What does the Bible say about cremation? The Bible includes three references to cremation, compared to hundreds of references to burial, the dominant form of post-mortem care in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible depicts the physical body as part of God’s good creation as well as something God will restore in the final resurrection. Jews and Christians throughout history have largely chosen burial in keeping with the symbolic preservation of the body until the final resurrection. However, with its convenience and efficiency, cremation has grown increasingly popular among religious and non-religious alike.
What does the Bible say about cremation? The question matters.
In the year 2015, cremation beat out traditional burial for the first time as Americans’ most popular post-mortem destination for their bodies. Cremation continues to grow in popularity, with estimates that the percentage will rise to 80% by 2040. Reasons for choosing cremation over burial range from cost savings to land conservation to being able to creatively use the ashes to honor and remember the deceased.
So, with all signs pointing up and to the right for cremation’s popularity, I’m grateful for anyone who takes the time to check out an article like this to pause and consider if this direction is good. Even when cultural trajectories guide us a particular direction, it is important for disciples of Jesus to pause and ask whether it’s the right direction for us. Even in an increasingly post-Christian culture, there are many of us who want to know what the Bible teaches about 21st century concerns, and that’s good.
“There are many of us who want to know what the Bible teaches about 21st century concerns, and that’s good.”
For some readers, this topic will mainly be a matter of theological curiosity. For them, I hope this article provides a helpful exercise in how to wrestle with a topic which isn’t nearly as straightforward as John 3:16. For other readers, this topic is very personal and needs to be treated with sensitivity. Perhaps you’re a Christian reflecting on a past or future decision who is honestly debating whether one option is more biblically faithful than the other. In whatever way this article engages you, I hope that the tone is pastoral and the content is helpful as you pursue biblical faithfulness in how you think and what you do.
What does the Bible say about cremation? Surprisingly little.
Although it does offer answers to life’s biggest questions, the Bible wasn’t written primarily to be an answer book, laying out systematic answers to our questions. At core, it’s a collection of 66 books, with each book making its own contribution to the grand story the Bible narrates of God creating and restoring his creation. So, we don’t open the Bible to the section which details what we as Christians are to do with corpses; such a section doesn’t exist. Although the Bible sometimes mentions burning as a way people were killed, there are only three mentions of cremation, as in purposely reducing a corpse to ashes.
What does the Bible say about cremation? “There are three mentions of cremation, as in purposely reducing a corpse to ashes.”
The first mention of cremation is set in the story of Israel’s first king, Saul. Saul and his three sons died in battle against the Philistines, after which the Philistines cut off the king’s head, stripped off his armor, and fastened his and his sons’ bodies to a wall. Mighty men of the ancient Israelite town of Jabesh-Gilead risked their lives recovering the bodies.
“They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.” (1 Sam. 31:12b-13)
This story depicts cremation as a way the residents of Jabesh-Gilead felt they could honor their fallen, beheaded king, as well as perhaps to prevent any further degradation to his body in the future.
Conversely, the second mention of cremation describes the practice as a disrespectful way one nation treated the corpse of an enemy:
This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not relent. Because he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king, I will send fire on Moab.” (Amos 2:1-2a)
What does the Bible say about cremation? “Because he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king, I will send fire on Moab.”
For some context, even Jehu, after having the idolatrous queen Jezebel killed, said, “Take care of that cursed woman and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter” (2 Kings 9:34).
The Bible’s third and final mention of cremation, also in the book of Amos, is very difficult to understand. Given in the context of judgment, Amos was communicating that even the survivors (in this case, ten people) would die. There are ten people killed at once, perhaps by a plague or a military slaughter, and verse 10 passively mentions a relative assigned to burn the corpses (“the relative who comes to carry the bodies out of the house to burn them”). Unfortunately, there’s just not enough information to draw a conclusion regarding what this tells us about cremation.
Those are the three biblical references to cremation, yet the article continues on. Why? It’s because the Bible actually has a lot to say regarding the preferred Jewish way to say goodbye to a dead body.
What does the Bible talk about instead of cremation?
Throughout the Bible, bodies are buried after death. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah were all buried in the same cave, the “Cave of Machpelah” (Gen. 49:30-32; 50:13). We read about the burial of Miriam, Aaron, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, David, Solomon, and dozens of other lesser known figures throughout the Old Testament. There are around 200 total references to burial in the Bible. Interestingly, it was God himself who buried Moses (Deut. 34:6). Even after the bodies of King Saul and his sons were burned, their bones were buried. Although many families had their own burial plots, there were also public cemeteries for people without family (Jer. 26:23).
Likewise, in the New Testament, we read of the burials of John the Baptist, Ananias and Sapphira, Stephen, and of course Jesus (getting special mention in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as part of the gospel, alongside Jesus’ death and resurrection). Burial was the Jewish way, and it became the Christian way as well.
A Difference of Worldviews
Not surprisingly, a people’s worldview often influenced what they did with their dead. For example, cremation was sometimes done by people who were afraid of the ghost otherwise sticking around and haunting the living. Or cremation could be performed as an offering of sorts, by which gods could receive the corpse as a sacrifice. Embalming and mummification were done as a means of preserving the body for the afterlife.
Likewise, it was because of their worldview, not the practices of their neighbors, that the ancient Jews embraced burial as their standard practice. The physical body was part of what God had created and called good. The human body is an integral part of the only creature that God created in his own image. The Bible doesn’t teach the idea that the soul is imprisoned in a body awaiting release; rather, at death the soul separates from the body and is incomplete until resurrection and reunification with its body. Jewish thought traditionally teaches that, in the end, there will be a resurrection of the dead which reunites the physical body with the soul. These worldview considerations fit burial of an intact body better than cremation, a practice for which Jews and Christians historically tended to have disdain.
What does the Bible say about cremation? “In the end, there will be a resurrection of the dead which reunites the physical body with the soul.”
Christians inherited these beliefs and, if anything, intensified them. Jesus spoke of the resurrection of the dead (John 5:28) and then died and rose in a way that showed us a living-color template for our own re-embodiment at the final resurrection. Paul, who more than any other New Testament writer described the imperishable body we will be given in the end, was a self-declared Pharisee who very much believed in the final resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6-8).
Sparks flew between early Christians and their pagan neighbors over the issue, most notably in the writings of church leader Tertullian. He claimed that, through cremation, the Roman people “burn up its dead with harshest inhumanity.” Some branches of Christianity have gone on to take strong stances against cremation, such as the Roman Catholics who around 1300 made cremation a matter of excommunication (though since Vatican II this stance has softened).
So, is cremation a sin?
For this kind of question, it’s really helpful to step back and clarify that not every doctrine or practice within our faith is equal in importance. At Renew.org, we point people to three levels of elements within the Christian faith:
- Essential elements – These are what a person must believe to be true (or what must be true of a person) in order for the person to be saved. For Christians, these center on the gospel, which includes such events as the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- Important elements – These are secondary elements which are taught in the Bible which we need to pursue as a matter of pursuing faithfulness to the way of Jesus. However, they do not save us.
- Personal elements – These are elements which involve personal preferences or truths about which the Bible doesn’t give us decisive evidence one way or the other.
The Bible certainly doesn’t include postmortem instructions as anything close to an “essential element” of the faith. And it doesn’t even directly tell us one way or the other whether we should bury or cremate, so it’s hard to see how this topic could fall even under “important elements” we pursue out of faithfulness to Jesus. Rather, as a matter of personal preference, this seems to fit well in the category of “personal elements.”
“The Bible certainly doesn’t include postmortem instructions as anything close to an ‘essential element’ of the faith.”
Yet, one of the misconceptions when it comes to personal elements is that it doesn’t matter what we do with them. Actually, when it comes to matters the Bible doesn’t directly address, this is our cue to seek wisdom by reflecting on what we do know from Scripture.
Should a Christian Be Cremated? Why Some Say Yes
There’s nothing in the Bible or in church history to suggest that Christians should cremate, but is there anything to suggest that they shouldn’t? Christians have made the case that there’s certainly nothing wrong with the practice. Some have said that, just as we are destined to go “from dust to dust” (Gen. 3:19), cremation merely hastens the process. And even if some cultures have religious rationales for cremating, for current Western culture, it’s mainly just a matter of efficiency, conserving both money and space, as well as greater access and even creativity (e.g., scattering ashes in meaningful places, utilizing ash in tattoo ink, etc.). Rather than dragging feet on technological advancement, it is argued that Christians ought to be able to embrace cremation whenever it’s the best option for them. All too often Christians have been too hesitant to embrace what ends up being helpful technological advances.
“There’s nothing in the Bible or in church history to suggest that Christians should cremate, but is there anything to suggest that they shouldn’t?”
Others emphasize that it is more therapeutic for the mourners when they don’t have to consider the slow process of decomposition. Cremation is a matter of hours of decomposition versus what could be seen as a dishonoring process of slow decay. Especially if someone’s physical body has brought them much suffering, it might also be comforting to know that this body is done and gone, with something far better in store at the final resurrection. To be fair, what is therapeutic to one person might not be for the next; the process of incinerating a body and vaporizing the majority of its contents can be described in terms no less disturbing.
Should a Christian Be Cremated? Why Some Say No
Others say that cremation is not a good option for Christians because it goes against the grain of what Christians believe about the body and the resurrection. Unlike other religions and philosophies which present the body as something we get to someday escape, the physical body in Christianity is a good thing. Our bodies are even called “temples” of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).
The body is something which will, in the end, be restored. Even though we are promised a resurrected, imperishable body, there is a sense in which we should expect it to be somehow recognizable as our body (e.g., John 20:27). It is our original bodies which will come out of their graves (John 5:28-29) and undergo transformation into a new, imperishable form. Jesus will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21b). Russell Moore of Christianity Today has written,
“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.”
What does the Bible say about cremation? “The body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the ‘real’ person.”
But a practical problem with this view arises. Are we really supposed to think that, by choosing burial instead of cremation, we can somehow preserve the body intact for the coming resurrection? Maybe if the resurrection is right around the corner, but it would have to come very quickly! In the end, all that remains of a decomposed body is the bones, as we see displayed in the ancient Jewish practice of gathering up the bones after decomposition into ossuaries (bone boxes). And then, within a century, even the bones disintegrate into dust. Thus, the end of a corpse is the same whether buried or cremated.
So, any “preservation” for the final resurrection through burial is symbolic, not practical. Should symbolic considerations weigh anything in our time?
Do Our Symbols Matter?
I was blessed to know the late Christian philosopher and apologist Norman Geisler. “Stormin’ Norman” was actually very kindhearted and even grandfatherly, but he was unintimidated to take unpopular stands. One was his conviction that cremation isn’t a good option for Christians. He told us that he had the perfect book title, but no publisher wanted to touch it: Should Christians Make Ashes of Themselves? In 2016, he and Douglas Potter did write a book on cremation, and they called it What in Cremation Is Going On?: A Christian Guide to Post Mortem Decisions. In it, Geisler and Potter make the case that what we do with symbols is important. Note their use of the phrase “symbolically appropriate”:
“Admittedly there is no direct command regarding burial or prohibition of cremation. However, burial is the pattern or symbol set down in Scripture. And it is a reasonable inference drawn from biblical truths. Thus, we believe the evidence supports the conclusion that Christians, if at all possible, should practice burial. It is more symbolically appropriate to do so. However, there may be circumstances that make burial unwise, against the law, or even impossible.”
What does the Bible say about cremation? “There is no direct command regarding burial or prohibition of cremation. However, burial is the pattern or symbol set down in Scripture.”
Burial merely delays the body’s decomposition, but it can’t prevent it. So what does burial actually do? In modeling Jesus’ burial, our burial symbolically preserves and readies our bodies for the final resurrection. Cremating a body loses this symbolism and some have suggested that it can even risk disrespecting the symbol.
So, What’s the Real Question?
The English word “cemetery” has a fascinating etymology. The word originates from the Greek word koimeterion, which meant “sleeping place” or “dormitory.” It was early Christians who took this Greek word and used it for the place of their dead. Why use this word? It’s because, in Christian thought, the dead are really just “sleeping” (John 11:11; 1 Cor. 15:6) as they await being awakened someday. Using words like “sleep” to refer to death and “dormitory” to refer to the place of the dead were reminders to Christians of the reality of the final resurrection to come. In the same way, burial can act as a reminder of this core conviction for Christians.
Western culture is entering a phase of amnesia when it comes to its Judeo-Christian heritage, and it would seem that the popularity of cremation over burial is yet another symptom.
What does the Bible say about cremation? “In Christian thought, the dead are really just ‘sleeping.'”
Yet this does not boil down to a question of what’s a sin and what’s not. Neither is it a question of what must always be done in every situation. Even someone who favors burial as a general principle ought to acknowledge exceptions, such as local laws, environmental conditions, personal finances, or the need to get a plague under control. Although the story of Saul and his sons’ cremation/burial isn’t a directive for Christians, it does seem to be a portrayal in the Bible of cremation as an honorable and merciful exception to the norm, considering the circumstances of the bodies’ dismemberment and degradation. I might also mention that, for those who favor burial, it’s not as though every facet of modern burials, such as expensive, non-biodegradable caskets, need be grandfathered in as an essential part of the Christian way of doing things.
The real question, I believe, is a question of whether to participate in this symbolic reminder of your Christian heritage and convictions or to join the majority of your peers who are choosing convenience but possibly losing some of their memory in the process.
 Norman L. Geisler and Douglas E. Potter, What in Cremation Is Going On?: A Christian Guide to Post Mortem Decisions (Bastion Books, 2016), Kindle Edition, p. 76.
 For some novel and helpful possibilities on how to make burial more affordable, see Joe Carter, “The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Cremation,” The Gospel Coalition, September 20, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-faqs-what-christians-should-know-about-cremation/.