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Is it unscriptural for a Christian to be cremated?
—Carol Stanley, Manchester, New Hampshire

The ancient world knew four methods of disposing of the bodies of the dead. Cremation was the normal practice of Greeks and Romans. Many of them believed in the immortality of the soul and saw no reason to give special attention to the body. Hindus, with their doctrine of reincarnation, still practice cremation. At the other extreme were the Egyptians, who mummified their dead, preserving the corpse indefinitely.

As the catacombs in Rome attest, the early Christians insisted on burying their dead. Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means "sleeping places," reflecting belief in a future resurrection. Early liturgies for the dead included the reading of Scriptures, prayers, hymns, and almsgiving for the poor.

Why were Christians so concerned about proper disposal of the body? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human was created by God, bore his image, and deserved to be treated with respect because of this. (2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever. (3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor. (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come.

Of course, many martyrs were burned to death, but Christians believed God would bring them forth unimpaired at the resurrection. "We do not fear any loss from any mode of sepulture," declared Minucius Felix, "but we adhere to the old and better custom of burial." In the context of the early church, when cremation was associated ...

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In the Magazine

May 21, 2002

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