Burial or cremation?

One of the older members of our family told us that, when he dies, he wishes to be cremated, not buried. This request has caused considerable discussion among us. We’re all Christians. Does the Bible provide any guidance on this sensitive subject?

Seventh-day Adventists have never taken a position on cremation because our biblical understanding of death and resurrection makes the matter not significant (see Job 19:27; Daniel 12:2; Luke 24:39). Contrary to the idea of separable soul and body, we note that humans appear with a physical existence both before death and in resurrection. The God who created us in the beginning is equally capable of re-creating us from ashes of incineration or from dust that results from slow decay. All things organic return to their basic elements, the real difference being only in how long it takes.

In fact, we do not hold that in the resurrection the new person will be composed of the same cells and atoms of which the body was previously formed. Cells die and atoms disperse. And restoring the person is not a matter of collection and reassembly of atoms, but of expressing the creative power of God, whatever atoms are involved (Psalm 104:29, 30). We know that every living person is a conduit for new atoms entering and old ones dispersing, so to a large degree any person will be composed in 10 years of an almost entirely different set of atoms.

The person who dies remains in the mind of God, and through His creative power, He will restore life as He wishes, even a new body untouched by the power of sin (1 Corinthians 15:52). The Creator is not dependent on previously existing components in the resurrection.

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’” (NIV). The main interpretational problem in this text is the phrase, “as if to lime,” which in Hebrew literally reads “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 being reproved because of its scornful treatment of human remains. Therefore, the prophet is addressing 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 Samuel 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” (NIV). This was not an act of vengeance but a proper way of ending the humiliation of a human corpse, the remains of the first king of Israel.

For some Christians, the matter of burial rather than cremation is important. They note that cremation is followed in countries such as India and China, whose predominant worldview is not Christian. As a matter of fact, these overpopulated countries long ago confronted the diversion of scarce fertile land to cemeteries, imbedding into their religion a tradition of burning, understood in terms of the purifying power of fire. Scientifically, we see advantages in the prevention of infection this method provides. It is true that in Jewish tradition, the dead consistently were buried, a custom written into Catholic canon law and thus perpetuated in the Christian community. But when measured by our understanding of how God works, something like burning would create no problem.

Today approximately 50 percent of those who die in the United States are cremated, mostly because of the comparatively high expense involved in burial. Cremation can cost only 10 percent of what a full burial funeral would require. Adventists allow members to follow their conscience in this matter, and for the reasons cited above are not likely to take an official church position on it.

George W Reid (Th. D., Southwest-ern Baptist Theological Seminary) served for 20 years as director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Now retired, he continues to lecture and to write. Email address: missiontvl@juno.com