Ask RC: Does the Bible say anything about cremation?
No. Cremation, however, may have something to say about the Bible. The proper handling of human bodies after death is not something the Bible expressly deals with. There are sundry ceremonial laws in the Old Covenant about touching dead bodies, but no instruction on what to do with these bodies. As such we need to be careful not to condemn what the Bible does not condemn. How though, could cremation speak to the Bible?
Cremation, strange as it may sound, is a form of liturgy. It is a form for dealing with matters of eternal consequence. As a form it in turn communicates a message. That message, it seems, does speak against the Bible’s understanding of death. Cremation, however subtly, suggests that our bodies are of no significance or import, that they are simply so much trash that must be burned. It is implicitly a Gnostic practice, a denial of the goodness of the creation in general and the human body in particular.
Burial, on the other hand, communicates something far more consistent with the Bible. It affirms not only that the human body has dignity, but also that it has a future. It affirms that death is not the end of the body. Consider for a moment why so many cemeteries have in their name some variation on the notion of “Garden.” That cemeteries are well kept and green is consistent with our dignity, but that is not what “Garden” in this context communicates. Because of the promise of the gospel, because of the promise of the resurrection, we are not so much burying the bodies of our loved ones when they pass, as planting them. We are put in the ground to wait for the return of Christ when our corruptible bodies will be made incorruptible.
The practice of burial is so closely identified with the Christian perspective on death and the human body that anthropologists track the spread of the Christian faith westward across Europe through history by looking to the spread of cemeteries. They know that Christianity came to dominate a given region at that time that cemeteries came into use.
Anytime we consider how our behavior communicates we need to be careful. On the one hand we don’t want to be Gnostic enough to suggest that our bodies, and how we treat them are meaningless and communicate nothing. On the other hand this does not mean that anyone who ever approved or requested a cremation has self-consciously denied the gospel and affirmed Gnosticism. Of course buried bodies decompose. And of course, better still, cremated bodies will in fact be resurrected. Nothing we do can undo the promises of God and the glory of the resurrection. Balance, however, suggests that we think through our behavior, that we think deliberately. Balance also suggests that we ought to honor our fathers who gave us this liturgy in the first place.
One cannot say that cremation is a sin. One might say that burial better reflects the biblical perspective on life, death and the body. One can say with certainty that Christ will come again, and our bodies will be raised again, never to die again.