshua 7 for example we read about the sin of Achan. Verse 25 tells us the fate of the guilty: “And Joshua said, ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.’ And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.”

Some sins are so abhorrent that burning with fire is the punishment meted out. Sexual sin seems to predominate here. In Genesis 38 we read about Judah and Tamar. Verses 24-25 read: “About three months later Judah was told, ‘Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned’.”

And in Leviticus 20:14 we read this: “If a man takes a woman and her mother also, it is depravity; he and they shall be burned with fire, that there may be no depravity among you.” But some other Old Testament passages could be seen as being a bit more ambiguous. In Leviticus 21 we read about priestly holiness. The priest is not to go near dead bodies, thereby making himself unclean (v. 11). A possible case for cremation then? But a sinful daughter of a priest “shall be burned with fire” (v. 9).

In the context of our discussion about cremation, it must also be mentioned that in some of these passages – and others like them – it is not always clear if the sinners were burned to death, or if they were executed and THEN their corpses were burned.

Also consider 1 Samuel 31 where we read about the death of Saul. It says “valiant men” from the Israelite town of Jabesh-Gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons (vv. 11-13). Were they right to do so? Saul of course was a king of Israel, chosen by God, but he did go off the rails at the end of his reign.

Other rather general texts could be presented here, but the truth is we do not have a direct condemnation of cremation in the Bible. So the short answer to our question is this: burial has always been the traditional Christian way of doing things, based as it is on a high view of the body, and the blessed hope we have of the return of Christ and living forever in resurrection bodies.

I could finish here, but perhaps I can quote just one Christian leader on this. Some years ago Russell Moore penned a piece on why he is no fan of cremation. The entire article is worth looking at, but his closing paragraphs can be offered here:

I suppose I shouldn’t find the heat that comes from the cremation debate all that surprising. It is deeply personal, especially for those of us with loved ones resting now in urns or scattered beneath oak trees or embedded in man-made reefs off the coast. What bothers me as a Christian minister is not so much that some of us are cremated as that the rest of us don’t seem to care.


Like the culture around us, we tend to see death and burial as an individual matter. That’s why we make our own personal funeral plans, in the comfort of our living room chairs. And that is why we ask the kind of question we ask about this issue: “What difference does it make, as long as I am resurrected in the end?”


Recognizing that cremation is sub-Christian doesn’t mean castigating grieving families as sinners. It doesn’t mean refusing to eat at the dining room table with Aunt Flossie’s urn perched on the mantle overhead. It doesn’t mean labeling the pastor who blesses a cremation service as a priest of Molech.


It simply means beginning a conversation about what it means to grieve as Christians and what it means to hope as Christians. It means reminding Christians that the dead in the graveyards behind our churches are “us” too. It means hoping that our Christian burial plots preach the same gospel that our Christian pulpits do.


I wish my grandfather hadn’t been cremated. As I preached his funeral, I wished I could join with centuries of Christians in committing his body, intact, to the ground. I hated his cremation, but I didn’t hate it as others do, as those who have no hope. Instead, I thanked a faithful God for a great man’s life.


And then I paused in recognition, knowing that one day the wisdom of the embalmers and the power of the cremators will be put to shame by the Wisdom and Power of God in the eastern skies above us. And I expect it will be glorious to see what the voice of Jesus can do to a south Mississippi funeral home’s medium-price urn.

Whatever direction you end up heading in as to this matter, we need to extend grace to others, especially when they are in a time of grief and bereavement. Indeed, exactly 42 years ago today I married a wonderful Australian woman. For 41 years my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. This year – today – I celebrate it alone.

The last thing I need now (or six months ago when we buried her), would be a big Christian argument over these matters. Think and pray about it, and do what you sense God wants you to do on this.

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18 Replies to “Cremation and the Christian”

  1. From dust we came to dust we return. And He who formed us out of dust is surely capable of recreation our body in what ever form it is in.

  2. Thanks Bill, as I was always against cremations as believed we should be laid to rest, if given a choice, and not burnt up in the fires of hell as our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit so how can one burn it up? I was brought up in the Methodist church so remember reading some of their views on this from the newsletters Mum and Dad received as they were all for burial no matter the cost as they believed cremation was what the pagans do as you covered in your article. Also, I remember that Joseph asked for his bones to be carried back to Canaan Gen 50:25 when they returned to Canaan (nearly 400 years later, Exodus 13:19 ‘Moses took the bones of Joseph with him’), and before that his father, Jacob wanted his body buried with his fathers in Canaan Gen 47:30 so to me it means our bones are important or the place where we are buried is important.

  3. I have no opinion about cremation, but I sometimes think about the resurrected body, particularly what “age” it might look. What happens in the case of a baby or unborn fetus?

    I also ponder whether we might instead remain spirits. It would avoid the conundrums, and Scripture would seem to be inconclusive.

  4. Thanks William. Yes, on the issue of how we might look in the next life, there is some uncertainty. But on the fact that we will all have resurrection bodies, there is no uncertainty. Jesus came back after the crucifixion, not as a spirit, but as a real person in a real body – a resurrection body. Our spirit remains after death, but will be reunited with a new resurrection body when Christ returns. That is the promise and joy of passages such as 1 Corinthians 15.

  5. I appreciate being able to check through this article – to see various things shared.
    That this matter is perplexing to some Christians, whether this or that, is understandable.
    Now what follows is not Bible, but a thought I have had when teaching about resurrection of God’s people at Christ’s Return. It goes like this.
    There have been Christians mauled and possibly eaten by lions in arenas. Christians sawn in two (refer to Hebrews 11) or perhaps burned at the stake. And Christians who have died and been buried perhaps closer to the surface of the soil above them – after a very long time along come some hungry animals which eat the grass which has absorbed some nutrients from the decomposed body of the Christian – then one or more of those beasts gets slaughtered and eaten by a human – so Christian X ends up in small measure in the stomach and other body parts of a living human being.
    Admittedly such things are rare in the personal experiences of dead Christians.
    Quite obviously I am not trying to be funny, or crude, but thoughtful.
    None of this is an argument against burial and for cremation or the other way around, but just reflecting on the reality that God’s power will raise the dead and that power will not be exhausted in regard to raising those whose remains have been widely dispersed in all sorts of ways.
    I am not a scientist – Regardless of the manner of death and what happens to human remains after that – I wonder whether every atom of every dead human still exists somewhere on the earth, in the earth or in the atmospheric heavens.

  6. As you mentioned, I share the aversion to cremation because of the very fact the pagans practise it. The idea of being “laid to rest” doesn’t really have the same vibe with a cremation. Moore’s comment about the churchyard tombstones bearing a continuing witness has merit.

  7. I am dealing with this issue right now and I have been searching scripture and praying and praying. My loved one, a Christian but very humanist in that Christianity, has not only chosen to be cremated but also to be donated to a medical teaching facility to be dismembered and used for study in the name of “helping humanity”. Cremation will be a year later. I had been warned by some in the medical community not to do this because the bodies are not treated with respect and are often put in compromising positions in jest. My loved one and I had talked about this a number of years ago and they had agreed not to do it, but all of a sudden a new living will has been found and it specifically states to do these things. I hate this is the last choice they will be doing at death, which is near.

    I am no theologian. I am only a devoted reader of scripture. God has lead me to read through the Bible every year for the past 23 or 24 years and every time He impresses on me more and more that our focus is on Him first, His precepts and His purpose and then everything else will come to us. We don’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” We aren’t God to make those assessments. We ask, “What DID Jesus do?” and we, as Paul states, make Him our example in all things. I have been amazed that if we read scripture without any expectations or man made notions, all of a sudden the answer to every, single question is right there for the application.

    God gives us His model for everything: marriage, government, provision, financial management, and even burial. We have Abraham buying a field to bury his wife and then being buried there as well. We have Joseph taking his father’s body back to Canaan to bury it in the coming promised land. We have Joseph telling his family to take his body – his bones – to the same place. And ultimately, we have Christ buried in a tomb from which He rose to a transfigured body. We are told, as those who are in the state of being in Christ, the body is the temple of God and we are to honor that temple. Even when that temple is empty, we do not desecrate it. Christ’s body was empty in the tomb but women were headed there with oils to anoint His body after He was dead and buried, when they found He had risen.

    Cutting up a body and burning it is part of the pagan, idolatrous culture. As you pointed out, in scripture, it was those who rebelled against God who were dismembered, put on display and burned. That is a pagan practice. Why would we want to emulate a pagan practice if we are to come out and be separate from the world? The same can be asked about participating in Halloween or yoga or any other pagan work. The answer is that if we are seeking God, His kingdom and His righteousness FIRST, we don’t want to do anything that dishonors Him, including pagan rituals.

    Paul tells us that if we eat at a man’s table and nobody tells us where the food has come from, we are to eat and be gracious. However, if we are told the food came from idolatrous sacrifice, we are not to eat. In other words, if we know the idolatrous background of anything, we are not to do it. If we don’t know, we won’t be judged if we do. That is the line I have now come to recognize. I now know the idolatrous background of cremation and desecration of the body and I want no part of it because I want to be different from the world. If someone asks me, that is the answer I will give and that means, they will then know and be accountable for their decisions. I just found that one can actually be buried within 24 hours of death, (one can be frozen if family can’t make it that fast) in a cheap box without embalming. It is even cheaper than cremation and it is better for the environment. To me, that is the answer to all of it. Thanks for your article.

  8. The Jewish habit of laying the unembalmed body in a shroud in the ground within 24 hours seems good to me. The habit of using embalming fluids to try to preserve the body for viewing and burial is far less good in my view. If I can’t be buried in a simple shroud and perhaps wooden box, then actually, since I am dust and to dust I shall return, I’d rather be made dust immediately. The Lord will work the great miracle of the resurrection of the dead without regard to our poor efforts one way or the other.

  9. Your wife got an early graduation from life, congratulations to her.
    As far as that discussion is concerned, my church teaches that if possible, burial is the best option, if money or law prohibits burial, then cremation is an acceptable second option. if a sailor dies at sea, the normal is for a sea burial.
    The point is, the earthly remains are actually owned by God.
    The body needs to be interred, disposed of, removed, for health reasons.
    What happens to the body in death, is not as important as how the person lived in life, in preparation for their individual meeting with God.
    That sir, is my simple opinion on the whole matter.

  10. I have no problem with cremation. Think about this too. Is it unethical to charge outrageous amounts of money for the burial? Who can afford those prices? How about people living on islands where land is not readily available for burial? Those who have died at sea? If one choses cremation, it doesn’t mean they embrace pagan rituals. If one’s heart is devoted to Jesus Christ, the body will be resurrected and will receive an incorruptible body and live with him forever.

  11. I think that this is a matter left open to Christian believers. A friend recently lost both his parents within a few years of each other. He said that they both decided on cremation as a way to avoid the expenses involved in more elaborate funerals, with caskets, headstones, venue hiring etc. As he came from a working class family background, I can see the sense in that.

    Ernest and I invested in a funeral plan, so we could afford the costs involved in caskets, headstones and venue hire, as well as the minister, given we were both Catholics. It’s good and comforting to have a headstone to commemorate God’s chosen soulmate for me. Mind you, both of us worked and laid some money aside and we could afford it.

    A third option is a green funeral, in which a simple cardboard container serves as the coffin, biodegrades and enables your remains to replenish God’s green earth, an act of Christian environmental stewardship. A tree and memorial marker is sometimes involved. It means that you celebrate the gift of God’s beautiful creation in the process.

    Finally, there’s also the question of posthumous transplants. Ernest and I both signed up for that. If our bodily organs can help save someone’s life, then that is part of the sanctity of human life and I have no trouble with that at all. It’d be wonderful if (say) my liver could enable a new mum to continue to live on and be with her little ones and family.

  12. I think it’s a matter of personal choice. Biblically, it’s no problem for God to resurrect Christians however their mortal remains are interred, since He created the whole universe out of nothing. People who favour burial need to ensure that their gravestones will be cared for in the future. I’ve visited a few old cemeteries and find it sad to see old, neglected and unreadable headstones.
    If ashes are placed in an urn with a good quality plaque, the cemetery staff will keep their surroundings tidy decades later.

  13. Pastor Muehlenberg, I cannot see how it matters. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

    We may “preserve” the body for a time via burial, but eventally the entombed body is dust just as it creation had been used.

  14. I would prefer burial however here in Spain cremation is the most common and promoted. People are not buried in the ground here but in boxes in a wall and only for about 5 years when it is emptied and remains go to, I don’t know where.
    There are a couple of burial grounds belonging to the British Foreign Office however I have never received a reply to my emails about having a burial on ´British´ soil in Spain.
    So what does one do?
    My pastor is happy with conducting a service for brethern who have been cremated and it is within 24hours for cremation and 48 hours for burial, all very rushed and pressurised here.
    We all don’t have the luxury of our body being committed to the ground in a lovely setting.

  15. In any case, given we serve an omnipotent Lord and Saviour, it would be simplicity itself for Him to resurrect us from our very atoms and molecules up to our bodily organs, bones, flesh and physical appearance, with an intact and functioning brain. As there is no hard and fast prescribed funeral method within the Bible, I suspect we probably therefore act according to our respective theological traditions and heritage. For me as a faithful Catholic, His Holiness Pope Francis has ruled out cremation as an option. However, I fully accept that others will find different Scriptural and theological touchstones to guide their funeral option and I’m perfectly okay with that.

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