Cremation is an increasingly popular choice for final arrangements and is only predicted to become more common. The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that the rate of cremation will top 80% by 2045. This growing preference for cremation is largely driven by its affordability and flexibility, offering families a more cost-effective and adaptable alternative. Cremation's legitimacy can be confusing for Catholics, who often ask "what does the Bible say about cremation?"
What the Bible Says About Cremation
The Bible does not explicitly forbid or condone cremation. However, there are some mentions in the Bible that have been interpreted to reference cremation.
1 Samuel 31: 11 - 13
The first mention of cremation in the Bible is documented in 1 Samuel 31: 11 - 13, detailing the burning of Saul and his sons, followed by the burial of their remains:
"But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days."
Biblical scholars point out that Saul and Jonathan were cremated because their bodies were mutilated by the Philistines, and that cremation was not the usual burial practices of the Israelites. Some speculate that if cremation was good enough for the King of the Israelites, that's plenty enough reason to recommend it to a Catholic.
Another instance of cremation in the Bible appears in Genesis 3:20Ecclesiastes 3:20: "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." You are likely more acquainted familiar with the paraphrased version, "ashes to ashes and dust to dust." Many people who opt for cremation find comfort in this passage, knowing that their bodies will eventually return to ash and dust.
Other References of Cremation in the Bible
Other verses highlight instances where cremation is a punishment and divine judgement, rather than a funeral practice. Verses including Amos 2:1, Amos 6:8 - 10, Joshua 7:25, and Leviticus 20:14 underscore the association of fire with punitive measures and the execution of divine justice.
Does the Bible Say a Cremated Body Can't Rise?
Bible passages including 1 Corinthians 15:35 - 38 and Thessalonians 4:16 describe that our bodies will eventually be resurrected by God. It was the church's stance for many years that individuals who wish to reach Heaven and enjoy eternal life need to be buried.
There are many mentions of the deceased faithful being buried or laid to rest in a tomb of some sort. This culminates with the way Jesus was interred after the crucifixion - laid to rest in a cave-like tomb and sealed inside (only to miraculously rise again in three days). When one of the central figures of your religion is given a traditional burial, that tends to be highly influential for others to follow suit.
But the Bible does not say a cremated body can't rise. In fact, the Vatican explicitly approved cremation in 1963 as a final disposition as long as the practice remains in line with the fundamental belief in the resurrection. That means the church is stating Catholics have nothing to fear from choosing cremation as their final arrangement.
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Traditional Views on Cremation
Wanting to follow in the footsteps of Jesus is often more than enough of a reason for Catholics to prefer traditional burials over cremation. Yet that's not the only reason behind why cremation has earned a bad reputation - there are other instances that have influenced Catholic culture. One of the biggest of these reasons is that traditional burials, like many of the other aspects of Catholicism, were one of the ways that the religion differentiated itself from the other religious practices of antiquity.
By and large, the pagan religions that Christians would have been exposed to (and their Jewish brethren before the advent of Jesus Christ) had very different burial ceremonies. It was extremely common for these other religions to use funeral pyres to see off their deceased to their own versions of the afterlife.
Cremation in the Modern Day Catholic Faith
Today, any misgivings about whether Catholics can be cremated are strictly holdovers from these long ago times. The Catholic Church does not in any way forbid or recommend against cremation. In fact, with Ecclesiastes 3:20 quite literally mentioning dust, and with the prevalence of the phrase "ashes to ashes" in Catholic culture, the act of cremation has been seeing a bit of a renaissance.
Believe it or not, there is some precedence for cremation in the Bible, even if it's not otherwise mentioned. In Chapter 31 of the First Book of Samuel, the story of Saul's death is recounted. Saul and his sons were slain by the Philistines, their bodies left in a pagan temple. The Israelites recovered the remains and burned them in a funeral pyre before burying their bones under a tree in Jabesh, where they then mourned the deaths for a week. In other words, if cremation was good enough for a King of the Israelites, there's plenty to recommend it to a Catholic.
Catholics are permitted to be cremated, but they do need to follow a strict set of rules. Ashes must be buried. They cannot be scattered or remain in a private residence or funeral home. Ashes cannot be separated. This means that you cannot put any in jewelry or distribute among family members, they must all be buried in the same location. If you want your final resting place to be in a body of water, your ashes are required to be in a solid and durable container so that they are not damaged or accidentally disperse into the water - again, you are not permitted to scatter ashes even at sea. Therefore, as long as you uphold these rules, there is no reason not to be cremated for those who prefer it.
Additional Reasons to Consider Cremation
For Catholics who still might feel unsure about cremation, there's nothing that says you can't choose a traditional burial for either yourself or a loved one. At the same time, however, there are some other reasons to consider cremation. Since the costs of a modern funeral service are often quite high, one of the reasons for choosing cremation over traditional interment could easily be financial.
No one wants to think about funeral costs, but they are an inevitability. In this case, cremation represents a much more affordable alternative than a traditional burial. For individuals or families without the resources for that traditional burial, choosing cremation is a fine choice - and since there are no reasons to avoid cremation in Catholicism, you can still honor a loved one who has passed away.
Feel at Ease When Considering Cremation
The state of the world is much different than it was two thousand years ago when Christianity first emerged. Then, it might have been socially appropriate to avoid cremation. Today, however, there's nothing that should keep a Catholic from choosing cremation besides personal preference - and that's the way it should always be.
"All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." This refrain from Ecclesiastes 3:20 is used often to explain that every being who walks this Earth, human and animal, all have the same fate in store for them. We are born, we live, and we die.
If you or a loved one are considering cremation, or planning
a funeral in the Philadelphia area, reach out to our Catholic funeral planning
experts at 844-451-9614 for professional guidance.