What Does the Bible Say About Cremation?

What does the Bible say about cremation? Is it a sin to be cremated, or is the modern process of cremation irrelevant to what the Scriptures say about disposition by burning?

Christian views on cremation have always emphasized a high view of the human body. This is due to several factors, including the Creation story in Genesis 1-2 and the belief that mankind is created in God’s image, along with many additional Old Testament texts addressing the dignity of the body and New Testament docrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. These views have resulted in a tradition of burial in preference over cremation within the Christian community.

However, there are no explicit directions in Scripture against cremation, and the traditional preference towards burial may have developed partly in contrast to pagan practices of burning the deceased. The modern process of cremation is largely removed from the culture of such pagan practices, and the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead recognizes God’s ability to ressurect a believer no matter the condition of their physical body.

What the Bible Says About Cremation

First, the Bible does not specifically address the modern form of cremation using a technologically advanced furnace system. Thus, some Christians argue that cremation is permissible, since it is not forbidden in Scripture. (More on that below.)

However, there are several references in the Christian Scriptures to the burning of bodies after death. These Bible verses are relevant to the discussion of cremation.

Here they are:

I Samuel 31:11-13

The upshot: Saul, King of Israel, along with his sons, died in battle and was burned and his bones were buried.

Context: King Saul, his sons having been slain in battle against the Philistines, realized he was defeated and fell on his sword. The Philistines found his body and the bodies of his sons, cut off his head and fastened his body to a wall of Beth-Shan.

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.

I Samuel 31:11-13

Connotation: Saul did not follow God’s commands and was thus removed as king in favor of David. So the desecration of his body is an indication of God’s judgment on him. The fact that “the valiant men” came and rescued his body (and the bodies of his sons), however, is a sign of respect. Thus, the burning of the desecrated bodies can be seen as a cleansing act, wiping out the desecration done by the Philistines. Ultimately, in the bigger picture, the thrust of Scripture is that Saul was judged by the Lord.

Amos 2:1-3

The upshot: God promises judgment on Moab, because the king of Moab burned the bones of the king of Edom.

Context: The specific reference of this passage is unknown. This could be about the desecration of an ancestral tomb, excessive military force, or even (though most modern commentators do not hold this interpretation) a reference to II Kings 3:27, in which to king of Moab sacrifices his own son. In any case, it appears that it is the reason behind the burning rather than burning itself which warrants judgment.

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Moab,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because he burned to lime
the bones of the king of Edom.

Amos 2:1-3

Connotation: God judges the nation of Moab for many transgressions (“for three… and for four…”). The transgression listed is presumably the worst: That they burned the bones of the king of Edom.

Joshua 7:15 & 25

The upshot: Achan’s disobedience to God’s command results in the judgment that he be burned by fire.

Context: Israel had just made their first conquest in the Promised Land by triumphing over Jericho in the famous story of the walls tumbling down. God had commanded that everything in the city should be devoted to destruction. Anyone who kept any spoil from Jericho would be themselves “devoted to destruction” by being burned with fire. Achan, an Israelite, kept some gold, silver, and fine clothing, and received the judgment God promised.

“And he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.”

And Joshua said [to Achan], “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.

Joshua 7:15, 25

Connotation: Burning with fire is a clear sign of judgment for a great sin against God.

Leviticus 20:14 and 21:9

The upshot: Certain acts of sexual immorality were to be punished in ancient Israel by burning with fire.

Context: These are from the laws God gave to Moses on Sinai for the nation of Israel. Much like the Ten Commandments, these are the foundational laws of the nation of Israel.

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.

And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.

Leviticus 20:14, 21:9

Connotation: Burning with fire here, again, is a form of judgment. It is connected with great depravity.

Christian Views on Cremation

As you can see, the Bible clearly sees burning bodies in a negative light.

Some modern interpreters and teachers regard the modern practice of professional cremation as something entirely different from the ancient pagan practices of burning. One is an honorable way to return a loved one’s body to dust, the other is a wartime insult or Old Testament form of judgment, like the flood, which is no longer applicable today.

Others would argue that burning is burning, regardless of whether you disguise it in “cremation” terminology, and thus the Bible forbids cremation. The God of the Old Testament is unchanging and the same God of grace as shown in the New. If the Lord views burning bodies as a judgment and desecration back then, believers should too, in any age.

With those two views in mind – Pro and Con – let’s take a look at what Christians believe about cremation.

Protestant Christian Views on Cremation

Most Protestant Christian views on cremation are rooted in one or more of these seven arguments:

  1. Positively, the main examples of disposition in Scripture are burials, so burial should be preferred.
  2. Negatively, the Bible’s few references to cremation-like burnings are typically pagan and/or a judgment, so cremation should be avoided.
  3. Doctrinally, the honor accorded to the human body being made in the image of God and the emphasis on bodily resurrection indicates a preference for burial.
  4. Historically, Christians have uniquely shown a special care towards the departed by burying the dead, while cremation has often been associated with pagan practices.
  5. However, modern cremation is different, and not culturally identified with pagan practices, so the tension between burial and cremation no longer remains.
  6. The Bible does not directly address the issue, so it is not a matter of right or wrong but rather of freedom.
  7. Since all bodies eventually decompose, and God is able to resurrect any person, cremation and burial are both viable options.

The preference among Protestant Christian thinkers and authors tends towards burial, but most believers, churches, and Christian organizations seem to be open to cremation.

Roman Catholic Views on Cremation

Cremation is permitted in the Catholic Church, but from 1886 to 1963 the practice was forbidden entirely, as it was held to be a “pagan” practice and a denial of the doctrine of Resurrection.

In the early 19th century, with modern technology on the rise, cremation was becoming an acceptable and affordable option for disposition throughout Europe.

David W. Jones, in his informative essay To Bury or Burn: Toward A Christian Ethic of Cremation writes,

While the Protestant church remained silent on this issue, the Roman Catholic Church responded by officially banning cremation in canon law in 1886.

The relevant laws state, “The bodies of the faithful must be buried, their cremation is forbidden. . . . Anyone who has requested that his body shall be cremated shall be deprived of ecclesiastical burial unless he has shown signs of repentance before death.”

This ban, however, was fairly short-lived, as with his 1963 decree de Cadaverum Crematione Pope Paul VI softened canon law, allowing for cremation as long as the act is not motivated by reasons hostile to the Christian life.

Furthermore, in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church the faithful are instructed that “the Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”

To Bury or Burn: Toward A Christian Ethic of Cremation

Orthodox Christian Views on Cremation

The Eastern Orthodox Church has traditionally viewed cremation as a desecration of the body and does not permit cremation. The body is not separate from the soul, but the two are intertwined and thus should be treated with respect at all times. Cremation, or burning, is an indignity that should be avoided.

As one writer puts it,

Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are made of body and soul together, and neither is our complete person without the other. God created this material world good, and everything in it is good, and that includes our bodies. Not only is our body good, it became holy on the day of our Baptism and renewal into the life of Christ, and just like icons and the relics of saints, they are to be treated with respect.

Fr George Lardas

Questions About Cremation

Does the Bible say a cremated body can’t rise?

No. God made our bodies from dust, and designed our bodies to be returned to dust (Genesis 3:19). All Christian interpreters, theologians, and teachers agree that God is able to resurrect any body.

No matter how completely destroyed, or how long ago the person lived, God is capable of giving every believer a wholly perfected and renewed body at the resurrection.

Is I Corinthians 13:3 talking about cremation?

Probably not. In this verse, the Apostle Paul says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In context, he’s talking about sacrificial living – giving away your possessions, or standing up for God and the gospel (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are probably in mind here) are irrelevant if your heart is lacking the basic love of Christ.

Where in the Bible does it say “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”?

This phrase is not found in the Bible, but rather from the committal service order found in the Book of Common Prayer:

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother [Name]; and we commit his body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless
him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him
and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance
upon him and give him peace. Amen.

The phrase is inspired by Genesis 3:19, which in the King James Version reads, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Who was the first person cremated in the Bible?

The earliest mass judgment by fire is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24, where “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” 2 Peter 2:6 refers to the cities being turned “to ashes.”

The first mentioning of a specific person being burned or cremated in the Bible is Achan in Joshua 7:25, “And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.”

As noted above, how you answer this will depend on whether you see modern cremation as synonymous with ancient burning practices.

Was Saul cremated?

Essentially, yes. His body was burned by fire:

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.

I Samuel 31:11-13

The real question from this passage, for modern readers inquiring about cremation, is this: Is this cremation a sign of respect and an act of dignity? Or is it a further sign of God’s judgment on Saul? It is not an easy question to answer.

Is cremation a sin?

The Bible does not forbid the practice of cremation. In fact, as we saw in Leviticus 20 and 21, God commanded cremation in some cases. Of course, those instances were judgment for utterly depraved sin, so this is certainly not a commendation of the practice.

Again, the question comes back to this one: Is modern day cremation the same as ancient pyre burnings? Some interpreters say yes, others say no.

Based on the unifying beliefs of Christians past and present, I would venture to say that cremation is not a sin, but it does not honor the body as the image of God and picture hope we have of bodily resurrection in the same way that traditional Christian burial does.

What does the Bible say about keeping ashes?

Remarkably, the Bible actually talks about keeping ashes in (or at least near) the home. The ashes in question are from a young female cow, and the ashes are used to mix into ceremonial water used for purification.

Let’s take a look.

The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering.

Numbers 19:8-9

These instructions are for making the water for purification when someone becomes ceremonially unclean. The water is mixed with the ashes from the heifer, then they dip a hyssop branch and use that to sprinkle the person (or tent, house, object, etc) that is unclean.

This is what David is talking about in Psalm 51:7 where he says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

When Jesus turned water into wine at the Cana wedding, John 2:6 says he used the “six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.” Those jars were typically filled with water and ashes. They were stone, huge (20+ gallons!) and thus immoveable. So we can imply that they were keeping this near where they were living.

And it is this same purifying ash-water that the writer of Hebrews refers to here:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Hebrews 9:13-14

Now, are these passages addressing the question of cremation and keeping your loved one’s ashes in the home? No. But they are instructive – the ashes from an animal were actually used in the purification process. At the very least, I think we can safely say it is not wrong to keep animal ashes in the home. For human ashes, the answer lies in whether you view the Scriptures as permitting or forbidding cremation.

Many Christians hold each view. I encourage you to study the relevant passages, and read further in the following resources.

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