Christianity, as an offshoot of Judaism, shares much in the way of tradition with that religion, including a historical preference for burial. Until fairly recently, Christianity agreed with Judaism and Islam that cremation was antithetical to their belief and custom.
Today, however, most Christian churches have changed positions, and the percentage of Christians who are choosing cremation as an alternative to traditional burial practices is growing.
What’s behind the change in position? The reason most often given is that the Bible does not explicitly prohibit cremation. In fact, unlike Judaism and Islam, treatment of the dead has historically had low priority in Christian teaching. This may in part stem from the fact that Jesus offered no specific guidance about it.
Another reason given is that Christian understanding of the relationship between the soul and body has changed over the last century, now emphasizing the importance of the soul over the body. As these views have changed, so has our understanding that the act of resurrection is not incompatible with cremation.
Steven Davis, professor of philosophy and religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, stated in the Baptist Standard that the resurrection argument against cremation, “gets a little dicey when you imagine that some bodies of Christians who are going to be resurrected will have been in the ground 2,000 years or more…It doesn’t seem like it’s any more difficult for God to resurrect someone whose body has been in the ground 2,000 years than someone who was cremated.”
Today, Christian sects that once condemned the practice – including Roman Catholicism – no longer oppose it. Catholicism, which once believed that cremation denied the possibility of resurrection, has allowed cremation since 1963. It has also allowed Catholic priests to officiate at memorials for those who have been cremated since 1966.
The Catholic Church does, however, still prefer traditional burial. The church provided guidance on this in 1983, stating, “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed, it does not however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Canon 1176).
Intent plays a large role in whether Christian churches approve or disapprove of cremation. Most Christian churches agree that when cremation is chosen, the cremains should be treated with similar dignity and respect as would be afforded in a traditional funeral. They should be placed in an urn and afforded a religious funeral or memorial service, and should be placed in a permanent location for remembrance. In fact, many churches today have on-site columbaria for exactly this purpose.
Funerals and memorials aren’t just about the body of the departed, or grieving. They are also a reminder of Christian beliefs about eternal life. Most Christians agree that a cremation combined with a Christian memorial service can still serve this purpose.
Mainline Protestantism has followed a similar trajectory as Catholicism. Once frowned upon, most mainline protestant churches now leave the decision between burial and cremation to individual discernment and discretion. The Episcopal Church, one of the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denominations, states that cremation is, “no longer understood to deny the resurrection of the body.”
However, not all Christians agree that cremation is an acceptable alternative to burial. Certain sects of Christianity still strongly oppose cremation. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, for example, has stated, “The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary, or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated.”
For most Christians today, the question of cremation is largely left to individual discretion. Many Christians choose cremation as an alternative to burial, while still retaining those aspects of their traditional funeral practices that allow them to honor the lives of their loved ones and glorify God.
If you or a loved one is considering cremation, we at Neptune Society encourage you to consider carefully your own position on the subject, discuss your options with your religious leader, and make the choice you believe is right for you and your family. For more articles in this series, please see our religion and cremation article archive.