Christian History Home > 2002 > The Cremation Question
The Cremation Question
Firm belief in resurrection hasn't kept Christians from caring—and arguing—about what happens to the bodies of the dead.
I hate to dwell on a grisly subject, but the news from Noble, Georgia, got me thinking about cremation. I was especially intrigued by a comment on NPR that cremation has become more popular in America-requested in about 25 percent of deaths nationwide, with much higher percentages in Florida and California-as Americans shift from a Judeo-Christian emphasis on the body to a more Greek or Hindu emphasis on the soul.
It had never occurred to me that there was anything un-Judeo-Christian about cremation. None of the evangelical churches I've attended made a big deal about it. Historically, though, the NPR commentator has a point: acceptance of cremation among Christians is very recent and hardly universal.
While surrounding cultures practiced a variety of death rites, from mummification to incineration on elaborate funeral pyres, Old Testament Jews clearly preferred burial-often in a cave, and usually near other family members. Old Testament law, however, says nothing definitive about burial regulations. Death by burning was prescribed as a punishment for some particularly heinous offenders, and denial of a proper burial was viewed as a disgrace, but burning after death was not directly addressed. The one apparent example of cremation (of Saul and his sons, in 1 Sam. 31:12) is ambiguous.
New Testament Jews and Christians favored burial as well, though the New Testament also lacks specific regulations for handling the dead. Its sparse texts on the topic seem to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.
As Christianity spread and eventually became the official religion in the Roman Empire and elsewhere, culturally Christian burial practices spread as well. The growing importance of saintly relics added more weight to the tradition of careful bodily preservation. When Christian missionaries encountered cultures with different funerary practices, adoption of Christian customs became a sign of changed allegiance. For example, the body of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway, who is credited (posthumously) with the conversion of his people to Christianity in the eleventh century, was hidden in sand, dug up, and reburied by newly pious members of a culture whose folklore celebrated funeral pyres. (See Christian History issue 63, "Dead Man Converting.")
Cremation did not emerge as a major concern in traditionally Christian lands until 1870, when an Italian professor named Brunetti developed the first modern cremation apparatus. The Catholic church responded in 1886 with an official ban on cremations. Oddly, church pronouncements from the era take issue less with the practice per se than with anti-Catholic ceremonies associated with it and anti-Catholic organizations (particularly Freemasons) seen as being behind it. "The Church has opposed from the beginning a practice which has been used chiefly by the enemies of the Christian Faith," an article from the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia avers. Even so, in recognition of cremation's rapidly increasing popularity in Europe, by 1892 Catholic ministers were excused from unwilling or unwitting cooperation with the practice.
Orthodox Christians remain staunchly opposed to cremation. The Roman Catholic church dropped its ban in 1963 and moved to allow funeral rites for those who choose cremation in 1969. The Catholic church still prefers burial, however, and Catholics seem more comfortable with cremation after the funeral than before. Most American Protestant denominations occupy the same position.
Interestingly, though lower costs are often mentioned as a reason for the popularity of cremation, people with higher incomes are significantly more likely to choose cremation than are people with lower incomes. Higher-income Americans are also, statistically, less likely to hold Christian beliefs. So while I don't think the increasing incidence of cremation means that America is becoming more Greek or Hindu, the increase does seem to indicate a move away from traditional Christianity-though, in this case, Christian tradition may be more cultural than explicitly biblical.
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