Although Christians have never universally condemned cremation, burial has long been their accepted practice — as it has been for Jews. The Jews neither burned nor embalmed the bodies of their dead. In their practice, bodies were washed (Acts 9:37 ), anointed with aromatic spices (2 Chronicles 16:14 ; Mark 16:1 ), wrapped (Mark 15:26 ;John 11:44 ), and entombed within a period of 24 hours (Genesis 23:4 ;Deuteronomy 21:23 ; Matthew 27:57-60 ;John 11:17,39 ).
Perhaps the main reason cremation was not customary among Jews and Christians was its connection to pagan ritual. Further, the belief in resurrection held by Christians and orthodox Jews may have led to some superstitious dread of destroying the body. (Obviously, resurrection wouldn’t depend on the condition of the body after death.)1 It appears, however, that cremating a body was not viewed as a denial of belief in a bodily resurrection. Bodies were cremated during war or plague due to the danger of disease and contamination. The men of Jabesh Gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons, and then buried the bones (1 Samuel 31:12 ), possibly because they had begun to decompose after having been hung on a city wall by the Philistines. This example alone provides a clear indication that cremation is not an issue of ultimate spiritual importance. (Jonathan, whose body was burned along with Saul’s other sons, was one of the most remarkable and morally upright Old Testament figures.)
The reason that the treatment of the human body after death is such a sensitive issue for both Christians and Jews hinges on the significance of human life. Human beings are a little lower than the angels ( Psalm 8:4-5 ) but created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27 ). Today we possess a body that is both a corruptible “shell” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49 ) and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19) which serves as the medium for the expression of our personal identity in this life. We are destined to live forever in real resurrection bodies that carry over our identity from the one we leave at death (1 Corinthians 15:50-55).
It follows that Christians believe that the body should be treated with appropriate dignity. A decision to have one’s body cremated should not be made lightly. Agreement among family and loved ones should be sought by the persons responsible for the decision. If carried out without adequate preparation and forethought, cremation could have serious emotional complications for loved ones.
1 . See the ATQ article, How Can a Decomposed Body Be Resurrected?