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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, October 26 2023

Burial or cremation?

The Bible doesn't mention cremation, and a brief review of its history will show how it relates to the biblical teachings about death and the afterlife.

The Greeks introduced cremation to the Western world as early as 1000 B.C. Records of how it came to the Greeks are sketchy, but the custom apparently began as a way to deal with soldiers who died in battle. In order to ensure a funeral and burial by family and fellow citizens, armies burned the corpses of soldiers who died on foreign battlefields. The armies then carried the ashes to their homeland.

The Romans followed the Greek fashion and cremated their military heroes. The practice of cremation grew in popularity in the general population and eventually became a status symbol in Rome. The practice ceased about A.D. 100, probably due to wood shortages, as well as to the lack of encouragement about cremation by religious leaders (mainly the Roman Catholic Church) although the practice was not actually considered taboo. Some thought (erroneously) that cremation would interfere with the promised resurrection from the dead. Cremation was common in Scandinavia, due to a belief that it "freed the spirit from the flesh" (another belief based upon superstition instead of the Bible).

After Western Europe converted to Roman Christianity, cremation was rarely carried out until the19th century, except for emergencies such as the mass burials of people who died from the plague. In India and Eastern countries, cremation is both an ancient and a favored means of taking care of the deceased. Sir Henry Thompson, Queen Victoria's surgeon, revived interest in it in Europe and the United States with the 1874 publication of Cremation: The Treatment of the Body After Death. Nonetheless, it was not made legal in England until 1884, when it grew in favor with the religious community as an alternative to disorderly and protracted wakes. For different reasons, primarily relating to sanitation, it also grew in favor with the medical community.

The first crematorium was built in the United States in 1876, but the practice of cremation has been comparatively unpopular there. By the 1970s, only 8 percent were cremated in the United States, in comparison to Europe where over 50 percent were cremated. In Japan, cremation was illegal until 1875, but is now done nearly 100 percent of the time.

Due in part to a shortage of cemetery space, cremation is becoming more widely accepted in the United States. Of all the major religions, only the Orthodox Jewish faith forbids it. Resistance from cemetery owners and undertakers diminished as they have learned that cremation is no less profitable for them than other means of burial. (Source: New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition.)

There is no explicit scriptural command against cremation. The belief in the resurrection and the afterlife is a crucial part of our Christian faith and is not tied to the way the body is disposed of after death. Cremation in no way interferes with God's ability to resurrect the dead. Additionally, pagan religious customs about death or the afterlife are not linked to modern cremation methods.