To Bury or to Burn, Part 2: The Decline of Christian Burial and the Rise of the Practice of Cremation

To Bury or to Burn, Part 2: The Decline of Christian Burial and the Rise of the Practice of Cremation

As to cremation, this is not a Biblical or Christian mode of disposing of the dead. The Old and New Testament agree and take for granted that as the body was taken originally from the earth, so it is to return to the earth again. Burial is the natural and Christian mode. There is a beautiful symbolism in it. The whole terminology of eschatology presupposes it. Cremation is purely heathenish. it was the practice among the Greeks and Romans. The mass of the Hindus thus dispose of their dead. It is dishonoring to the body, intended for a temple of the Holy Ghost and to bear the image of God. It is an insidious denial of the doctrine of the resurrection.
(George Henry Gerberding, The Lutheran Pastor, 1902)

Is there anything cautionary about the practice of cremation that should be considered by people of the Christian faith? This was the question I asked in my previous post. With the projected incidence of cremation in the United States to reach 70.6 percent by 2030 (according to the National Funeral Director’s Association and the Cremation Association of North America) it is a question with some weight behind it. Consider whether you have ever heard a dialogue on this issue in your local Christian community and you’ll likely conclude, as I have, that the topic (cremation vs. burial) is virtually ignored in most American churches.

Though the death of a human being raises a host of questions (Do I get an inheritance? Why didn’t he eat better? Is there really a heaven?) the simplest is: what to do with a dead body? Cremation is one answer.

Cremation is referred to in the Old Testament by the phrase “burning the bones of” (1 Kings 13:2; 2 Kings 23:16, 20; Amos 2:1). In ancient Israel, death by burning was often reserved as a punishment for criminals (Gen 38:24; Josh 7:15, 25; Lev 20:14; 21:9). Death by burning and cremation were both stigmatized as abhorrent by the Israelites. Because burning human bones was considered to be the ultimate desecration of the dead (1 Kings 13:2; 2 Kings 23:16, 20), it was subject to punishment by God (Amos 2:1).

Only three notable ancient civilizations did not practice cremation: Egypt, China, and Judea. The ancient Greeks cremated bodies after a plague or battle for sanitary reasons or to prevent their enemies from mutilating the dead. A similar attitude was found among the Israelites and perhaps explains why the dead bodies of Saul and his sons were burned (1 Sam 31:12; 2 Sam 21:11–14). It is possible that Saul’s cremation also reflected God’s rejection of his ignominious reign. When Amos (6:9–10) described the burning of bodies after battle, evidently for sanitary reasons, he intended to depict the horrors faced by victims of war.

Jews of the Second Temple period buried their dead promptly, as soon as possible after death and almost always on the same day. Preparations began at the moment of death: the eyes of the deceased were closed, the corpse was washed with perfumes and ointments (Acts 9:37), its bodily orifices were stopped and strips of cloth were wound tightly around the body—binding the jaw closed, the feet together and the hands to the sides of the body (Jn 11:44). The corpse was then placed on a bier and carried in a procession to the family tomb (Lk 7:12). Eulogies were spoken, and the corpse was placed inside the tomb, along with items of jewelry or other personal effects. The funeral was thus conducted without delay, and most bodies were interred by sunset on the day of death. But Jewish burial rituals did not conclude with this first, or primary, burial. A year after the death, members of the immediate family returned to the tomb for a private ceremony in which the bones were reburied after the body had decayed.

By far the most common Jewish burial technique in Palestine during the Second Temple period was secondary burial in limestone chests known as ossuaries, the reburial of human bones after the flesh had decayed. It was a practice inherited from ancient Israel. The New Testament texts reflect the Jewish belief that corpses were unclean and impure, thus to be avoided and not be touched (e.g., Mt 23:27–28; Lk 10:31–32; 11:44). Many Jews during the Second Temple period expected that the dead would be raised bodily on the last day. Secondary burial in ossuaries, a burial technique that preserved the individual identity of the deceased, may have been at least partially motivated by this belief.

Early Christians were hesitant to practice cremation because of their understanding that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) yet recognized that cremation has no effect on the integrity of one’s eternal state (Rev 20:13). Nonetheless, belief in the resurrection of the body made cremation often repugnant to the early Christians, whose use of burial is attested by, for example, the evidence of the catacombs at Rome.

In the modern period, the Roman Catholic Church used to forbid its members to dispose of their dead in this way, mainly on account of the pagan associations of the practice. It was, however, generally permitted by an instruction of the Holy Office issued on 5 July 1963 and a form of service is now provided for use in a crematorium, though burial is still recommended (cf. Codex Iuris Canonici (1983), Code of Canon Law, English trans., 1176, § 3 and 1184, § 1. 2). The Code states: "The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”

Cremation is normally forbidden in the Orthodox Church.

In the Church of England the legitimacy of cremation is recognized by the 1969 Canons (B 38), which add that "save for good and sufficient reason the ashes of a cremated person should be interred or deposited … in consecrated ground." Common Worship, Pastoral Services, provides a rite for the Burial of Ashes.

As for confessional Protestantism, one of the strongest statements against cremation comes as a “command” in chapter 26 of the Second Helvetic Confession (written in 1566 by Heinrich Bullinger):

THE BURIAL OF BODIES. As the bodies of the faithful are the temples of the Holy Spirit which we truly believe will rise again at the Last Day, Scriptures command that they be honorably and without superstition committed to the earth, and also that honorable mention be made of those saints who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and that all duties of familial piety be shown to those left behind, their widows and orphans. We do not teach that any other care be taken for the dead. Therefore, we greatly disapprove of the Cynics, who neglected the bodies of the dead or most carelessly and disdainfully cast them into the earth, never saying a good word about the deceased, or caring a bit about those whom they left behind them.

Does the Second Helvetic Confession go too far when it says the “Scriptures command” burial? I am of the opinion that is does not. But to make this case is for my next post, when I will take up that issue in the third and final installment of this series.

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