Cremation Versus Burial — Which?                    Study No. 181



he November, 1999, issue of United News, published by the United Church of God, answered the question, “Is cremation acceptable for Christians?”  The magazine traced the history of cremation, which was introduced to the Western world by the Greeks as early as 1000 B.C.  Corpses of soldiers who died on foreign battlefields were burned, and their ashes returned to their homeland so the family could have a funeral.  Romans followed this Greek custom and cremated their military heroes, and the practice became popular among the general population.  The practice in the Roman Empire ceased about A.D. 100, probably due to wood shortages and discouragement of cremation by Christians.  Cremation was common in Scandinavia, due to a belief that it “freed the spirit from the flesh.”  Cremation has always been common in India and the East.


Cremation was rare in Western Europe, after its conversion to the professing Christian faith, until the Nineteenth Century.  It was not legal in England until 1884. In the United States, cremation has been comparatively unpopular (in the 1970s, only 8% were cremated).  In Japan, the rate of cremation is almost 100%.  Of all the major religions, only Orthodox Jews forbid cremation.  The UCG article concludes, “In the Church we recognize that cremation in no way interferes with God’s ability to resurrect the dead, and that modern cremation methods are not linked with pagan religious customs about death or the afterlife.”  The UCG thus believes cremation is not a problem for Christians, but merely a matter of personal choice.

I was startled by the conclusion of the above article.  To me, this is a classic example of a non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”).  After demonstrating that cremation is a pagan custom, the UCG paper concludes that modern cremation is not linked to pagan customs!  If this is true, then modern obser­vances of Christmas and Easter are not linked with pagan customs either.  Not only is the UCG conclusion illogical, it is also very liberal.  The UCG did not quote one single scripture to prove their point.

The May, 1961, issue of The Good News, published by the Radio Church of God, predecessor of today’s offshoots from the Worldwide Church of God, came to a very different conclusion.  As shown in the En­cyclo­pedia Americana, article, “Cremation,” the practice of cremation was used in idol­atrous pagan fire worship.  Burning, accord­ing to pagan belief, prevents the possible return of the ghost, purifies the soul, and wards off evil spirits.  The Hindus and Chupchi of Siberia cremate their dead, based on their “belief in a heavenly abode for the spirit of the deceased.  The flames of the funeral pyre, leaping upward, are thought to facilitate the ascent of the soul [to heaven].”

Moloch, another name for Nimrod, was worshipped by those who passed their children through the fire, Jeremiah 32:35, a pagan practice which God condemned, Leviticus 18:21.  Accoding to Hislop, The Two Babylons, page 315, parents sacrificed their children to Moloch believing “that the fire that consumed them also perfected them, and made them meet for eternal happi­ness. . . .  Both the passing through the fire, and the burning in the fire were essential rites in the worship of Moloch or Nimrod.”

Tophet (“place of abomination”) was the valley of the sons of Hinnom, southeast of Jerusalem, where Israel offered human sacifices to Moloch by fire, II Kings 23:10.  Later, it became known as Ge-hinnom or Gehenna (valley of Hinnom), and was the receptacle of the refuse of the city, where fires were constantly burning.  Gehenna thus became a fitting symbol of the eternal destruction of the wicked, from which there is no resurrection.  In Isaiah 30:33, Tophet is said to be ordained for the destruction of the Assyrian king and his army, symbolic of the devil and his angels, from which there will be no resurrection, Isaiah 26:14; Matthew 25:41; Mark 9:43, 44.  Unrepentant Israelites will be punished in the valley of Hinnon, Jeremiah 7:31-33.  How just it is that God will choose the very place where children were sacrificed by fire to Moloch, to mete out His judgment by fire on the wicked!

A simple burial was the normal Bible custom, Genesis 25:9, 35:20.  Jacob was embalmed (an Egyptian custom), and then buried in the same cave as Abraham was buried, Genesis 49:33, 50:1-5, 13.  He was embalmed because of the long 40-day mourning period and trip back to Canaan.  Joseph was likewise embalmed, for a slightly different reason: he was to be later buried in Canaan, Genesis 50:24-26; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32.  Burning was looked upon as abominable, as injury to the dead, Joshua 7:15, 25; II Kings 23:20; Amos 2:1.  The Bible views cremation as a form of humiliation reserved for the worst of criminals, Leviticus 20:14 and 21:9; Genesis 38:24.  Even hanged criminals deserve a decent burial, Deuteronomy 21:22-23.  Christ was buried, not cremated.

The Encyclopedia Biblica, article, “The Dead,” summarizes the Bible viewpoint:  “Not to be buried was a terrible disgrace which one could hardly wish even to one’s greatest enemy.” In light of these clear scriptures, the 1961 Good News article concluded, “It is our absolute recom­mendation that the body be simply buried.”  If circumstances are beyond the loved ones’ control, we should remember that through the power of God, all cremated and otherwise destroyed bodies will be resurrected, Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:12-15.

The Personal Correspondence Depart­ment, Reprint #962, issued in the mid-to-late 1960s, said the same as the 1961 article.  In 1988, with the advent of Joseph Tkach as leader of the Worldwide Church of God, the PCD letter, under Tkach’s signature, concluded that cremation was merely a cultural thing.  While the Hebrews favored burial, “the Bible, taken as a whole, teaches that the mode of a person’s burial is not of great importance.”  Tkach notes that Jonathan, son of Saul, was cremated.  Since God can resurrect a person if they are dust (from burial in an earthly grave) or ashes (from cremation), it really does not matter.

Frankly, it does matter.  Let us look at the Bible.  In I Samuel 31, we see described the last battle in which Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, were killed by the Philistines.  Saul took his own life, so he would not be captured alive and abused by the Philistines.  The Philistines stripped the slain, cut off Saul’s head, and put his armor in the Temple of Ashtaroth, fastening his body to the wall of Beth-shan.  The valiant Israelites in Jabesh-gilead made a desperate night raid, and removed the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, took them back to Jabesh, and burned them there.  They quickly took the bones and buried them under a tree.  This Bible passage Tkach uses to justify cremation today!

As Adam Clarke notes in his Comment­ary, the normal Hebrew custom was to bury in earth, and burn spices around them.  The Israelites from Jabesh-gilead could not have buried Saul and Jonathan about Beth-shan, without being discovered by the Philistines.  “They therefore burned them, because there was no other way to do them honor.”  The JFB Commentary concludes that burning was the last resort, “to prevent all risk of the Beth-shanites coming to disinter the royal remains for further insult.”  Cremation was never the first choice for an Israelite.  As a desperate measure to prevent further abuse of the dead, they resorted to cremation on this rare occasion.  One cannot use this example to justify cremation today.

Later, King David commended the men of Jabesh-Gilead for their kind respect for King Saul, II Samuel 2:4-7.  Still later, David gathered up Saul and Jonathan’s bones and buried them in the country of Benjamin in the sepulcher of Saul’s father Kish, II Samuel 21:12-14.

King Asa was buried, and Israel “made a very great burning [of spices] for him,” II Chronicles 16:14.  For wicked King Jehoram, his people made no burning for him when he died, II Chronicles 21:18-19.  Jeremiah promised King Zedekiah that he would die in peace, with the burnings of his fathers, Jeremiah 34:4-5. The Hebrew custom does provide for burning during the funeral ceremony, not of the body, but of spices.

After the future great destruction of the army of Gog, the House of Israel will take seven months to bury Gog and all his multitude, Ezekiel 39:11-16, to cleanse the land.  Even one’s enemy deserves a decent burial.  If cremation were a good choice, then why would Israel spend seven long months to dig graves and bury Gog, when a good dousing with gasoline could quickly burn them up?

The Lake of Fire will receive the live bodies of the unregenerate, unrepentant, Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 15, 21:8; Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 13:41-42, 18:9; Daniel 7:11; Malachi 4:1-3.  The persecutors of God’s people during the Middle Ages would often burn “heretics” at the stake, as was John Hus.  The Nazis shot, gassed, and otherwise killed Jews and Sabbatarians, and thereafter often cremated them.  Enemies of God know the fate of hellfire waiting for them, from which there will be no resurrection.  They attempt to mete out judgment of fire on God’s people here and now.  Willful cremation does not respect the dead.  Cre­mation is a type of the destruction of the wicked in the Lake of Fire.  As in the case of Saul and Jonathan, cremation may be the lesser of two evils under an extreme situation, such as war, plague, or natural disaster.

Why do Orthodox Jews oppose crema­tion?  Rabbi Huber, of “Ask the Rabbi” on the Internet, says, “The Torah specifically commands burial as the accepted Jewish practice. Cremation was practiced by the Romans, who destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and thus was associated with the enemies of the Jews. The spreading of the ashes was also felt to be a subtle denial of the Orthodox belief in the resurrection of the body. In addition, there is in our time the tragic recognition that millions of Jewish martyrs were dispatched to their deaths by way of the crematoria of the Holocaust. All of these factors give great weight to the traditional ban on cremation.”  These are very good reasons why Christians should avoid cremation as well.

However, other Jews believe, according to tradition, that a bone in the neck, called the Luz bone, is what God uses to resurrect each person.  If this bone is destroyed through cremation, they believe, God cannot resurrect that dead person.  This belief limits the power of the Almighty. Liberals today use this erroneous Jewish tradition to justify crema­tion as a normal practice!

We should honor our dead with a decent burial, and avoid the practice of cremation.


       — written by Richard C. Nickels         W