Is Cremation Biblical?
There’s been a lot of questions that I have received from you about the topic of cremation and whether it is biblical to engage in that practice of cremation. Some of these questions have been very personal. In other words, I’m getting questions not from people who are wondering, as a technical matter, is burial the biblical option? Or is cremation a biblical option? Some of these questions have been very personal. You’re talking about your relatives and the decisions they are making for your loved ones. You’re talking about your loved ones and what they are asking you to do. Some of you are really, really struggling with what to do with the remains of your relatives. It’s hard to imagine a more personal issue than this, and we’re talking about your body. We’re talking about the thing that is more yours than anything else you have ever had. And all of us, if the Lord tarries are going to be separated from our bodies, our loved ones are going to be separated from their bodies. And the question is going to remain, what should we do with those bodies? Some of you are struggling with choosing cremation because of the expense of burial. I’ve buried two parents, and I can tell you it is very, very expensive. The cost of taking care of a body, getting a burial site, and getting the body in the burial site is a very expensive proposition. Frankly, not everybody can afford to do that. We also are dealing with the wishes of our loved ones when someone that we love says, hey, I want to be cremated, or I want to be buried, and maybe the person who wants to be buried is making a request that is not so affordable for the family. So these are personal, painful, difficult options. It’s a difficult decision that faces many people. And so I want to answer the question delicately. And I want to be as faithful to Scripture as I know how to be.
Examples of Burials in the Bible
So what should we think about cremation? Is it an option for people who love and trust Jesus and want to be faithful to the text of Scripture? Well, let me answer that in a couple of different ways by saying, first of all, that if we’re going to think biblically about this, which we have to do, we have to think about it biblically, the example that we have in Scripture is of burial. That’s the biblical example that we have. We get it all through the text of Scripture; I can’t possibly talk about all of the times that this comes up. But an early time that it comes up is in Genesis 15:15. And we get it not just as a practice, but we get it from the mouth of God in Genesis 15. God is making a covenant with Abraham; then he gives him this promise in Genesis 15:15. It says, “As for you, you shall go to your father’s in peace, you shall be buried in a good old age.” God is prescribing the method for how to deal with Abraham’s remains once his soul is separated from his body, and he says, “You shall be buried.” That is an example that Abraham follows because in Genesis 23:19, his wife, Sarah, dies, and it says, “Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave.” So Abraham hears from God that you shall be buried; Abraham buries his wife, Sarah, in the cave. And actually, it’s pretty interesting that in the book of Genesis, Genesis ends with Joseph’s burial. In Genesis 50:24, Joseph said to his brothers, “I’m about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here. So Joseph died being 110 years old, they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” So they weren’t just preserving his body in burial. They were preserving it with the promise that he ultimately wanted to have his burial in the Promised Land. And so right out of the gate, right in the book of Genesis, we have words from God, we have practices from the people of God. We have the people of God making other members of the people of God promise that they will be buried.
This is not just the beginning of redemptive history, though. But this is also something that continues. The best example that we have had. The biblical precedent for burial is with Jesus Christ, who gave his life for the sins of the human race and was famously buried in Romans chapter 6:4. The Bible says, “We were buried therefore with him, by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Now, there are a couple of things going on. In Romans 6, that you have to understand. First of all, it’s calling upon the historical burial of Jesus. So Jesus did not just die, his remains were dealt with, and they were not dealt with in just any old way. But they were buried in a tomb. That burial becomes important as a symbol in Romans 6. That’s what Romans 6 is talking about. It’s saying that the portrait of baptism is when the person who’s confessing Christ goes under the water and comes out. This is a symbolic portrayal of burial. So this is very significant. Jesus was buried. There’s the example. But it is also a portrait of what happens to us as sinners. When we go under the water, we are portraying our burial, our death to sin. And when we come out of the water, we are portraying our resurrection in Christ. And so baptism is founded not just on the historic burial of Jesus but on the idea of our burial and resurrection to sin. So it’s not just a historical practice. It’s not just an example. It’s actually a very powerful metaphor that we get to witness every time we see someone be baptized.
Burial Is Not a Command in the Bible
And so from start to finish in redemptive history, you have the example in Scripture of burial. But that example of burial is very, very different than saying, we have in the Bible, a command to bury people. There is no such command for burial, which by the way, is actually a very gracious provision on the part of the Lord. Because there are all sorts of situations that would keep us from burying a loved one. My goodness, I talked about expense a few minutes ago, but there are all sorts of other providential reasons why we might not be able to bury someone. Some of you are listening to this, and you don’t know where your dead loved ones are. Maybe they perished in a fire, they could have perished in an accident, people die at sea. Sometimes people die in plane crashes. And we don’t ever know what happened to those folks; there are all sorts of tragedies that can befall someone where the option to bury them does not exist. And so God’s being very gracious to avoid giving his people a once for all command that we must bury our loved ones. It is true that we have a clear and repeated example of burial. It is not true that we have a command to bury. And so, what do we think about cremation? Well, this is where we have started thinking about cremation. You have to say, hey, if the Bible is full of examples of burial, we have to admit that it is devoid of any examples of cremation. In fact, in the Bible, when you think about the New Testament and its portrait of fire, my goodness, the Bible’s demonstration of fire and what it does to the body with weeping and gnashing of teeth is always a portrayal of hell. It’s always a portrayal of the eternal conscious torment that comes to those who have not repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus. So we have a positive portrayal of burial. We have a very negative portrayal of fire in the body and no portrayal of disposing of human remains with cremation.
The Most Faithful Position
So what do we do? Here’s what I think is the most faithful position. A person wishing to be most consistent with the biblical worldview and who is able to afford a burial should pursue burial. A person who chooses cremation because of expense or because they’re fulfilling the wishes of a loved one has not sinned. Burial is the most consistent with a biblical worldview. And cremation is not consistent with the biblical worldview, but neither is it a sin. I think Christians can be gracious on this matter gracious to one another. I think the main reason we can be gracious is not just because the Bible stopped short of calling cremation a sin but because every single person who dies in Christ, whether buried, cremated, lost at sea, regardless of what happens, every single person is going to experience the miracle of the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:52, the Bible says, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” This is every dead person in Christ is going to be raised imperishable. Whether you were embalmed or whether you were cremated. “The perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on the immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written Death is swallowed up in victory, oh death, where is your victory? Oh, death, where is your sting?” I think it’s important that we try to be as consistent with the biblical worldview as we can and as gracious to others as we can, where there’s no command at stake. Here is the happy ending when you and I are floating in the air, surrounded by angels with trumpets sounding and Jesus shining in the center. When we make eye contact and see our bodies hovering in the air in the midst of all that glory. You’re not going to know whether I was embalmed. You’re not going to know whether I was cremated. You’re just going to know that the glory of Jesus has taken all of our perishable bodies and made them imperishable.