From Heaven or From Men

By Clinton D. Hamilton

Cremation at death is being practiced in the United States more widely than in the past. Many see it as a way to cut down on the expenses of one’s death. To some people it is appealing because it prevents the decaying corruption of the flesh.

The focus of attention in this article is cremation. Christians are beginning to ask whether it is acceptable pursuant to the teaching of the Bible. Men have always been interested in the way in which the demise of themselves or loved ones is handled. Those who are Christians want to be sure that what they do is acceptable.

Question: Brother Hamilton, please give me your thinking on cremation for Christians. Answer in the Guardian of Truth.

Response: Cremation is an ancient practice and prevalent in several countries, such as India. It was generally practiced in the ancient world except in Egypt, Judea, and China. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, these three countries were important exceptions to the general rule. In Egypt, the dead were embalmed and so were Jacob and Joseph (Gen. 50:3,26). Burying in sepulchres was the practice in Judea and numerous references to this are in both Old and New Testaments. Corpses were buried in the ground in China. This is probably the prevailing custom in the United States and many other western societies.

The word of God gives no specific instructions for Christians about how to deal with a dead body. It would, therefore, be presumptuous to detail how it should be done. However, there is much said about what did occur with the disposing of dead bodies. The first time that burial is mentioned is in Genesis 23. The children of Heth offered Abraham any sepulchre he might desire in which to bury Sarah but Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah as a permanent burying place. Jacob received at his request a promise from Joseph to bury him in the burying place of his fathers (Gen. 47:27-31). When he died, his sons took him out of Egypt and buried him in the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 50:12-14). Joseph was embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt (Gen. 50:26).

Jacob related much about the burying place purchased and said that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were all buried there (Gen. 49:29-33). When Moses led the people out of Egypt, and as Joseph had requested, Joseph’s bones were carried to Canaan (Exod. 13:19). After they reached Canaan, Joseph’s bones were finally buried in Shechem (Josh. 24:32).

When Moses died, God buried him in the valley of Moab but no one knew where his sepluchre was (Deut. 34:5-6). According to the custom of the Jews, Jesus was prepared for burial and laid in a new tomb (Jn. 19:38-42; Matt. 27:57-61; Mk. 15:42-47; Lk. 23:50-56). When John the baptizer was beheaded by Herod, his disciples took his corpse and buried it (Matt. 14:10-12). At the death of Ananias and Sapphira, they were taken and buried (Acts 5:6-10).

It is in the tenor of the accounts and references made above that one reads in the Bible concerning the handling of corpses. However, there were occasions when men were burned. This burning is not spoken of as cremation nor as the normal way in which bodies were disposed. If a man took both a wife and her mother, they all were to be burned (Lev. 20:14). Achan and his family were burned with fire (Josh. 7:25). King Josiah sought to rid Israel of the idolatry which kings before him had brought into Israel. He took away the high places of Samaria and slew all the priests that were there and burned men’s bones on the altars (2 Kgs. 23:19-20; 2 Chron. 34:3-5). There are no instances of cremation as the method of disposing of the dead among the Jews in the biblical record.

Basically, it appears that this is a matter in the New Testament left to the judgment, discretion, and preference of individuals. However, it is striking that among God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments there is no mention of cremation as the means of handling a body at death.

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 20, p. 5
October 21, 1993