Cremation

The reduction of human remains to ash. It was widely practiced in the ancient world, except in Egypt and China. Cremation among the ancient Israelites was exceptional (e.g., 1 Sam 31:12). The Etruscans and the Greeks passed on the practice to the Romans, with whom it became the fashionable means of disposal among the aristocracy. Though the early Christians did not fear cremation, they preferred to follow the burial customs of the Jews. The growth of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the physical body was largely responsible for its lack of popularity in Europe. Its modern development in Britain can be traced to 1874 (the founding of the Cremation Society), and in the USA to 1876. Since then it has grown in popularity. Statistics for 1960 reveal that one-third of those who died in the United Kingdom were cremated, and the proportion is increasing. The Roman Catholic Church still forbids it as a means of disposal.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Cremation, while the customary practice of the ancient Greeks, and not unknown among the Romans, was certainly not the ordinary mode of disposing of the dead among the Hebrews or other oriental peoples. Even among the Greeks, bodies were often buried without being burned (Thuc. i. 134,6; Plato Phaedo 115 E; Plut. Lyc. xxvii). Cicero thought that burial was the more ancient practice, though among the Romans both methods were in use in his day (De leg. ii.22,56). Lucian (De luctu xxi) expressly says that, while the Greeks burned their dead, the Persians buried them (see Burial, and compare 2Sa 21:12-14). In the case supposed by Amos 6:10, when it is predicted that Yahweh, in abhorrence of "the excellency of Jacob," shall "deliver up the city," and, "if there remain ten men in one house, that they shall die," and "a man’s kinsman (ARVm) shall take him up, even he that burneth him," etc., the suggestion seems to be that of pestilence with accompanying infection, and that this, or the special judgment of Yahweh, is why burning is preferred. When Paul (1Co 13:3) speaks of giving his body to be burned, he is simply accommodating his language to the customs of Corinth. (But see Plutarch on Zarmanochegas, and C. Beard, The Universal Christ.)

How far religious, or sanitary, or practical reasons were influential in deciding between the different methods, it is impossible to say. That bodies were burned in times of pestilence in the Valley of Hinnom at Jerusalem is without support (see Eze 39:11-16). The "very great burning" at the burial of Asa (2Ch 16:14) is not a case of cremation, but of burning spices and furniture in the king’s honor (compare Jer 34:5). Nor is 1Ki 13:2 a case in point; it is simply a prophecy of a king who shall take the bones of men previously buried, and the priests of the high places that burn incense in false worship, and cause them to be burned on the defiled altar to further pollute it and render it abominable.

There is in the New Testament no instance of cremation, Jewish, heathen or Christian, and clearly the early Christians followed the Jewish practice of burying the dead (see Tert., Apol., xlii; Minuc. Felix, Octav., xxxix; Aug., De civ. Dei, i.12,13). Indeed, cremation has never been popular among Christians, owing largely, doubtless, to the natural influence of the example of the Jews, the indisputable fact that Christ was buried, the vivid hope of the resurrection and the more or less material views concerning it prevalent here and there at this time or that. While there is nothing anti-Christian in it, and much in sanitary considerations to call for it in an age of science, it is not likely that it will ever become the prevailing practice of Christendom.

George B. Eager

See also

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