Rev. Miersma is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of New Zealand.
In each edition of the daily newspaper one finds a section dealing with notices of recent deaths along with the funeral arrangements. More and more common in the funeral arrangements is the notice of cremation. Cremation is the reduction of a dead body to ashes by means of fire. More and more people are seeing this as an alternative to the more traditional burial in the cemetery. For most of us cremation is a subject with which we are not at all acquainted. Undoubtedly this is due to our heritage, for among Christians cremation has never gained wide acceptance. However, as the world is becoming increasingly one community in which we meet with many different nationalities and cultures we see instances of cremation more often. As churches, as we go to other parts of the world in our missionary labors, we encounter cultures where cremation is the norm rather than the exception. This would be the case in such countries as Singapore and India, just to name two.
The question that confronts us is, should we as Christians commit our bodies to the furnace rather than to the grave? When you are dead you are dead. Does it really matter whether your body returns to the dust slowly through decay in the grave or whether the whole process to reduction is over in a matter of minutes by fire in the furnace? Perhaps the matter of cost enters in. Since funeral expenses are high and getting higher, should one as a good steward look to the cheaper alternative of cremation? To help us answer these questions we will have a look at the history of cremation both from a secular and biblical perspective.
From the Cremation Association of North America I have an article entitled “History of Cremation,” which I will quote in full.
Scholars today quite generally agree that cremation probably began in any real sense during the early Stone Age — around 3000 B.C. — and most likely in Europe and the Near East.
During the late Stone Age, cremation began to spread across northern Europe, as evidenced by particularly informative finds of decorative pottery urns in western Russia among the Slavic peoples.
With the advent of the Bronze Age — 2500 to 1000 B.C. — cremation moved into the British Isles and into what is now Spain and Portugal. Cemeteries for cremation developed in Hungary and northern Italy, spreading to northern Europe and even Ireland.
In the Mycenaean Age — circa 1000 B.C. — cremation became an integral part of the elaborate Grecian burial customs. In fact, it became the dominate mode of disposition by the time of Homer in 800 B.C. and was actually encouraged for reasons of health and expedient burial of slain warriors in this battle-ravaged country.
Following this Grecian trend, the early Romans probably embraced cremation some time around 600 B.C. and it apparently became so prevalent that an official decree had to be issued in the mid 5th Century against the cremation of bodies within the city.
By the time of the Roman Empire — 27 B.C. to 395 A.D. — it was widely practiced, and cremated remains were generally stored in elaborate urns, often within columbarium-like buildings.
Prevalent though the practice was among the Romans, cremation was rare with the early Christians who considered it pagan and in the Jewish culture where traditional sepulchre entombment was preferred.
However, by 400 A.D., as a result of Constantine’s Christian-ization of the Empire, earth burial had completely replaced cremation except for rare instances of plague or war, and for the next 1,500 years remained the accepted mode of disposition throughout Europe.
Modern cremation, as we know it, actually began only a little over a century ago, after years of experimentation into the development of a dependable chamber. When Professor Brunetti of Italy finally perfected his model and displayed it at the 1873 Vienna Exposition, the cremation movement started almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the British Isles, the movement was fostered by Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson. Concerned with hazardous health conditions, Sir Henry and his colleagues founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874. The first crematories in Europe were built in 1878 in Woking, England and Gotha, Germany.
Meanwhile in North America, although there had been two recorded instances of cremation before 1800, the real start began in 1876 when Dr. Julius LeMoyne built the first crematory in Washington, Pennsylvania.
In 1884 the second crematory opened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and, as was true of many of the early crematories, it was owned and operated by a cremation society. Other forces behind early crematory openings were Protestant clergy who desired to reform burial practices and the medical profession concerned with health conditions around early cemeteries.
Crematories soon sprang up in Buffalo, New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit and Los Angeles. By 1900, there were already 20 crematories in operation, and by the time that Dr. Hugo Erichsen founded the Cremation Association of America in 1913, there were 52 crematories in North America and over 10,000 cremations took place in that year.
In 1975, the name was changed to the Cremation Association of North America to be more indicative of the membership composition of the United States and Canada. At the time, there were over 425 crematories and nearly 150,000 cremations.
In 1994, there were 1,100 crematories and 470,915 cremations.
What is interesting in that historical account is that wherever Christianity appeared, the practice of cremation for the most part ceased. That should cause our “Reformed antennae” to wave in the air, with the suspicion that something must be wrong (sinful) in the practice of cremation. Why was it practiced by the heathen and pagan, but not by Christians? A Christian is one who has the mind of Christ in him. The guide for his life is the Word of God. Thus it is ultimately incumbent on us to see what the Lord’s will is for us as recorded in the Scriptures.
The Bible does not state specifically in so many words that cremation is wrong and burial is right. In this matter the Scriptures speak by example. Throughout the Scriptures, all things being equal, interment or burial was the norm. Most burials seem to have been in a family sepulchre. We are well acquainted with the cave of the field of Machpelah where Abraham buried Sarah. Later Abraham was buried there also, as were Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob (cf. Gen. 23:19; 25:9; 49:31; 50:13). There were also individual graves, such as for Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah (Gen. 35:8), and for Rachel (Gen. 35:19, 20). Other types of burial include the cairn of Achan (Josh. 7:26), the cave of the five Canaanite kings (Josh. 10:27), the pit of Absalom (II Sam. 18:17), and the private sepulchers of the New Testament. Joseph of Arimathaea had hewn out in the rock such a tomb wherein he and Nicodemus buried the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 27:60). There are many more instances of burial, but we will limit ourselves to the above as representative examples.
As far as cremation is concerned, the Scriptures give us no record of any cremation as a viable and proper alternative to burial. There are recorded instances of death by burning or the burning of bones. Harlots were to be burned by fire as fitting punishment and judgment upon their wicked life (Gen. 38:24; Lev. 21:9). Achan, the one who took of the accursed thing, and his family were burned with fire (Josh. 7:15), as were also the ungodly of II Samuel 23:7. These all were burned in disrespect to show God’s hot displeasure with them and as a warning to all of God’s people.
There appears to be one case where the burning of the bodies did not involve disrespect. That was the burning of the bodies of Saul and Jonathan. In this instance the men of Jabesh-Gilead sought to protect the remains of Saul and Jonathan from further desecration by the Philistines. It should be noted also that after the burning of the bodies the bones were then given a proper and decent burial.
It would appear, then, that the burial of the living or the dead in fire was reserved for those who were especially immoral or irreligious. This puts cremation in a very bad light.
However, when we cast a negative shadow upon something, it is necessary that we also shed a little positive light. One of our early church fathers, Augustine, says, “The Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly cerements, and see to its burial. These instances certainly do not prove that corpses have any feeling; but they show that God’s providence extends even to the bodies of the dead, and that such pious offices are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the resurrection” (The City of God, Chap. 13).
In that last clause we are pointed in the right direction. When the child of God lays to rest a loved one he does so with faith in the resurrection. For the child of God the grave is not the end. Even though one knows that the body in the grave is indeed dead, yet he looks upon it as sleeping, awaiting the day when there will be that sound of the awakening trumpet. Christ Himself used this kind of language. With reference to Lazarus Christ said to His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” (John 11:11). When He came to the house of Jairus, whose daughter was dead, He said, “Give place: for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth” (Matt. 9:24). So we lay our loved ones in a cemetery, which literally means “a resting place.”
Yet more to the point is the analogy between the body put into the grave and the seed planted in the ground. When one plants a seed in the ground one does so with the expectation that through the death of the seed there comes forth a new life, a new plant that bears fruit. After the death and raising to life again of Lazarus in John 11, Jesus in the next chapter instructs His disciples with respect to His own death and resurrection. He shows them that the only way that He will ultimately be exalted is through the way of death. He says in verse 24, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
Later the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15 echoes the words of Christ as he gives us instruction concerning the resurrection. In verses 36-38 we read, “Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.” Then a few verses later he continues the picture, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (vv. 42-44).
With the above in mind it is the practice here in New Zealand for the minister to take a handful of dirt and sprinkle it upon the coffin. Members of the family are invited to do the same. The placing of the body in the grave is like unto a seed planted; we do so in the hope of the resurrection, when the body will be raised in all its glory like unto that of Jesus Christ our Lord. The heathen can see only the wrath of God. That is why their religion is based upon grotesque shapes and fire. Certainly, the child of God does not want to emulate pagan practices. With so many cremations about us we can become insensitive to this. That, of course, is Satan’s aim.
Let us, therefore, in the hope of the glorious resurrection continue to bury our loved ones as did the saints of old. With the apostle Paul may we continue to confess, “Therefore, we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom. 6:4, 5).