For the first time in American history, a majority of Americans (50.2 percent) have chosen cremation rather than burial (48.5 percent) after their death. The National Funeral Directors Association expects the trend shifting from burial toward cremation to continue over the next 20 years, with the projected rate of cremation reaching 78.8 percent of deaths by 2035.
Here is what Christians should know about cremation:
What exactly is cremation?
Cremation is a funerary process in which intense heat is used to transform the human body back to its basic elements. Most of the body, such as tissue, is vaporized, leaving only the remains of bone. The remaining bone particles are commonly referred to as cremains or ashes.
What is the cremation process?
The cremation process occurs in the cremation chamber (sometimes called the retort), a masonry-lined enclosure that can produce and withstand temperatures in the range of 1800°F to 2000°F.
The deceased body is placed in a casket made of wood or cardboard and placed in the chamber. Within a few hours the body is vaporized and reduced to bone fragments. These fragments are removed from the cremation chamber and placed on a table where the crematory operator removes, by hand or with a magnet, all metal debris such as screws, nails, surgical pins or titanium limbs/joints.
The fragments are then placed in a special processor that pulverizes the bone to a fine powder. These cremains are placed in a plastic bag within an urn or a temporary cremation container and returned to the deceased’s family.
Does the Bible mention cremation?
The first mention of cremation in the Bible is 1 Samuel 31, where Saul and his sons are burned and then their bones buried:
But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days. (1 Sam. 31:11-13)
The Philistines had cut off Saul’s head (v. 9), and the bodies were likely mutilated and decaying by the time the men of Israel retrieved the remains. As Rodney J. Decker says, “It was probably considered more honorable to cremate the royal retinue than attempt to haul the mutilated, stinking bodies elsewhere for the usual Jewish burial ceremonies.”
The only other references to cremation are in the book of Amos (2:1 and 6:8-10). None of these references reflects the normative funerary practices of God’s people. On 200 occasions in the Old Testament burial is mentioned as the standard disposition of dead bodies.
(Leviticus 20:14 and Leviticus 20:14 indirectly mention cremation, since they involve capital punishment that requires the offender to be “burned with fire.”)
Is cremation a sin, or is it an ethical option for Christians?
The consensus among most Christian traditions—including evangelicals—is that because the Bible does not directly forbid cremation, it is not a sin. As Timothy George says, “While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation.”
However, there is a divide about whether it is prudent and acceptable for Christians to choose cremation. John MacArthur, for example, has said, “the state of what remains of the old body is unimportant” and that we need not focus on “how to dispose of our earthly bodies.”
“Obviously any buried body will eventually decompose (Eccles. 12:7),” MacArthur adds, “So cremation isn't a strange or wrong practice—it merely accelerates the natural process of oxidation.”
In contrast, Russell Moore counsels Christians to reject cremation:
The question is not simply whether cremation is always a personal sin. The question is not whether God can reassemble “cremains.” The question is whether burial is a Christian act and, if so, then what does it communicate?
Of course God can resurrect a cremated Christian. He can also resurrect a Christian burned at the stake, or a Christian torn to pieces by lions in a Roman coliseum, or a Christian digested by a great white shark off the coast of Florida.
But are funerals simply the way in which we dispose of remains? If so, graveyards are unnecessary, too. Why not simply toss the corpses of our loved ones into the local waste landfill?
For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing. It is caring for a person. In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the “real” person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.
How should Christians determine whether to choose burial or cremation?
David Jones, professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, outlines three questions we should consider:
1. What Moral Norm(s) Apply in This Situation?
2. Which Method Best Demonstrates Love of God and Love of Neighbor?
3. Which Method Would Bring the Most Glory to God?
Jones explains how to think about these questions and concludes:
Despite the church's historic preference for burial, not all deaths afford loved ones an opportunity to choose the method of interment. Factors such as the location and manner of death, nation-specific legal parameters, as well as the resources of the surviving family will bear on funerary practices and decisions. However, if given a choice, contemporary believers open to cremation would be wise to carefully consider the practice and evaluate it in light of God's Word.
After all, within the Christian tradition funerals aren't simply ways of disposing of dead bodies, nor are they about remembering the departed or expressing grief. Rather, for believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying throughout to the message and hope of the gospel.
(Jones has also written a more extensive article—“To Bury or Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation”—for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. The linked version has been posted with the journal’s permission.)
What about Christians who can’t afford non-cremation options?
A common reason why Christians choose cremation is to avoid the expense related to funeral service and burial. A traditional funeral can often cost around $8,000 to $10,000, while the average cost of cremation averages only $1,500 to $2,500.
Before choosing cremation because of cost, Christians should consider more affordable burial options.
In the United States, the Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), makes it possible for a person to choose only those goods and services they want or need and to pay only for those they select, whether they are making arrangements when a death occurs or in advance. Included in the options that all funeral homes must offer are direct burial and natural burial.
A direct burial service includes a modest wood (or cardboard) container, no embalming, and immediate burial in a cemetery within 24 hours. No state law requires either embalming or the use of a casket for burial, so a body can be directly interred in the earth, in a shroud, or in a vault without a casket.
Almost every state also allows for a natural burial, which allows the body to be interred without having to pay the cost of a vault.
Because the average grave spot (i.e., funeral plot) costs $1,000 and the digging of the grave costs $1,000, the cost of burial can be about equal to the cost of cremation. The cost could be reduced even further, though, if more churches would reinstitute the practice of using a portion of their land to be used for a church cemetery. If more grave spots were located on church properties, they could be provided for free to Christians unable to afford a burial plot.