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"Hot" religious topics

The cremation process. Its history.
Cremation and burial in the Bible.

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The cremation process:

The word cremation comes from the Latin word cremo which means "to burn" - particularly the burning of the dead.

Cremation generally involves the application of high temperature, typically between 1400 and 2100 Degrees Fahrenheit (760 to 1150 Deg. C), to a wooden box or casket which contains a dead body. The body and container are almost completely consumed; the cremated remains consist of bone fragments and particles. The remains usually weigh from 4 to 8 pounds (1.8 to 3.6 kg). They are then finely ground into granule form. The entire process takes 3 to 5 hours. Although the attendants attempt to remove all of the remains, a very small portion will be left inside the cremation chamber, and subsequently mingled with the next body to be cremated.

During 1999-JUL, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted 10 test cremations to determine the optimum temperature for cremation, in order to minimize smoke, dust and gas emissions.

Most bodies that are not cremated are buried in a casket where they gradually decompose over time due to the activity of bacteria and worms.

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History of cremation:

Most archaeologists believe that cremation was invented during the stone age, about 3000 BCE. 1 It was most likely first used in Europe or the Near East. It became the most common method of disposing of bodies by 800 BCE in Greece, and by 600 BCE in Rome. However, other societies had other methods:
bullet In ancient Israel, sepulchers (tombs or vaults) were used for burial; cremation was shunned. The body was exposed to the air of the tomb and simply decomposed over time, leaving only bones which were transferred to a bone box.

bullet The early Christian church also rejected cremation, partly because of its association with Pagan societies of Greece and Rome. Christians buried their dead in graves or in catacombs (underground vaults).

bullet in ancient Egypt, bodies were embalmed so that they would be preserved for the afterlife.

bullet

in ancient China, they were buried.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the followers and leaders of other religions were either exiled or exterminated, burial became the only permitted method of disposing of bodies throughout much of Europe.

An Italian, Professor Brunetti, developed the first modern cremation chamber in the 1870's. This triggered a movement towards cremation in Europe and North America, which has continued to the present day. In 1886, the Roman Catholic Church officially banned cremations. Church members as recently as World War II were excommunicated for arranging them. The Eastern Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople stated in 1961 that:

"There is no formal Orthodox rule against cremation, but there is a heavy weight of custom and sentiment in favor of Christian burial." 2

Conflicting with this statement are the Pastoral Guidelines by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America which state:

"Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental 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 considers 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."

There are currently about 1,100 crematories and over a half million cremations per year in North America.

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What does The Bible say about cremation?:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) has a few references to the disposal by burning in fire. Some verses describe executions by Philistines or Babylonians. Burning of bodies and objects in ancient Israel were mostly reserved for idols, criminals or enemies:
bullet Genesis 38:24: Judah initially ordered his pregnant daughter-in-law to be burned to death because she was guilty of prostitution. This action would have caused the death of the woman and her twin fetuses.

bulletExodus 32:20: Moses destroyed the golden calf by burning it.

bullet Leviticus 20:14: If a man marries both a woman and her mother, then all three "must be burned in the fire" (NIV). The passage is ambiguous: it is not known whether they would be burned alive, or would be stoned to death first, and their bodies burned later.

bulletLeviticus 21:9: If the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute, then she "must be burned in the fire." (NIV)

bulletNumbers 16:35: God exterminated Korah and 250 Israelite men with fire because they opposed Moses.

bulletDeuteronomy 7:25: God commanded that the idols of Pagan Gods be destroyed with fire.

bulletJoshua 7:15-25: After Joshua and his army exterminated the men, women and innocent children of Jericho, a few soldiers disobeyed God's command and looted the city. As punishment for the theft, and to pay for Israel's disgrace, God ordered the thieves to be burned. They were stoned to death; their bodies were burned and buried in what was called the Valley of Achor.

bulletJudges 15:6: The Philistines burned Samson's wife and father-in-law to death.

bullet1 Samuel 31:11-13: Earlier in the chapter, Saul had been wounded and asked for assisted suicide from his armor-bearer. The latter refused, so Saul committed suicide himself. The Philistines impaled Saul's body and those of his sons and left them on public display. The people of Jabesh Gilead retrieved the bodies, burned them and later buried the remaining bones in Gilead. There have been a number theories raised to account for this unusual treatment to a hero:

bullet Burning might have a local custom in Gilead.

bullet The people of Gilead may have been worried that the Philistines might dig up the bodies and further desecrate them.

bullet Burning might have been necessary because their bodies may have partly decomposed.

bulletthe Hebrew word translated as "burnt" might actually mean "annointed"; thus, the bodies might not have been burned after all.

bullet2 Kings 10:26: Jehu demolished a temple consecrated to the God Baal and burned its sacred stone.

bulletJeremiah 29:22: This verse contains a curse which refers to the time that the Babylonians burned Zedekiah and Ahab by fire.

bulletAmos 2:1: God proclaimed a death curse on Moab because he had reduced the bones of the king of Edom to lime through burning.

The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) contain few references to burning of bodies or objects:
bulletActs 19:19: Sorcerers who were converted to Christianity brought their scrolls out to be burned.

bulletRevelation 20:15: The fate of those whose names were not written in the Book of Life is to be thrown into the lake of fire.

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What Does The Bible Say About Burial?:

The burial of many important Biblical figures is described in the Bible: 2
bulletGenesis 25:8-10: Abraham
bulletGenesis 23:1-4: Sarah
bulletGenesis 35:19-20: Rachel
bulletGenesis 35:29: Isaac,
bulletGenesis 49:33 and 50:1-13: Jacob
bulletGenesis 50:26: Joseph (The Israelites went to great effort to bury his body in the Promised Land; they retained it for over 300 years in Egypt and after the Exodus during 40 years of wanderings before burying it.)
bulletDeuteronomy 34:6: Moses (God selected a burial site at a secret location in Moab for Moses.)
bulletJoshua 24:29-30: Joshua
bulletJoshua 24:33: Eleazar
bullet1 Samuel 25:1: Samuel
bullet1 Kings 2:10: David
bulletMatthew 14:10-12: John the Baptist
bulletActs 5:5-10: Ananias and Sapphira
bulletActs 8:2: Stephen

To be not given a proper burial was considered to be a great tragedy and dishonor.
bullet1 Kings 13:22: A prophet disobeyed God by eating a meal in a forbidden location. God laid a curse on him: that his body would not be buried in the tomb of his fathers. Shortly after, the prophet was attacked by a lion and his remains left on a road.

bullet Jeremiah 16:6: God laid a horrible curse on the Israelites: that many would die of diseases, will not be mourned and would be "like refuse lying on the ground" (NIV). Their bodies were to be consumed by animals and birds.

bullet Jeremiah 22:19: God laid a similar curse on Jehoiakim because of his pride and disobedience. Jeremiah said that he would be given the burial of a donkey: to be dragged away and thrown outside the city gates,

bullet Crucifixion: Of the countless number of tombs in Palestine from the era of Roman occupation which have been excavated, only one skeleton has been found which bears the marks of a crucifixion. That is because after a Roman execution, the lifeless body would be generally discarded in an open pit where it would be devoured by wild animals. To be forbidden a traditional burial added greatly to the horror of this method of execution.

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Related essay:

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References used in the above essay:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The history of cremation is described at: http://www.cremationinfo.com/
  2. Philip Jackman, "Cremation now a hot option," Globe and Mail, 1998-SEP-9
  3. "Cremation," part of "Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life," Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 2002, at: http://www.goarch.org/

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Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-MAR-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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