Question: Is cremation a proper alternative to Christian burial?
Answer: For this question, we need to reflect on the Christian witness overtly connected to our responses to death. We also need to respect our human feelings (and those of others) and acknowledge the importance of a healthy process in dealing with loss.
The Bible teaches us that the human body is God’s creation, and that God’s will for our eternal existence includes a redeemed, glorified body like that of the risen Jesus (Phil. 3:21). When death occurs, the human spirit is separated from the body (James 2:26). For a Christian, this absence from the body means to be personally present with the Lord, more than ever before (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Yet the fullness of redemption will not be accomplished apart from a body (Rom. 8:23). Theologians and Bible students disagree over whether the new body is received immediately after death or later, at the time of Christ’s second coming (compare 2 Cor. 5:1 and 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). The most important point is that there will be a new body.
In light of the Christian expectation of bodily resurrection and the fact that our present bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:19-20), many Christians historically have felt that cremation was not appropriate, since it reduces the body to “ashes.” That, of course, in no way hinders God’s power to provide us with new bodies which are immortal. Cremation would not hinder resurrection any more than would a person’s death in an explosion. Furthermore, countless millions have died so long ago that their bodies have disintegrated and scattered to the extent that only God could possibly gather them together again.
Because of advances in understanding the nature of the human body, we can recognize that God does not have to use the same molecules that are in your present, mortal body when he gives you a new, immortal body. Those molecules are being periodically replaced with new ones during earthly life anyway. Realization of this (and consideration of other factors such as cost and land use) has brought cremation into more frequent use among Christians over the last century. Churches which at one time forbade it (such as the Roman Catholic) no longer do so.
So burial is not essential for one’s participation in the resurrection. Some, indeed, will be alive when Jesus comes and will be changed into immortal bodies without actually dying (1 Cor. 15:51). That does not mean, however, that we should be careless or disrespectful in what we do with the remains of one who has died. Because bodily existence is God’s plan, and because that person’s presence with us was embodied, and our interaction with that person was in the body, we will want to treat the body with respect and dignity. Reverence for life should apply for burial, cremation, organ donation, and other issues.
All such matters should properly be the decisions of responsible persons close to the deceased (usually carrying out the wishes of that person). In my view, it is just as Christian to choose cremation as burial. Whether burial or cremation is chosen, there needs also to be appropriate recognition of the fact of death and the reality of our loss and grief, and the reaffirmation of our trust and hope in God’s provision for our future.
[Note: I have had more requests for copies of this Plumb Line article than all the rest of the articles put together.]