Should Christians Be Cremated?

Everyone has primarily two choices on what happens to their body when they die. We can choose to either be buried, or cremated. Yes, there are a number of other, bizarre, options today, but for most people, there are only those two options. At first glance, they are equal options, with no philosophical or worldview baggage attached to them, but is that actually the case?

The only protest I heard against cremation growing up was that our bodies were going to be raised at the resurrection, and it would be impossible if we didn’t have a body. It’s strange that nobody thought to think through the fact that buried bodies eventually disappear as much as cremated ones, albeit slower. Also, it’s hardly worth noting that the God Who is there has the ability to reassemble a cremated body, just as He has the power to resurrect a buried one.

Lately, I’ve heard another objection to cremation (never any objections to burial) in that it originated as a pagan practice. There are a number of things which have been raised on this objection (things like Christmas, for example) and what we have to determine is whether a) it’s true, and b) if the thing in question is inextricably linked with the pagan origins.

To the first point, is it true? From the research I’ve done, the answer is yes-ish. Underneath all “but it has pagan origins!” claims is the hidden assertion that not only does it come from pagans, but that they used it in a way(s) that is inherently anti-Christian. So I suppose the two things to determine listed above need to in some way include the idea that the practice is not only pagan, but explicitly anti-Christian. There were several ancient civilizations which practiced cremation much in the same way we do today, as a largely worldview-neutral practice. There were some, like the Greeks that practiced cremation on the battle field with soldiers as a mere matter of practicality, because it would be easier to carry ashes than an entire body back to the soldiers’ homeland for a ceremonial burial. As a result of this, it came to be known as a more noble way of burial. The more negative aspects of cremation come from Hinduism.

In Hinduism, there is a process or doctrine called Antyesti, which details what is to be done with dead bodies. Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy point for either side of this debate either, because different things are done with bodies depending on the age of when the person died. Adults are usually cremated, and children are usually buried. There is a hymn in the Vedas which deals with the dead, but it’s somewhat confusing.

Burn him not up, nor quite consume him, Agni: let not his body or his skin be scattered,
O all possessing Fire, when thou hast matured him, then send him on his way unto the Fathers.
When thou hast made him ready, all possessing Fire, then do thou give him over to the Fathers,
When he attains unto the life that waits him, he shall become subject to the will of gods.
The Sun receive thine eye, the Wind thy Prana (life-principle, breathe); go, as thy merit is, to earth or heaven.
Go, if it be thy lot, unto the waters; go, make thine home in plants with all thy members.

— Rigveda 10.16

For the sake of argument, let’s assume this is a clear reason to cremate a body. There are differing sources as to what happens to the ashes after cremation, and for what purpose. Some link the ashes being returned to the fundamental elements, and thus they must put ashes in locations which represent those elements. There are also instances of what they call 2nd cremation, as well as certain individuals who have attained higher degrees of enlightenment have a different kind of burial, while others on a particular path have yet another form of burial.

The takeaway here is that the cremation, even in Hinduism, isn’t the end goal. The goal is to get the body to ashes, because it’s easier to entwine the person with the fundamental elements of nature when they are in ashes.The end result is definitely anti-Christian, but the act of cremation doesn’t necessary have a function in itself. I mention it that way because it doesn’t seem like the act of cremation is linked to the pagan Hindu burial practice. Now, if someone starts getting “spiritual” about the ashes and the placement of scattering or something, then you might be getting closer to the Hindu practice.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a problem with Christians who chose to be cremated. However, I will say that, symbolically, I think there is a case to made for burial instead. Christianity properly honors the body, without deifying or degrading it, largely due to the incarnation of Christ, and the resurrection of our bodies in the future. It seems to me that it would be more in line with that belief to bury the body whole instead of turning it to ashes.