I’ve been asked whether Christians can practice cremation. While I still wouldn’t say cremation is a sin, I would say there are good reasons Christians should choose burial over cremation. While many practices are not explicitly forbidden by Scripture, there is often enough information to help us make the best decision.
Table of contents
- 1. Cremation was the practice of pagans.
- 2. Burial was the practice of God’s people in the Old Testament.
- 3. Burial is presented as a reward in the Old Testament.
- 4. Reject cremation, because the Old Testament presents burning bodies negatively.
- 5. Lack of burial was a common punishment in the Old Testament.
- 6. The New Testament speaks positively of Old Testament burials.
- 7. God’s people practiced burial in the New Testament.
- 8. Reject cremation because “Ashes to ashes” isn’t in Scripture.
- 9. Burial is at the center of the Gospel.
Here are nine reasons to choose burial over cremation.
1. Cremation was the practice of pagans.
Cremation began as early as 3000BC, making it a common practice around the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. Rome embraced cremation around 600BC, making it a common practice around the church in the New Testament. But we never see cremation practiced by God’s people in the Old or New Testaments even though they had great familiarity with it.
When something is common among pagans and heathens, but never God’s people, this alone should be instructive.
2. Burial was the practice of God’s people in the Old Testament.
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.2 Corinthians 5:1
Paul describes our bodies as tents that are vacated upon death and then destroyed over time. Some read this and say, “So whatever happens to our bodies is irrelevant!” The problem with this thinking is two-fold.
- God has a future plan to resurrect our earthly bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 1 Thes 4:16).
- Godly people in the Old Testament should serve as examples for us (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11; Romans 15:4) and some of them sought to be buried…
Twice Jacob asked to be buried:
- Genesis 47:29-30 When the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, please put your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me. Please do not bury me in Egypt, but let me lie with my fathers; you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he said, “I will do as you have said.”
- Genesis 49:29-31 [Jacob] charged [his sons] and said to them: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that isin the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field of Ephron the Hittite as a possession for a burial place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah.
Joseph sought to see his father and his own remains buried:
- Genesis 50:4-5 Now when the days of his mourning were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the hearing of Pharaoh, saying,‘My father made me swear, saying, “Behold, I am dying; in my grave which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me.” Now therefore, please let me go up and bury my father, and I will come back.’”
- Genesis 50:25 Then Joseph took an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”
Joseph’s burial was so important the fulfillment of it is recorded twice:
- Exodus 13:19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had placed the children of Israel under solemn oath, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”
- Joshua 24:32 The bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried at Shechem, in the plot of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of silver, and which had become an inheritance of the children of Joseph.
3. Burial is presented as a reward in the Old Testament.
Godly people were honored with burials, sometimes even extravagant ones:
- Genesis 23:19 And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah, before Mamre (that is,Hebron) in the land of Canaan.
- Genesis 35:19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is,Bethlehem).
- When Joseph buried Jacob, he took his brothers, their families, and even Pharaoh’s officials: Genesis 50:6-9 And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear.” So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt,as well as all the house of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s house. Only their little ones, their flocks, and their herds they left in the land of Goshen. And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen, and it was a very great gathering.
- 1 Kings 14:13 And all Israel shall mourn for [Jeroboam’s son] and bury him, for he is the only one of Jeroboam who shall come to the grave, because in him there is found something good toward the Lord God of Israel in the house of Jeroboam.
- 2 Chronicles 16:14 They buried [Asa] in his own tomb, which he had made for himself in the City of David; and they laid him in the bed which was filled with spices and various ingredients prepared in a mixture of ointments. They made a very great burning for him.
- 2 Chronicles 32:33 Hezekiah rested with his ancestors and was buried on the hill where the tombs of David’s descendants are. All Judah and the people of Jerusalem honored him when he died.
4. Reject cremation, because the Old Testament presents burning bodies negatively.
In the Old Testament cremation was a punishment for sin:
- Leviticus 20:14 If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you.
- Leviticus 21:9 If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.
- Even though Judah was acting hypocritically when he learned Tamar “played the harlot,” in Genesis 38:24b he said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!”
- Following Achen’s sin he and his family were cremated: Joshua 7:25 And Joshua said, “Why have you troubled us? The Lord will trouble you this day.” So all Israel stoned him with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones.
Zimri was an evil king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and it’s hard to find anything from his life worth emulating, including his death:
When Zimri saw that the city was taken, that he went into the citadel of the king’s house and burned the king’s house down upon himself with fire, and died.1 Kings 16;18
King Josiah was one of the godliest kings in the Old Testament and he made two contrasting decisions that can be informative. First, the burning of human bones on an altar desecrated it. Second, the remains of a man of God were to be left buried:
As Josiah turned, he saw the tombs that were there on the mountain. And he sent and took the bones out of the tombs and burned them on the altar, and defiled it according to the word of the Lord which the man of God proclaimed, who proclaimed these words.Then he said, “What gravestone is this that I see?”
So the men of the city told him, “It is the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and proclaimed these things which you have done against the altar of Bethel.”
And he said, “Let him alone; let no one move his bones.” So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet who came from Samaria.
Now Josiah also took away all the shrines of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made to provoke the Lord to anger; and he did to them according to all the deeds he had done in Bethel.He executed all the priests of the high places who were there, on the altars, and burned men’s bones on them; and he returned to Jerusalem.2 Kings 23:16-20
5. Lack of burial was a common punishment in the Old Testament.
If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with goodness, or indeed he has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better than he.Ecclesiastes 6:3
A poor burial (or worse no burial) was a common punishment for evil people:
- Psalm 79:3 Their blood they have shed like water all around Jerusalem,
And there was no one to bury
- Isaiah 5:25 Therefore the anger of the Lord is aroused against His people;
He has stretched out His hand against them
And stricken them,
And the hills trembled.
Their carcasses were as refuse in the midst of the streets.
- 2 Kings 9:10 The dogs shall eat Jezebel on the plot of ground at Jezreel, and there shall be none to bury ’”
- 2 Chronicles 21:20 [Jehoram] was thirty-two years old when he became king. He reigned in Jerusalem eight years and, to no one’s sorrow, departed. However they buried him in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings.
- 2 Chronicles 24:25 And when they had withdrawn from [Joash] (for they left him severely wounded), his own servants conspired against him because of the blood of the sons of Jehoiada the priest, and killed him on his bed. So he died. And they buried him in the City of David, but they did not bury him in the tombs of the kings.
- 2 Chronicles 28:27a So Ahaz rested with his fathers, and they buried him in the city, in Jerusalem; but they did not bring him into the tombs of the kings of Israel.
- Jeremiah 14:16 And the people to whom they prophesy shall be cast out in the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and the sword; they will have no one to bury them—them nor their wives, their sons nor their daughters—for I will pour their wickedness on them.’
- Jeremiah 16:4, 6 “They shall die gruesome deaths; they shall not be lamented nor shall they be buried, but they shall be like refuse on the face of the earth. They shall be consumed by the sword and by famine, and their corpses shall be meat for the birds of heaven and for the beasts of the earth…Both the great and the small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried; neither shall men lament for them, cut themselves, nor make themselves bald for them.
- Jeremiah 22:19 [Jehoiakim] shall be buried with the burial of a donkey, Dragged and cast out beyond the gates of Jerusalem.
- Jeremiah 25:33 And at that day the slain of the Lord shall be from one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become refuse on the ground.
- Jeremiah 36:30 Therefore thus says the Lord concerning Jehoiakim king of Judah: “He shall have no one to sit on the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat of the day and the frost of the night.
God punished people by removing their remains and spreading them out above ground:
“At that time,” says the Lord, “they shall bring out the bones of the kings of Judah, and the bones of its princes, and the bones of the priests, and the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, out of their graves. They shall spread them before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and which they have served and after which they have walked, which they have sought and which they have worshiped. They shall not be gathered nor buried; they shall be like refuse on the face of the earth.Jeremiah 18:1-2
6. The New Testament speaks positively of Old Testament burials.
In Stephen’s speech before the religious leaders he recounted important events in Israel’s history, including even burials:
Then Joseph sent and called his father Jacob and all his relatives to him, seventy-five people. So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers. And [their bodies] were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham bought for a sum of money from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem.Acts 17:14-16
The author of Hebrews spoke positively of Joseph desiring a burial:
By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones.Hebrews 11:22
7. God’s people practiced burial in the New Testament.
The point of the following verses isn’t to imply they command burial, but simply that they present burial as the common New Testament practice among God’s people.
- Matthew 14:12 Then his disciples came and took away [John that Baptist’s body] and buried it, and went and told Jesus.
- Three times John 11 makes mention of Lazarus being buried in a tomb:
- 17 So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.
- 31 Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and comforting her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, saying, “She is going to the tomb to weep there.”
- 38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.
- Jesus saw burial as the expected treatment of a body: Matthew 8:21-22 Then another of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
- But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
- The Jews thought so much of burial they purchased fields for burying even Gentiles: Matthew 27:7 They consulted together and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.
The most famous burial is Jesus’ (even though cremation would’ve made His resurrection on the third day more dramatic!). When He was anointed in Matthew 26:12 He said, “For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial” as opposed to saying, “…for My death.” In the account of Jesus’ burial, the tomb is emphasized, being mentioned five times in seven verses:
Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus.This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him.When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed. And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the tomb.
On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate,saying, “Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said,‘After three days I will rise.’Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away,and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first.”
Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.”So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard.Matthew 27:57-66
8. Reject cremation because “Ashes to ashes” isn’t in Scripture.
The phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and it has undoubtedly become more well-known with the increased popularity of cremation; however, the phrase isn’t found in the Bible:
- Job said, “He has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes” (Job 30:19). He said this because he “sat in the midst of ashes” (Job 2:8). Job 42:6 makes this clear: “Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
- In Genesis 18:27 Abraham said, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord.” The Cambridge Bible says “dust and ashes” are “two alliterative words in the Hebrew, which defy reproduction in English”; therefore, it shouldn’t be taken literally that Abraham thought he was ashes.
Instead the Bible says:
- Genesis 3:19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
- Ecclesiastes 3:20 All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.
9. Burial is at the center of the Gospel.
Let me be clear about what I’m NOT saying:
- You have to be buried to embrace the Gospel.
- Being cremated is rejecting the Gospel.
Instead, I’m simply saying the heart of the Gospel is Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, which puts burial at the center of Christianity:
- Romans 6:4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
- 1 Corinthians 15:1a, 3-4 Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you…For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.
- Colossians 2:12 [We were] buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Burial was the practice of Israel in the Old Testament and Christians in the early church. While pagans and heathens practiced cremation, the only time God’s people performed it was as a form of punishment.
- Do you have any thoughts on cremation versus burial?
- Can you think of any other reasons to choose burial over cremation?
- Can you think of any reasons people can choose cremation over burial?