“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust” is a common phrase we hear associated with funeral practices. This first appeared in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The phrase “dust to dust” has some biblical origin from Gen. 3:19 and Ecclesiastes 3:20 but the words “ashes to ashes” do not appear anywhere in the bible. As we will see from Alvin Schmidt’s book, “Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes? A Biblical and Christian Examination of Cremation”, the scriptures never instruct people to burn dead bodies turning them into ashes (p.67).
History of Cremation
Cremation comes from Latin word “cremare” meaning “to burn” (p.6).
Some historical reasons for cremating the dead were (p.7):
- To cope with fear of the dead.
- To enable easy transportation of bones back to homes or other places.
- To prevent bodies from being stolen by thieves and miscreants.
- Belief that fire freed the soul from wandering and searching.
- Belief that fire purifies the departed person’s soul.
By the latter part of the fourth century, the burning of human corpses had become increasingly rare in the Roman Empire. Likely, the consistent Christian rejection of cremation, long before Christianity became legal, was having an empire-wide impact (p.18-19).
Cremation begins reappearing in the West following the efforts of Prussian pro-cremationists in 1855, when an international congress of medical experts met in Florence in 1869 contending that earth-burial was unhygienic (p.19). Cremation appealed not only to atheists and freethinkers but it was commonly requested—usually as an act of rebellion by Spiritualists, Theosophists, Unitarians, Universalists, anti-clerics and anti-church types (p.30). In 1875 the Cremation Societys in England and New York are formed (p.20).
Cremation rates in United States have increased dramatically over the last several decades, from .003% in 1900, .04% in 1920, 3.5% in 1960, to 27% in 2001 and are expected to rise to 40% by year 2010 (p.21).
What is Cremation?
Cremation is not a completely accurate term for the burning of a departed person. Human bones do not burn because they contain about 60% inorganic, non-combustible matter (p.23). Thus, the unburned bone portions are pulverized in today’s crematoria by a grinding process that reduces them to small granules resembling dried fertilizer pellets, the latter comprising at least half of the total remains. Sometimes a white colored substance is added to make the ashes look more attractive (p.24). As a result of package leakages, UPS and FedEx refuse to transport ashes of cremated bodies. Sometimes, human ashes are mixed with ashes from another person or other sources.
Burial in Ancient Judaism
The Hebrews/Israelites in the Old Testament era lived and were surrounded by pagan societies: Canaanites, Amorites, Edomites, Hittites, Philistines and others. Through the prophets, God frequently warned the Israelites not to adopt the pagan values, beliefs, or practices of those societies such as worshipping pagan polytheistic gods, marrying pagan wives, engaging in homosexual practices, eating unclean food, sacrificing infants, and making graven images of pagan idols (p.31).
In the OT, earth burial was the norm for treating departed persons. Cremation was used only as punishment and humiliation for those who engaged in grievous, sinful acts as recorded in Joshua 7:15; Leviticus 21:9; 20:14. Cremation was also an instrument of God’s wrath as He destroyed certain peoples by fire as recorded in Numbers 11:1-3; 16:35; Joshua 7:15,24-26; 2Kings 1:10-12 and famously the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24 (p.35-36).
The Lord says through the prophet Amos, “For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath, because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king” (2:1-2). This is argued as a clear denunciation of cremation. (p.37)
The Israelites treated the body of a dead person with great respect by closing the eyes (Gen.46:4); washing the body (Acts 9:37); draping a napkin over the dead person’s face (John 11:44); anointing with aromatic spices (Lk.23:56; 24:1; Jn.19:40) and wrapping with linens (Mt.27:59; Mk.15:45; Lk.23:53; Jn.19:39-40).
Christian arguments against Cremation
- Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ died on the Cross and was buried. (Nicene Creed) We should imitate Jesus.
- Everyone will be bodily resurrected in the Second Coming of Christ. Cremation is a denial of the bodily resurrection.
- The human body is a sacred sanctuary even after physical death.
- Cremation with God’s blessing is never mentioned in the Old Testament
- We must not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2) especially as cremation becomes more common.
Benefits of Earth Burial
Cemeteries provide consecrated ground for survivors to visit the graves and honored loved ones. These visits reminded survivors of the brevity and uncertainty of their own lives and our inevitable destination to leave this world and meet our Lord (p.28). Studies show that survivors of the departed who are cremated express less grieving and weeping at time of funeral, rarely visit the site where their relatives or loved ones are kept, especially with those whose ashes are scattered.
Relics of the Saints
It is well known among church historians that the early Christians fervently opposed infanticide, child abandonment, abortion and suicide because they believed in the sanctity of the human being. In their minds, the sanctity of the human body did not come to an end when a person died. They saw the human being as the crown of God’s creation, for man was made in the image and likeness of God (Gen.1:27) (p.49). “The saints, during their earthly lives, were filled with the Holy Spirit. And when they fulfill their course, the grace of the Holy Spirit does not depart from their souls or their bodies in the tombs” (St. John of Damascus). Cremation denies and deprives us of the sacred tradition and benefits of the presence of saintly holy relics.
St. Paul emphasizes this in today’s Epistle reading from the 9th Sunday of Matthew: “16Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy and you are that temple” (1Cor.3:16-17). He repeats this again later, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which have from God? You are not your own” (1Cor.6:19). So, even though we may not have attained a level of saintliness like some of our spiritual predecessors, nevertheless, God’s Holy Spirit lives and dwells within us.
Cremation is the denial and purposeful destruction of God’s human temple. As follower’s of Christ, we are not dualists or spiritualists who believe that the material world is inherently evil and to be despised. Rather, as Christians, we believe in the inherent goodness of the material world, especially our human bodies. Together, our body and soul, are created in God’s image and likeness. We are called to redeem and transfigure the creation to its original glory and beauty by continually resisting sin and temptation, repenting of our transgressions, and opening our hearts, minds and bodies to the indwelling presence of God’s divine grace through His only-begotten Son and live-giving Holy Spirit.
The only fire we should submit ourselves to is the fire of God’s love and holy presence. St. Paul also says in today’s reading, “13Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done…15If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved but only through fire” (1Cor.3:14,15). Amen!
Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the funda¬mental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church consid¬ers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary, or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated. Additionally, memorial services with kolyva (boiled wheat) are not allowed in such instances, inasmuch as the similarity between the "kernel of wheat" and the "body" has been intentionally destroyed. (http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article8083.asp)
Page number quotations from:
Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes? A Biblical and Christian Examination of Cremation
by Alvin J. Schmidt, Regina Orthodox Press 2005.