A Fish Hooks reader asks about the practice of cremation: it’s remembered that it was once either forbidden or viewed with distaste by most Christian denominations but seems now to be widely accepted. What gives with that? Why was it once regarded so poorly? And why has this changed?
All Biblical authorities, both Jewish and Christian, agree that there is no specific scriptural commandment against cremation. Yet, until relatively recently, it was a strictly forbidden practice for both Jews and Christians. Today, it is still forbidden for Orthodox and Conservative Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians. But, provided the ashes are then handled appropriately, cremation is now considered acceptable by Reform Jews, Roman Catholics, and most Protestants (including Lutherans).
We should begin our discussion with an important truth recognized by both Jews and Christians: God created humans for a special purpose – we are not simply a higher form of animal, but beings created in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). This does not, of course, mean that we look like Him, but is a way of saying that we were created to be vessels of His own Spirit. We note the special way that God created the human body (Genesis 2:7) and thus treat it with reverence. This is in distinct contrast to many other religions which view the body with a certain disdain or distaste (a topic that is further discussed in https://teamfishhooks.com/incarnate/). For us, disposal of the dead body is not like discarding a superfluous container for the soul, but ‘laying to rest’ an essential part of the complete human being that God created and will restore (in a glorified form) at the resurrection.
For Jews, any deliberate mutilation or defacement of the body is a violation against God Himself (and thus traditional Judaism also forbids tattoos, piercings, embalming, and routine autopsies). Further, there are several places in the Bible where death by burning is punishment for special wickedness (e.g., Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19). For these and other reasons, it became the opinion of the Jewish rabbis that cremation was disrespectful of both the deceased and God, and therefore unlawful.
Now, Jewish rabbinical law obviously doesn’t bind Christians, but since Christianity began in a Jewish context, such strong views obviously had an influence on early attitudes and practices. But probably the biggest reason that Christians vigorously opposed cremation until modern times is that it was so consistently connected with pagan religions in the ancient near East and Europe. Then, in later times, cremation, followed by dispersal of the ashes, was chosen by some as a deliberate defiance of the Christian belief in the resurrection: “Let’s see God resurrect me now!”
Of course, neither Christians nor Jews are at all concerned that just how the body ‘returns to dust’ has the slightest bearing on God’s ability to resurrect it. However, it is also obvious that deliberately choosing a particular mode of disposal with the intent to defy Him is incompatible with Godly belief. That was a major reason why the Catholic Church until 1963 prohibited burial rites for the person who had chosen to be cremated, and that pretty much reflected the position of Protestants too.
So what has changed? Well, since the specific mode of burial isn’t commanded by God, this is one of those matters that Christians call adiaphora, that is, religious practices that are neither commanded nor forbidden (see https://teamfishhooks.com/adiaphora/). By insisting on adherence to a human tradition (even a piously motivated one) we risk “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). Though many Christians do choose traditional burial as most consistent with their personal piety, we have no right to impose it on someone else’s conscience, particularly as we recognize that other practices may also be consistent with respect for both God and the departed.
Ultimately, we should each take most seriously our respect for the departed, our reverence for God as the one who created our bodies and will welcome them home, and the witness we might make to others, so that all is done “… to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)