Many Christians feel uncomfortable with the idea of cremation. Is it wrong to desecrate a body by burning it? Some Christians even wonder if God can resurrect a cremated body.
Let’s face it. In this day and age, everything is getting more expensive. The cost of traditional burials has skyrocketed to more than $7000. Many families cannot afford this high expense and turn to cremation, which is much less expensive. Today, slightly more than half of Americans choose cremation over a traditional burial.
What does the Bible say about cremation? Who got cremated in the Bible? Let’s unpack what the Bible says about cremation versus traditional burial.
What does the Bible say about cremation?
The traditional burial method in Biblical times was in a tomb or cave. The only land that Abraham owned was a field he bought that had a cave in it. An entire chapter of the Bible (Genesis 23) is devoted to purchasing the land where he buried his wife Sarah in the cave. Later, Abraham’s sons buried him there. Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah were all buried there. Jacob ordered his sons to bury him there, even though he died in Egypt. (Genesis 49:29-33).
Burial in caves or tombs wasn’t just a Hebrew thing. The pagan people of ancient Canaan and Syria did the same. Cremation was a custom introduced from ancient India, Phoenicia, Greece, and Rome.
In Jesus’ day, tomb burial was still the norm in Israel. Jesus raised Lazarus from a tomb (John 11). Of course, Jesus was also buried and resurrected from a tomb (Matthew 27-28, Mark 15-16, Luke 23-24, John 19-20).
So, what does the Bible say about cremation? The first mention was the cremation of King Saul and his sons, whom the Philistines killed. The Philistines decapitated Saul and hung his body and the bodies of his sons on the city’s wall. The men of Jabesh-Gilead staged a daring rescue of the bodies of their king and his sons.
“When the people of Jabesh-Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all their men of valor set out, journeyed all night, and retrieved the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth-Shan. When they arrived at Jabesh, they burned the bodies there. Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31:11-13)
Why did the valiant warriors of Jabesh-Gilead burn the bodies of Saul and his sons rather than burying them in a tomb? They were a two-day journey from Jerusalem, and the bodies were already decomposing. No doubt, they were afraid that the Philistines would return and steal the bodies and desecrate them even more. By burning the bodies and then burying their bones, there wasn’t much left for the Philistines to harm. It was a way of safekeeping the bodies until they could be properly buried. Later, King David retrieved the bones of Saul and his sons and had them buried in the tomb of Saul’s father (2 Samuel 21:12-14).
Aside from people executed by fire, the only other Biblical instance of cremation is during an apparent plague, which the prophet Amos said killed most of the people in a house. Cremation was probably the fastest way to dispose of bodies and prevent the further spread of disease. (Amos 6)
Can you be resurrected if you are cremated?
Absolutely, without question! Think about it – many Christian saints have been burned at the stake during times of persecution. The Emperor Nero was said to light his garden with the bodies of burning Christians. During the Reformation, hundreds of Christians were burned at the stake. Is God not going to resurrect them after they gave up their lives for Him?
The Roman emperors also threw Christians to the lions. The apostle Paul speaks of this as if it happened to him, and he survived, or perhaps in a hypothetical sense:
“If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for human motives, what did I gain? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” (1 Cor. 15:32)
Some ancient Christians ended up digested in the stomachs of wild beasts. Does that mean God can’t resurrect them?
The Bible speaks of a “better resurrection” for the Christians died as martyrs (Hebrews 11:35-38). From the context, we know this is talking about the resurrection at the end times when Jesus returns:
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16)
Lazarus and the others all died again. It was a temporary resurrection, back into a mortal body. The “better resurrection” will happen when Jesus returns, and that will be permanent, into an immortal body that will never die again.
“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)
Power that raised Jesus from the dead
When we consider whether people who have been cremated can be resurrected, we must remember God’s infinite power. After all, God created the universe out of nothing. He simply spoke all the stars and planets into being. He created Adam out of dust. If God did all that, how can we possibly question God’s ability to resurrect a cremated person? After all, all bodies eventually decay, even those embalmed and buried in the ground.
This power that raised Jesus from the dead (and will raise us from the dead) is mind-blowing!
“I ask that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know the hope of His calling, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and the surpassing greatness of His power to us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of His mighty strength, which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Ephesians 1:18-21)
Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates God’s power over death (and dead bodies, regardless of what state they are in).
Can you still go to heaven if you were cremated?
Yes, of course. Eternal life with God has nothing to do with what happens to our bodies after we die. It depends completely on God’s astounding work of grace and our response to it.
- “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
- “Truly, truly, I tell you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment. Indeed, he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
- “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies.’” (John 11:25)
- “But our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself, will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body.” (Philippians 1:20-21)
Burial vs cremation, does it matter?
It doesn’t matter regarding whether we can be resurrected and go to heaven. It is not a sin to be cremated.
John MacArthur says, “Obviously any buried body will eventually decompose (Eccles. 12:7). So cremation isn’t a strange or wrong practice—it merely accelerates the natural process of oxidation.”[i]
However, Russell Moore, Editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, has a different perspective:
“The question is more complicated than whether God can reconstitute ashes. Of course he can. The question is whether we should put him in a position of having to do so in the first place. . . The question is not whether God can reassemble “cremains.” The question is whether burial is a Christian act and, if so, then what does it communicate?
. . . In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the ‘real’ person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.
. . . Burial conveys the image of sleep, the metaphor Jesus and his apostles used repeatedly for the believing dead (John 11:11; 1 Cor. 15:51; 1 Thess. 4:13–14). . . The metaphor of sleep doesn’t mean that the dead are unconscious, but that they will be awakened.[ii]
For many families, the decision to cremate is not driven by theology but by practical economics. The cost of cremation is about one-quarter the cost of a burial. Yet, many believers consider burial more respectful of the body and more mindful of spiritual metaphors. There are ways to make burials more financially feasible.
One option is burial insurance or final expense life insurance. This is a type of whole-life insurance to cover end-of-life expenses. A policy usually has a payout between $10,000 to $25,000. A person can purchase this insurance at any time. As long as they keep paying the monthly premiums, they have coverage. Obviously, the premiums depend on how old you are and how much insurance you want, but a typical range is between $50 to $100 a month.
Another way to decrease expenses is to pre-plan your funeral arrangements before you die. You decide if you want to be buried or cremated, and you can choose your casket and the type of arrangements you want. You can even pre-pay and lock in a lower price, but that comes with risks.
Planning your own funeral makes financial sense because you can do it with a clear head. Suppose your spouse or children end up making the funeral arrangements after you die. In that case, they are in an emotional state, and funeral directors prey on that. They will try to convince your loved ones that you need a certain elegant (but very expensive) coffin to honor your memory. They won’t advise them of options for less costly burials. Actually, they won’t tell you either unless you do your homework and come prepared.
A burial doesn’t have to cost $8000 or more. There are ways to cut costs drastically. The Federal Trade Commission has a law called the “Funeral Rule,” which applies to all states.[iii] Part of the rule is that you can pick and choose what you want for your funeral or that of a loved one. You don’t have to buy the package deal. For instance, embalming (average price around $800) is not required as long as the person is buried within 48 hours or kept in refrigeration (the guidelines depend on the state). Another part of the law is that you can buy a casket or urn elsewhere, like at Costco or a casket warehouse or online. You can have it delivered to the funeral home, and they can’t charge you a fee for that.
Remember that when you go to a funeral home to arrange a funeral, their showroom usually only has the most expensive caskets. You can ask for a price list of all the caskets.
Some choose to have a “direct burial” within 48 hours of death, with just the family members at the gravesite. Many Christians choose to have the “Celebration of Life” services at their church rather than the funeral home and opt out of viewing. Using some or all of these options can bring the cost of a burial to close to the same price as cremation.
By doing your research and planning ahead, you free yourself up financially to choose between burial or cremation. You can choose depending on your theology and what feels right rather than being driven by economics.