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 ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.