Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.
This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.
If a Christian is cremated rather than buried, will it affect their eternal state in any way?
How bodies are disposed of after death has varied very widely around the world and across the centuries. Some of these variations are for religious or cultural reasons; others are for practical reasons. It takes a lot of fuel to burn a body and this might not always be easily available, while in other areas it might be more convenient; for instance, cave burials might be carried out in areas where there are lots of caves.
Some Christian Churches have tended to favour burial over cremation because it seems to speak more clearly of belief in resurrection – though of course in most circumstances the complete destruction of the body is still the end result. Today, cremation is more and more common, not least because the growth of mega-cities has made it increasingly difficult and costly to find enough land for burials.
All Churches have been clear, though, that how a body is destroyed makes no difference to someone's eternal state. The 2nd century writer Minucius Felix writes in his Octavius: 'Do you think that, if anything is withdrawn from our feeble eyes, it perishes to God? Every body, whether it is dried up into dust, or is dissolved into moisture, or is compressed into ashes, or is attenuated into smoke, is withdrawn from us, but it is reserved for God in the custody of the elements.'
And there have of course been many tragic examples of martyrs being burned to death for their faith, and no one would imagine that the fact that their body is consumed by the flames has affected their eternal destiny.
The Bible itself doesn't give clear guidance about cremation or burial. The bodies of King Saul and his sons were burned (1 Samuel 31.11–13). In Amos 6.8–10 there is an apparent reference to cremation as a normal practice: 'If ten people are left in one house, they too will die. And if the relative who comes to carry the bodies out of the house to burn them asks anyone who might be hiding there, ‘Is anyone else with you?’ and he says, ‘No,’ then he will go on to say, ‘Hush! We must not mention the name of the Lord.’ (NIVUK) However, some translations avoid the use of the word 'burn'.
Some Christians might choose burial over cremation for a loved one because of its traditional associations. But neither is right nor wrong. Apart from practical considerations like cost, the main thing is that the service should speak powerfully of Christ's victory over death and of the Christian's eternal hope.
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This article was written Mark Woods, who is Bible Society's Editor.
Author: Mark Woods, 11 November 2019