Whereas the disposal of human bodies is a strictly solemn affair, often left to the wishes of the family, I have had several people enquire as to whether or not cremation is biblical. From ancient times, the disposal of bodies has varied from culture to culture.
While the Egyptians mummified the bodies of their dead and kept them in caves or pyramids, most other cultures of the world buried the dead.
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Some, however, threw dead bodies into the forests or open fields to be eaten by birds or wild animals. One Indian community – whose religion forbids burial or cremation – still disposes its dead by letting vultures feed on them.
In Biblical teaching, the disposal of the human body seems to be driven by at least one critical factor – the unique place humankind occupies in God’s creation order. Unlike others of God’s creation, which were simply spoken into being, the human body was specially formed in God’s image by God’s own hands, out of the dust of the ground.
The human body is therefore sacred and uniquely regarded throughout scripture. Thus, as God’s precious creation, human bodies were always handled with care and dignity, other than in cases of divine punishment.
Scriptural records indicate that the manner of disposal of the body of an individual was an indication of the dignity accorded to them. For a corpse to be burnt by fire or left unburied to become food for beasts of prey, was the height of indignity or judgment.
For example, when Jeroboam sinned against God, he was told: “I will burn up the house of Jeroboam as one burns dung until it is all gone. Dogs will eat those belonging to Jeroboam who died in the city, and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country.” This was indicative of severe judgement and divine punishment.
Cremation, while being the customary practice of the ancient Greeks and some Romans, was certainly not the ordinary mode of disposing of the dead among the Hebrews. In fact, there is absolutely no record of cremation in the Bible. All mentions of the burning of the human body were associated with punishment. Lev 20:14, “If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked.
Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.” In Lev 21:9, “If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.” Thus, nowhere in the scriptures is it recorded that God prescribed, practiced, or recommended cremation as a way of disposing of human bodies. Instead, the patriarchs of old, including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all buried their dead and were themselves buried. When Moses died, God himself buried his body in Moab.
In the New Testament, when John the Baptist was beheaded, “John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it.” After crucifixion, Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb. Stephen was buried after he was stoned to death. And, when Ananias and his wife dropped dead in church, young men carried and quickly buried them. Therefore, in all recorded instances of disposal of bodies in scriptures, they were all buried.
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However, in later years, cremation though mainly an Eastern practice, gained currency in America and Europe, even influencing the introduction of “ash to ash” phraseology into the Christian burial liturgy.
Sad to say but, most arguments for cremation are mainly humanistic in nature. Some are concerned about the scarcity of land. Truth be told, the dead occupy much less space than the living – a 3 x 6 feet piece of land. On the contrary, scarcity of land is the result of our selfish greed – with some holding thousands of acres while others have nowhere to be buried. This is wrong. If the Hittites were willing to give Abraham free land to bury his wife, surely we too should provide space to bury our dead. Cementing of graves should be discouraged, especially within urban centres so that burial grounds can be reused.
Others also argue that cremation is hygienic because germs from the dead are burnt. There is, however, no record that a properly buried body can or has disseminated germs to the living. What is clear is that whereas cremation is a rising fad, especially among the elite, those who choose to take that route are at perfect liberty but should remember that in the beginning it was not so.