Originally, the Church under Mr. Herbert Armstrong was not sympathetic towards cremation as a form of burial, as there doesn’t seem to be any Biblical examples, as will be explained herein, where holy people of God actually chose this method of burial. The Church later, under Mr. Armstrong, changed its stance on the matter, realizing that the form of burial today differs from the form used in Biblical times. Cremation was not known in Biblical times, as it is known today. In ancient times, one would have only had a funeral pyre which did not burn bone, but only tissue. The bones would still need to be buried much in the same way as the body, making the procedure rather pointless. Today, we only have the ashes in a small container which then can be “buried” in a vault or in the ground, if so desired. In addition, the Church rightly concluded that it is not a matter of salvation. In certain instances, cremation might be the only kind of burial which some families can afford. On the other hand, we must be careful that we do not unnecessarily offend family members and friends who might be conscientiously opposed to cremation.
Much is said in the Holy Scriptures concerning the disposition of a body after death. Solomon wrote these poignant words in the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter six: “If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with goodness, or indeed he has no burial, I say, that a stillborn child is better than he” (Ecclesiastes 6:3).
In the book of Deuteronomy, God commanded His people Israel: “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
Even in such a case, unless God pronounced a specific curse on an individual or nation because of their abominations, He required their burial in the ground to be in an expedient manner.
In one case where God was extremely angry with certain people because of their gross disobedience to His Way, He inspired Jeremiah to write out what God said to him concerning these matters, in Jeremiah Chapter 16: “The word of the Lord also came to Jeremiah, saying, ‘.concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning their mothers who bore them and their fathers who begot them in this land; They shall die gruesome deaths; they shall not be lamented nor shall they be buried, but they shall be like refuse on the face of the earth.’ For thus says the Lord: ‘Do not enter the house of mourning, nor go to lament or bemoan them; for I have taken away My peace from this people’ says the Lord, ‘lovingkindness and mercies. Both the great and the small shall die in this land. They shall not be buried; neither shall men lament for them . Nor shall men break bread in mourning for them, to comfort them.'” (Jeremiah16:1, 3-7).
In the case cited above, God was angry because of the evils being performed by these people in their disobedience to His commands. The curse He pronounced upon them was in the form of their not being allowed to bury their dead.
A proper burial was a blessing from God and according to the New Bible Dictionary (page 171), the “Lack of proper burial was a great misfortune,” pointing to 1 Kings 13:22, which says, “‘but you came back, ate bread and drank water in the place of which the Lord said to you, “eat no bread and drink no water,” your corpse shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.'”
“It was customary for successive generations to be buried in the family tomb; thus Sarah, (Gen 23:19); Abraham (Gen 25:9); Isaac and Rebekah, Leah (Gen 49:31); and Jacob (Gen 50:13) were all buried in the caves of Machpelah, east of Hebron. Individual burial was sometimes necessitated by death at a distance from the family tombs; so Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, was buried near Bethel (Gen 35:8) and Rachel on the road to Ephrath (Gen 35:19, 20), their tombs being marked by an oak and a pillar respectively” (page 170).
Again, according to the New Bible Dictionary (page 172), “Jewish practices in New Testament times differed little from those described in the Old Testament . The corpse was washed (Acts 9:37); it was then anointed (Mark 16:1), wrapped in linen garments with spices enclosed (John 19:40), and finally the limbs were bound and the face covered with a napkin (John 11:44).
The discussion continues by stating that “Cremation was never a Jewish practice .” (Page 172). We need to add, here, that neither the use of coffins during burials, as is customary today, was a Jewish practice.
According to Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Page 158), “Interment in Bible times followed soon after death, as is evident in the narration of the burial of Sarah (Gen 23:1-20), Rachel (Gen 35:19, 20), and Rebekah’s nurse (Gen 35:8). The Hebrews did not normally cremate, as in the case of Saul and his sons (1 Samuel 31:11-13). Neither did they generally use coffins or embalm. Joseph’s burial in a coffin (Gen 50:26) and his being embalmed, as was his father, Jacob (Gen 50:2, 3) are to be explained as due to His eminent position and station in the land of the Nile.”
Whether or not the fact that Jacob and Joseph were embalmed was due to their eminent position and station, we point out that the Bible does not condemn them for using this procedure.
Moses, a faithful servant of the Lord, was apparently buried by the Lord Himself, or by His angel, in the land of Moab. You can read of the account of this event in the last book of Deuteronomy: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Peor; but no one knows his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).
The evidence is, in most cases, people called of God whom we are familiar with in the Bible, where they had a choice, chose burial as the method of disposing of their bodies upon death – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Deborah, Leah, David, Solomon, Job, Lazarus, Stephen, and many others, plus, of course, the greatest example of all, Jesus Christ. It is true that they did not choose cremation or the use of coffins, as commonly used today in our Western society.
Does this mean that anyone not buried according to the ancient Jewish and New Testament custom, but embalmed, placed in coffins, or cremated and the ashes placed in a container or vault, or being scattered or dispersed into the ocean, has lost his or her opportunity in the first resurrection? What about those lost at sea, eaten by fish or wild animals? What about those who were, or will be, evaporated during atomic blasts or nuclear holocausts? Have these lost their opportunity for salvation?
No, absolutely not! We have a gracious and all-powerful God Whom we look to in these matters. He has all power and the ability to resurrect any He chooses. And He is faithful to those who are faithful to His way in this life.
Jacob was embalmed according to the customs of the Egyptians. Yet the Scriptures tell us that Jacob will sit with Abraham and Isaac in the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:28). Joseph, a man of God, was also embalmed according to the customs of that day in the land he was in (Genesis 50:26). Jonathan, son of Saul, was cremated and his bones and ashes buried (1 Samuel 31:11-13). There were others who were martyred in their efforts to observe this Way and received no burial. No matter the final state of a person’s physical remains, whether ashes, dust, or whatever trauma they may have encountered, the promise to the faithful in this Way, will be in the first resurrection (Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:4).
Upon final analysis, God will look upon the way we live our lives based upon the knowledge we have and upon those criteria, we will be judged based on what we do in this life (Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:6; 1 Corinthians 3:8).
In our last Q&A on “Fruit Trees” (Update #163), the last two paragraphs of the Answer were inadvertently omitted. The complete Q&A has been posted, as part of Update #163, on our Webpage (www.eternalgod.org).