Religious beliefs and practices are a crucial consideration for some when making end-of-life arrangements. For Christians, the Bible is a place to look for this information. So in this post, we'll examine what the good book says about cremation and scattering ashes.
In the Bible, there are no passages that prohibit or encourage cremation and scattering of ashes. However, many Christian sects believe a burial funeral aligns with best end-of-life practices. As a result, some Christian clerics may discourage cremation or prohibit it entirely. Certainly the Greek Orthodox faith prohibits cremation. (For more info see: What major religions say about cremation.)
Nonetheless, cremation is not inherently viewed as unfavorable within the Bible, though some references may cause some Christians to draw their own conclusions based on context and their personal interpretation of the scripture.
There are many references to burials in the Bible. Cremations are also mentioned, although there are fewer references compared to burials. Some references to cremation appear to have a negative connotation.
For instance, when Saul and his sons (1 Samuel 31:1-13) died as a result battle (Saul was injured and then fell upon his own sword to avoid capture). Citizens went to retrieve their bodies and cremated them upon return. The ashes were then buried. This passage does not directly view cremation in a negative light. However, their bodies were mutilated in battle, so some may argue that this was the only reason for cremation.
In other passages, cremation is part of punishing those who did something wrong. For example, Achan and his family (Joshua 7:25) were stoned to death after Achan stole things promised to God. After they were stoned, their family was cremated.
There is also no direct mention of the scattering of cremated ashes in the Bible. However, there is mention of scattering ashes in Psalm 47:16, which says: "He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes." The ashes reference can be interpreted to mean that frost found on the ground may look like ashes that have been scattered. But it is unclear to what kind of ashes; It could be ashes from a cremated body or ashes from a hearth.
Dust is also mentioned in the Bible. References can be found in several areas of the text. Here a few examples:
These references are not necessarily referring to ashes. It is more likely to be referring to human remains decomposing and becoming "dust" that then returns to the earth. This concept can favour cremation and scattering since the ashes are being returned to the earth more quickly. Nonetheless, this is also subject for interpretation.
In today's culture, cremation as a funeral rite has become commonplace (more than 73 per cent of Canadians chose it in 2021), and although burial may be encouraged, views on the practice have changed. Christianity opposed cremation in the past because some believed that a cremated body could not be resurrected. However, this has been refuted because buried bodies decompose over time. Therefore, if it is possible to resurrect a body that has been buried for thousands of years, it would be equally impossible to resurrect a cremated body.
Also, Christians believe that the spiritual body will be resurrected, not the physical one. Therefore, cremation and scattering of ashes do not contradict views on the soul, resurrection, and the afterlife. Nonetheless, burial or interment of ashes vs. scattering ashes can be seen as more aligned with Christian beliefs. In some sects, it may also be prohibited; such is the case with Catholicism.
In 1963, Pope Paul VI allowed flame cremation for the Catholics when “they are forced to do so by necessity.” In 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued the instruction Ad Resurgendum cum Christo. It reminds to Catholics inter cremated remains in cemeteries or other sacred places and that remains "should not be scattered in the air, on land, or at sea." The Vatican also decreed that ashes should not be divided, kept at home, or transformed (e.g., keepsake jewelry). Instead, cremated remains should be stored in cemeteries or other church-approved locations.
Cremation has also become less taboo in Judaism. Some of the qualms with cremation for Jews is that it does not align with the treatment of dead bodies required by the faith. Jewish law prohibits defiling bodies after death and outlines procedures for handling bodies before burial. The faith also believes that the soul does not immediately leave the body. Therefore, cremation may be viewed as defiling the body and causing pain to the deceased's soul.
There is also a negative association between cremation and Pagan beliefs and the Holocaust. For these reasons, Orthodox and Conservative sects of Judaism typically prohibit or greatly discourage cremation. However, it is not forbidden in the Reform sect, although burial is preferred. Nonetheless, funerary practices can be modified to allow for it.
For example, rabbis can choose to officiate at the funeral of someone who is cremated. However, they are encouraged to do so before cremation. In a similar vein, an essential part of Jewish funerals is burial. As such, the burial of ashes would is encouraged or considered necessary for certain ceremonies.
Overall, the view on cremation and scattering of ashes varies depending on the religion. Likewise, mentions of cremation in the Bible are up to interpretation. The decision is come from a deceased person wishes and their family's preferences.
When making end-of-life arrangements, you may want to consider some of these things, but cremation and ash scattering for most Christians are neither right nor wrong. If you have questions, be sure to direct them to a cleric that tends to your family's faith.