With a topic such as cremation, it is understandable that opinions are strong. There are numerous cultural reasons for the acceptance of cremation, including financial and real estate. It is also acknowledged that God is able and capable of resurrecting humanity from the devastating effects of a fire. Assuredly, this article is not comprehensive, but I find it quite alarming with the increase of cremation. Bear with me; this article intends not to cast judgment, but to present the biblical understanding of the imago Dei, the dignity of life, rest, and theological underpinning of the preservation of the faithful.
All people are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). This means that we are image-bearers of the one true God. As the image-bearers of God, from the beginning, life was sacred, relational, and honorable. The Lord’s response to the slaying of Abel by his brother Cain is a testimony to life’s frailty and the body’s ability to speak beyond the grave.
The Lord asserts to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). While one would suspect that God witnessed the killing and received Abel’s soul, the choice of words is interesting—the blood crying up from the ground is weeping. The ground receives Abel’s blood. Cain leaves his brother’s body lying on the ground. Cain has no regard for life; even after death, he neglects the body of his brother.
When John the Baptist was beheaded, news returns to Jesus. Matthew records, “And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus” (Matt. 14:12). Imago Dei. Biblically, whether in early church history or Judaism, the bodies of those that passed on were honored, sacred, and treated with dignity.
Dignity of Life
As image-bearers of God, Christians believe in the sanctity of human life, whether in birth or death. Contrary to this belief is paganism. Throughout history, the worshippers of Baal, Barbarians, pagans, and idol-worshippers burned their dead. But, that was never the case for those that believed in God Almighty.
The promising covenants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob regarding their burials and bones were clear (Gen. 23:4; 47:29-30; Ex. 13:19; Heb. 11:22). Jacob’s lasts words to his sons, “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers” (Gen. 49:29), is a testimony to the dignity of life. There has always been an ethical and honorable treatment and preservation of the bones of the faithful. Whether it be the kings and their families (2 Sam. 21:12), priests, or prophets (1 Ki. 13:31; 2 Ki. 23:18), the bones of the faithful were preserved. The early church was adamant about protecting the bones of the dead that they hid and buried them in the catacombs, away from Roman fire.
However, biblically speaking, when a curse from God was pronounced, fire was to desecrate the bones of the faithless, “And the man cried against the altar by the word of the LORD and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you’” (1 Ki. 13:2). The writer of 2 Kings provides the fulfillment of the prophecy, “[Josiah] burned the bones of the priests on their altars and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Ki. 23:5). The burning of the bones of the faithless was considered a cleansing of wickedness.
Through Jeremiah, God pronounces judgment upon the bones of the kings, officials, prophets, and priests that worshipped other gods—so that their bones would not receive dignity or rest (Jer. 8). As well, when Moab transgressed by cremating the king of Edom, the Lord declared, “Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom. So I will send a fire upon Moab” (Amos 2:1-2).
The point being made is not that modern cremation is evil, or that people intend evil; the point is to illustrate that humanity ought to have more honor, respect, and dignity for the faithful. It’s alarming at the amount of Christians that no longer honor the bones of the saints to lay them to rest. Through movies and television, our current culture glorifies the burning of peoples, as if it creates dignity (more on that in a moment, see theological).
When Christ was crucified, a person alleged to be a blasphemer by claiming to be God, was meticulously prepared for burial and laid to rest. While the disciples and His followers did not understand the resurrection (yet), they did believe in honor, respect, and rest. Judaism always adhered to the rest and dignity of the body.
Sherrie Johnson, researching and writing about the catacombs, states,
“Many of the people living in and around Rome during the turn of modern times believed in burning the bodies of their dead. Christians of the time believed that the cremation of their dead was morally wrong. Since there wasn’t enough space above ground to store their dead, they started building tunnels underground to bury the dead, as the Jewish communities had done before them … The bodies of the dead are meant to be treated with respect. In Christianity, death is a transitory phase that leads to eternal peace in heaven for the righteous. This is one reason why people bury the dead with utmost respect and care.”
Another reason why burial was important was the unwavering faith of the believer. A believer’s burial was not only a committal to the ground in which man was formed, but a resting place until the resurrection. Without a proper burial, like Abel, the body was not at rest, peace, and awaiting a return of Christ. Christians believe that God will provide new life to the mortal body.
While some modern believers may argue, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” God is fully capable of resurrecting both. Indeed, God is, but the confronting question should be, are we treating the saints with dignity, honor, and respect as the imago Dei and as a redeemed saint? If the early Christians went to such drastic measures to avoid the burning of bodies, have we strayed so far from orthodoxy, or are we sacrificing honor for convenience? (read the invasion of 8th-century Germanic tribes into Rome and how the Christians hid their dead).
Animism and paganism believe that gods exist in things—trees, water, mountains, weather, rocks, etc. The burning of the dead was supposed to release the soul from the body to enter into the spiritual state of oneness with eternity. Similarly, Buddhism believes in nirvana, the state after death that a person can become one with the universe.
This is why modern movies and television promote Barbarian and Roman warriors’ burning—they burn their remains to let them become one with the universe, to be released from the body, forever. Unfortunately, that is not Christian theology. We believe in the resurrection of the dead, when these bones will be renewed, and become like Christ (Rom. 6:5). We believe in the Holy Scriptures, which testify of our earthly bodies being transformed (Phil. 3:21).
As I stated in the beginning, this article is not intended to judge anyone, especially when they may have had a loved one cremated. The focus of the article is to present the biblical precedent of the imago Dei, the sanctity and dignity of life, honor, respect, and the tradition of rest. It is obvious that I am revealing my convictions, but I would hope that this article opens a conversation with loved ones, a deeper study of the Scriptures, and a more profound love of laying to rest the bones of the saints.
 Johnson, Sherrie. “Roman Catacombs: Origin, Purpose & Use Today.” https://www.joincake.com/blog/roman-catacombs/