[The following is my reply to my friends who asked for insight on cremation as they sit down to pre-plan their funerals soon.]
First, you guys are to be commended for planning your memorial services ahead of time. I’m sure it’s not easy to sit down and go through the process. But I know for a fact that it makes things much easier on your family when the time comes, knowing that you have already taken care of these decisions. Secondly, I commend your seeking a biblical perspective on such an important topic.
As of 2006, the national average for cremation was about 33%. Arkansas was near the bottom of that list at only 16%, along with the other Bible Belt states of Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and finally Mississippi at only 10%. In other words, the most evangelical states have the lowest rates of cremation. That certainly doesn’t make cremation right or wrong, but I wanted you guys to have some perspective on national numbers.
By 2011, cremations nationally had risen to 42%. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremations were expected to outnumber burials for the first time in 2015. During that same time frame, Mississippi saw a 50% rise in cremations. Culturally, the issue is clear: cremation is increasingly popular.
Biblically, the picture is somewhat less certain. The Catholic church officially prohibited cremation until 1963. While not expressly forbidden in evangelical circles, the above statistics definitely show a historical evangelical slant against cremation. However, evangelical resistance to cremation is softening over time.
To be clear, the Bible does not expressly state a position on cremation. The traditional Jewish practice was burial. Egyptians mummified their bodies, while the Babylonians practiced cremation. Although the Bible strictly prohibited certain pagan practices (human sacrifice, idol worship), cremation is not forbidden in the Old or New Testaments, even though it was practiced in surrounding cultures.
There are some relevant texts:
1) In Genesis 3:19, God told Adam that he was made from dust and would return to dust.
2) In 2 Corinthians 5:1, scripture describes our physical bodies as a tent, a temporary dwelling place.
3) 1 Corinthians 15:48 and 53 describe our physical bodies as “of the dust” and “perishable.” The same chapter depicts the resurrection body as “of heaven” and “imperishable.”
4) Revelation 20:13 speaks of the sea giving up its dead at the resurrection. Human bodies decompose in the sea just as they do in the earth, and yet God will be able to resurrect them.
In 1 Corinthians 6:19, scripture refers to our bodies as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Based on this scripture, some believers hold that care should be taken to preserve the physical body after death, and therefore cannot choose cremation.
We have no clear biblical mandate here. What do we do when the Bible doesn’t tell us what to do? We make the best decision we can, informed by faith. Romans 14:23 says, “…everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
In the absence of a clear biblical perspective about burial, can a believer opt for cremation in good faith? In my humble opinion, cremation simply speeds up a process that God Himself ordained: that the human body is inherently temporary, and ultimately reverts back to its elemental condition, from which God is supremely able to resurrect believers to eternal life.
And at the same time, because there is no biblical mandate, believers who opt for a traditional burial should go forward in faith as well.