Is cremation an acceptable Christian method of dealing with the dead?

Uncategorized May 6, 1997

This page is also available in: Português Español

Written by George W. Reid

Location: Biblical Research Institute

Is cremation an acceptable Christian method of dealing with the dead?

Responding to your inquiry, Adventists have never taken a position on cremation because our understanding of death/resurrection makes the matter not significant. The God who created us is equally capable of re-creating us from ashes of incineration or from ashes the result of slow decay. All things organic return to their basic elements, the real difference being only how long it takes. In fact, we do not hold that in the resurrection the new person will be composed of the same atoms of which he was previously formed. Atoms disperse and restoring the person is a matter not of reassembly of atoms but of expressing the creative power of God, whatever atoms are involved. We know also that every living person is a conduit for new atoms entering and old ones dispersing, so that to a large degree any person will be composed in 10 years of an almost entirely different set of atoms. The person remains in the mind of God, and through His creative power He will restore to what He wishes, even a new body untouched by the power of sin.

Some have used Amos 2:1 to oppose the practice of cremation. The prophet states that God is angered against Moab “because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king.” The main interpretational problem in this text is the phrase “as if to lime,” which in Hebrew reads literally “to lime.” The noun sid does not mean “ashes” but “lime.” Lime was used to plaster walls and stones. Some have suggested that in this particular case the bones were burned or calcinated to obtain lime. Be that as it may, it is clear that Moab is condemned because of its inhuman treatment of human remains. Therefore the prophet is condemning an act of hatred and severe vindictiveness that resulted in the devaluation of human dignity. This was not what we would call cremation. Cremation properly speaking could be a pious act. 1 Sam 31:11-13 relates how the Israelites took the body of Saul and his sons “from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them.” This was not an act of vengeance but a proper way of disposing of a human corpse.

I recognize that to a few persons the matter of burial rather than cremation is important. They note that cremation is followed in pagan countries such as India and China. As a matter of fact these vastly overpopulated countries long ago confronted occupation of scarce fertile land by cemeteries, by imbedding in their religion a tradition of burning, this explained in terms of the purifying power of fire. Scientifically we see advantage in the prevention of infection. Most often death takes place in the presence of severe illness, and in most pagan countries death comes from infectious disease, not the degenerative conditions that plague us in the West. Of course we have absolutely no interest in pagan practices for their own sake, but when measured by our understanding of how God works, something like burning would create no problem. It is true that in Jewish tradition the dead always were buried, a custom written into Catholic canon law and thus perpetuated in the Christian community.

Today approximately half those who die in the U S are cremated, generally because of the expense involved. Cremation can cost only 10 percent of what a full burial funeral will be. In the end, it often is the dollar that rules, especially in the absence of strong opinions. We are allowing each member to follow his conscience in this matter and for the reasons given above are not likely to take a church position on it.