Is It Better To Bury Or To Burn? A Biblical Perspective On Cremation And Christianity In Western Culture Part 1 -- By: Rodney J. Decker

Journal: Journal of Ministry and Theology
Volume: JMAT 11:1 (Spring 2007)
Article: Is It Better To Bury Or To Burn? A Biblical Perspective On Cremation And Christianity In Western Culture Part 1
Author: Rodney J. Decker


Is It Better To Bury Or To Burn? A Biblical Perspective On Cremation And Christianity In Western Culture Part 1

Rodney J. Decker

Associate Professor of Greek and New Testament

Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania

Introduction 1

If I might adapt the Apostle Paul’s phraseology (1 Cor 7:9),2 I would ask, “Is it better to bury or to burn?” Does it make any difference? Is cremation a Christian option? Are there any ethical, theological, or philosophical issues involved in the choice to cremate the body of someone who has died? Are these even relevant questions?

I would propose to you that these are, indeed, important questions and ones that the church must face. In past generations this question was largely ignored in our churches and in our seminaries. I suspect that was because such a practice was rare—perhaps nearly nonexistent in conservative churches. Cremation was foreign, not only to conservative Christianity, but also to Western culture. It was typically viewed as a pagan Eastern practice.

When I was a seminary student in the 1970s, cremation was not mentioned in my ethics class or textbooks.3 In more than a half century I have never heard the subject discussed in a church setting. In a dozen years of pastoral ministry in the 1970s and 80s I do not remember anyone connected with the church which I pastored ever being cremated. For that matter, in the rural area of Michigan where I spent most of my pastoral ministry, I do not remember even hearing of a cremation. They may have occurred, but it was certainly not a common practice.

Perhaps my experience is atypical (or my memory faulty), but I suspect that discussion of cremation by conservative churches is less common than one might hope. My own attention was first focused on this topic only a year ago in connection with a new church that I was helping one of my students plant. In that inner-city, heavily Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox context, one of the ladies attending North Valley Baptist Church died quite unexpectedly—but left a request that she be cremated. Such a request was not only unusual for our church; it was also atypical in our community. In the wake of that event I have had to grapple with the acceptability of such a practice for a Christian. The following essay is the record of my pursuit of this very question. I began my quest for an answer with no fixed opinion one way or the other.

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