Is Cremation Ungodly?
This is a question for which I could easily be dogmatic and make a strong case for the “yes” side of the question and leave it there. However, I think it might be best to leave that argument to A. J. Pollock, an esteemed brother long ago with the Lord whose booklet I have referenced below. Here I would like to stand on the apostle’s word in Romans 14:5b—“Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.” As some say, “this is not a hill I am willing to die on.” We can be gracious to allow for a difference of opinion. I believe Scripture does give guidance, but today there are also reasons to consider the “no” side of this question.
Consider the dichotomy implied by the title of the booklet by A. J. Pollock. Let’s see how far that applies today. Is all cremation “pagan”? Does cremation in every case signal a person’s atheistic challenge to God to put back together what man has spread in the ocean (or wherever)? Time and culture need to be considered. There are countries (cultures) where cremation is closely related to non-Christian (or anti-Christian) beliefs. This method of disposing of the dead may be surrounded with pagan ritual. In this case, it seems pretty obvious that a Christian would want to distance themselves as far as possible from such a ritual. In addition, the Christian would want to show faith in the resurrection as opposed, say, to reincarnation into another creature.
Does this apply to Western culture? In the past, it would have been necessary to consider a different motivation. An atheist might choose cremation in defiance of the faith in resurrection. It was considered a challenge to God to resurrect what had been scattered over the ocean or elsewhere. Of course, this is foolish. But, at that time, ordinary burial would have been the normal choice for a Christian as a witness to the superior power of God over death to bring to life the very body of the loved one who had “fallen asleep.”
This does not seem to be as relevant today. In our secular society, even atheists don’t bother with such arguments. In an odd way, this allows us to consider other aspects. Three reasons that I have heard are cost, the space taken up in burial, and possibly an environmental impact from the chemicals used for embalming. Of these, cost is the only one that seems significant to me.
Some might want to visit a grave of a loved one. But, they are no longer here. As a believer, I know they are with the Lord. If one wanted to “remember” a loved one it seems a gathering of relatives in a home would be appropriate. After all, we have the most significant remembrance of our most beloved “loved one” every Lord’s day morning (in most cases) not in Jerusalem, but right in the town in which we live.
Now, the most forceful argument for “Christian burial” comes from the examples given in Scripture itself. There are many examples of saints in Scripture being buried (Gen. 23:1-4, 35:19:20, Matt. 14:12, Jn 19:40, Acts 8:2, Heb. 11:22). There are examples of “heathen” (non-believers) being burned (cremated) either deliberately (Amos 2:1-3) or coincidentally (Judg. 15:6). In addition, it was a special mark of dishonor to be left in the field (2 Ki. 9:37).
In all this, it must be remembered that all the above has to do with public testimony. The method by which the body is disposed of is sometimes beyond our control as when a person’s body is destroyed by fire in some disaster or lost at sea. The burial or non-burial has no impact on the disposition of the soul.
Finally, if what is important is a testimony to the resurrection at a memorial, an ordinary burial seems the most appropriate. However, it needs to be remembered that the same kind of memorial could be carried out while burying ashes. So, after all my thinking about this subject I must conclude that ordinary burial is to be preferred but that if someone, for whatever reason, wanted to be cremated and have an appropriate memorial for the preaching of the gospel as is normally done at a burial, those wishes should be honored without disparagement.