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Although burning the remains of the dead is mentioned a few times in the Bible, the modern practice of cremation is not specifically addressed. One account describes a man being stoned and then burned due to his reprehensible behavior (Joshua 7:24-25). Another refers to “valiant” men who rescued and burned the remains of King Saul and his sons to prevent further dishonorable treatment of their bodies (1 Samuel 31:8-12).
There is nothing in Scripture that indicates that the modern practice of cremation is inappropriate. Decisions on how to treat the remains of loved ones seem to be largely guided by the culture in which one lives. Following is a discussion of the subject of cremation by The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which illustrates how burial customs varied from culture to culture.
“Cremation, while the customary practice of the ancient Greeks, and not unknown among the Romans, was certainly not the ordinary mode of disposing of the dead among the Hebrews or other oriental peoples. Even among the Greeks, bodies were often buried without being burned (Thuc. i. 134, 6; Plato Phaedo 115 E; Plut. Lyc. xxvii). Cicero thought that burial was the more ancient practice, though among the Romans both methods were in use in his day (De leg. ii.22, 56). Lucian (De luctu xxi) expressly says that, while the Greeks burned their dead, the Persians buried them (see BURIAL, and compare 2Sa 21:12-14)” (“Cremation”).
We should add that there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that the Hebrew practice was based on God’s instructions. God simply did not decree a right or wrong about this subject. However, burial was the norm, as depicted in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). And the bones of Joseph were important enough to be maintained and carried out of Egypt. Ultimately, the fate of the wicked is to become ashes under the feet of the righteous (Malachi 4:3).
Clearly, cremation has become culturally acceptable in the present Western world. According to Everlife Memorials, “In 1999, there were 1,468 crematories and 595,617 cremations, a percentage of 25.39% of all deaths in the United States.” The Cremation Association of North America reports that the percentage had risen to over 34 percent by 2007 and projects that the figure will be over 55 percent by 2025.
Some people are concerned whether cremation stems from pagan religious practices, but as previously noted, the Bible neither condemns nor condones the practice. Had it been sinful, God would have condemned it just as He did other misguided religious customs. Therefore, what believers do is entirely a matter of personal choice.
Cremation in no way interferes with God’s ability to resurrect the dead—to give us life after death. People have died in countless ways throughout history, from accidents to warfare to being lost at sea, and yet, God will still resurrect them in the future. How can He do that without a body?
Consider how God will resurrect any of the dead. He will not simply put life back into bodies, for that would be possible only if He returned someone to life immediately after dying. The reality is that even if the body remains intact upon death, it will eventually decompose. Plainly speaking, the bodies of most people who have lived since creation will no longer exist by the time of the resurrection.
As Ecclesiastes 12:7 notes: “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was.…” All physical bodies decay after death. The verse concludes with the words, “and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Some erroneously interpret this as a reference to righteous souls going to heaven. However, the context shows this analysis is wrong. For one thing, the verse says that the spirit of everyone who dies goes back to God who gave it. The context speaks of aging and death taking their natural course in every person. Clearly then, these verses are not speaking only of a spirit within the righteous dead going to God upon death.
What is the spirit in man? Is it an immortal soul within a physical body? It may surprise you to learn that the Bible nowhere teaches the doctrine of an immortal soul. A counterfeit Christianity adopted this belief from ancient pagan religion. The Bible speaks of a mortal soul, not an immortal one; and it draws a distinction between “soul” and “spirit.” We read in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit.”
The Bible uses the word “soul” to mean a living being. Notice Genesis 2:7 in the King James Version: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Thus, the Bible says that Adam did not have a soul; he was a living soul. The phrase in the Hebrew from which “soul” is translated means, a living, breathing being. The language conveys nothing immortal. To the contrary, a temporary, mortal nature.
The Bible teaches that the spirit in man is a nonphysical component that allows humans to have self-awareness, intellect, creativity, personality and temperament—everything that enables human accomplishment and the ability to gain all knowledge short of true spiritual understanding (1 Corinthians 2:11).
Now the reason the spirit of man would return to God upon death becomes plain. The spirit in man serves as the permanent record of the deceased and by this record, God will resurrect the person at the appointed time (1 Corinthians 15:23). By way of analogy, it’s possible to recreate a destroyed building if one has the blueprints of the original. Similarly, God is able to reconstruct a person by the record preserved in the spirit in man.
Therefore, cremation is an acceptable means of dealing with the dead. Cremation does not conflict with the Bible nor does it interfere with God’s ability to resurrect the dead. Those who are considering cremation should also consider the impact of their decision on their survivors. For many people, a funeral and the ensuing interment is an opportunity to show one final act of love and respect for the deceased. Would cremation provide them with the sense of loving closure they need? Prior to making a decision to have one’s remains cremated, we recommend that people discuss these matters with family members to be sure they are also comfortable with this decision.