Toward a Theology of Cremation

Toward a Theology of Cremation

Someone wrote recently to ask me for my views about cremation. This is the second time I have been asked about this in the past six months. In each case the person requesting my thoughts was not sure that cremation was a proper practice for Christians, and the expectation was that I would provide a theological rationale for opposing the practice. I had to disappoint them.

Both of my parents were cremated. They were devout evangelical Christians, and I have wondered whether they had thought about their plan in theological terms. My guess is that it was for them a pragmatic decision based on economic considerations. But having thought about it theologically myself, I have no serious problems with the decision they made.

This much is clear: cremation poses no serious obstacles to the God who has promised to raise them up when the trumpet sounds to signal that Resurrection Day has arrived. My parents will certainly be as “resurrect-able” as their parents and grandparents, all of whom were buried without cremation. We don’t have to go into the graphic details to make the point that, given what the Lord will have on hand to work with, the raising up with glorified bodies of those who have died in Christ will take a miracle in every case, cremation or no cremation.

I can imagine someone asking, however, whether deciding to be cremated isn’t a kind of in-your-face gesture toward God, a way of saying to the Almighty, “See if you can make a glorified body out of this!” And it may well be that some unbelievers have chosen cremation precisely in that kind of bravado spirit. For a believer, on the other hand, choosing cremation can be a special act of faith, an acknowledgement that our only hope for the afterlife rests on the sheer promise by a sovereign God that we will be raised up on the Last Day.

Indeed, I like to think of choosing cremation as a way of expressing our solidarity with the great martyrs in church history who have willingly presented their bodies for burning at the stake rather than deny their deepest convictions. The ones who were subject to that mode of dying for the faith are included in that number described by the Apostle John in Revelation 6:9-11: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.”

Not a bad group to look forward to joining!


  1. […] Ever thought about cremation?  Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller, has an interesting post on his blog about “Towards a Theology of Cremation.” […]

    Pingback by Cremation | Going to Seminary — September 3, 2008 @ 5:49 am

  2. I read something several years ago where a Christian was taking the stand that cremation was, by default, an idolatrous practice. The examples he gave were OT instances children as offerings by fire to Molech. I thought that he was just a bit off base with that one.

    Comment by Conibear Trapp — September 3, 2008 @ 6:40 am

  3. Thank you for taking up this very practical and, as you hint, theologically loaded practice (at least as judged by some).

    I have thought a lot about this question and think there are good “arguments” on both sides. I worry less about whether cremation poses any obstacles for God’s power to resurrect the dead, and more about how the practice can impact our attitude toward the physicality of life in the present. We do tend to treat our bodies as objects apart from ourselves, rather than part of our-selves. Pressing issues in bioethics offer plenty of good examples, and in the evangelical community it tends to part and parcel of the large world-denying rather than world-engaging spirituality. Does God seek to destroy or redeem our bodies and indeed all creation? (Gilbert Meilaender has an interesting article on this issue, and he touches on cremation, in the February 2007 issue of Touchstone, called “Broken Bodies Redeemed.”)

    I often, when teaching in my congregation, try to ground Christian ethics in the resurrection and the promise of the New Creation. If we are, in some sense, participating in God’s renewal of all things, a renewal headed toward the physical restoration of the world, it helps to explain the Christian posture toward culture and why we should care about the environment rather than destroy it. (Obviously you know much more about this subject than I, having written one of the best books on it!)

    Recently, after I said such things in a Sunday School class, an older woman came up to me afterwards and said: “If what you said about the New Creation is true, and we’re supposed to think of our lives here as part of God’s work to renew the physical world and not destroy it, then what do you think about cremation?”

    She made the connection on her own (I didn’t mention it in class, because we have a columbarium on campus, many have had their loved ones cremated and the pastors have different views on cremation…This is not an issue on which I think I should rock the boat.)

    But this woman’s question raises an interesting point. She inferred a stance on cremation from what I’d said about how the promise of the New Creation can inform our way of life today. You know the common line in Reformed circles: “We ought not seek to destroy what God seeks to redeem.”

    So, I don’t have a hard and fast stance on it, but I wonder sometimes how a particular practice can cultivate a wider view of the world and our bodies in this life….

    Thanks again for an engaging post!

    – Michael

    Comment by Michael Walker — September 4, 2008 @ 9:50 am

  4. […] Mouw, over at Mouw’s Musings, has written Toward a Theology of Cremation–it lives up to the interest of its title. I like the idea of expressing solidarity with the […]

    Pingback by Latest & Greatest from the Reformed Blogosphere | The Veil Away — September 4, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

  5. Norman Geisler, in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (I believe), has wrote cautiously about cremation, not dismissing it outright, but arguing for burial.

    His rationale was that burial was in keeping with Jewish customs and Jesus’ own crucified body being buried. I like the argument, but I’m sure Geisler would not say that burial in a cave is preferred to 6 feet under!

    The argument Dr. Mouw raises about the martyred saints is fascinating.

    In the end, I think Christians have the freedom to choose.

    Comment by Ted — September 5, 2008 @ 9:34 am

  6. Beloved Dr. Mouw,

    Thanks for discussing this topic of cremation. I used not to like the idea, but as I have matured I realize that it is indeed a choice for Christians. You wrote: “Not a bad group to look forward to joining!” We turn to dust, to the elements from which God created us. Yes, of course, we Christians must hold onto our faith, that God will raise us up on the Last Day as the powerful hymn goes.

    God bless.

    Sunny Murchison
    M.Div. Recovery Ministry Program

    Comment by B.A. “Sunny” Murchison — September 15, 2008 @ 11:10 am

  7. “Dust to dust and ash to ashes.” Of course, most of the body’s remains are returned to the atmosphere through creation. Nevertheless, cremation accompanied by dispersion of the ashes into the ground quickly returns the body to nature’s cycle in accordance with the plan of God. I am considering cremation for myself largely because I am discomforted by the thought that my body might otherwise be pickled and left in a sealed vault for 100’s of years.

    There exists not the faintest traces of material or DNA evidence of millions of human bodies which have perished since the dawn of creation, but God will raise them all for the Day of Judgment. Our resurrections cannot be contingent upon detectable physical remains. What a break for the wicked if they could avoid the judgment by ordering their remains destroyed! Such is not the case.

    Comment by Rich Rosser — January 31, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  8. Thank you for your thoughts on this topic which helped me resolve my questions about cremation versus burial. Truly as Christians we have the freedom to choose. I actually came away from this “discussion” changing my mind against being cremated. It isn’t because I believe there is a theological reason (I am in complete agreement God can and will raise us up. Hallelujah!) But my reasons have more to do with a realization that we who will die most assuredly don’t like to face the thoughts of death. Cremation and the spreading of remains makes death more invisible while cemeteries with markers are a more visible sign of the reality we will all face. Additionally, I prefer the natural process of decay to the quick one (what a microwave-society we have become.) Lastly, my previous leaning toward cremation was mainly because of the cost involved in burial, however cost is not always the most important factor in decisions. Again thanks to all for sharing here.

    Comment by julie — May 1, 2010 @ 9:32 am