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"Hot" religious topics

The cremation process. Its history.
Cremation and burial in the Bible.
Non-traditional burials.

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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 1,400 and 2,100 Degrees Fahrenheit (760 to 1,150º 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/bodies 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 later transferred to a bone box.

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

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


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 expand 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. However, the church has allowed cremation since 1963. 5

During 2016, Delia Gallagher et al. at CNN, wrote:

The Catholic Church allows its members to be cremated, but said that their ashes must not be scattered at sea or placed in an urn at home.

"... cremated remains should be kept in a 'sacred place' such as a church cemetery. Ashes should not be divided up between family members, 'nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects'. ..."

"... in recent years, 'new ideas' contrary to the Catholic faith have become widespread, the Vatican said. The new statement names pantheism (the worship of nature), naturalism (the idea that all truths are derived from nature, not religion) and nihilism (a deep skepticism about all received truths) as particularly problematic. If cremation is chosen for any of those reasons, the deceased should not receive a Catholic burial, the new guidelines say." 3

Webmaster's comment (bias alert):

To deny a Catholic burial seems to me to be unjust in many cases, because the decision to cremate a body may well be made by the next of kin, and not by the recently deceased. The latter may have no control over how her or his body is to be disposed of.

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 stated in 2002:

"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." 4

There are currently about 1,100 crematories and about a million cremations per year in North America. The percentage of persons who are cremated at death is increasing.

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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 the twin fetuses that she was carrying.

bullet Exodus 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.

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

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

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

bullet Joshua 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.

bullet Judges 15:6: The Philistines executed Samson's wife and father-in-law by fire.

bullet 1 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.

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

bullet 2 Kings 10:26: Jehu demolished a temple consecrated to the God Baal and burned its sacred stone.

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

bullet Amos 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:
bullet Acts 19:19: Sorcerers who were converted to Christianity brought their scrolls out to be burned.

bullet Revelation 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.

See also an article at the web site about "What does the Bible say about cremation."

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What Does The Bible Say About Burial?:

The burial of many important Biblical figures is described in the Bible: 2
bullet Genesis 25:8-10: Abraham
bullet Genesis 23:1-4: Sarah
bullet Genesis 35:19-20: Rachel
bullet Genesis 35:29: Isaac,
bullet Genesis 49:33 and 50:1-13: Jacob
bullet Genesis 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.)
bullet Deuteronomy 34:6: Moses (God selected a burial site at a secret location in Moab for Moses.)
bullet Joshua 24:29-30: Joshua
bullet Joshua 24:33: Eleazar
bullet 1 Samuel 25:1: Samuel
bullet 1 Kings 2:10: David
bullet Matthew 14:10-12: John the Baptist
bullet Acts 5:5-10: Ananias and Sapphira
bullet Acts 8:2: Stephen

To be not given a proper burial was considered to be a great tragedy and dishonor.
bullet 1 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 or shallow grave 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 articles:

See also:

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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:
  2. Philip Jackman, "Cremation now a hot option," Globe and Mail, 1998-SEP-9
  3. Delia Gallagher et al., "Vatican issues guidelines on cremation, says no to scattering ashes," CNN, 2016-OCT-25, at:
  4. "Cremation," part of "Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life," Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 2002, at:
  5. Marshall Connolly, "Catholic Church issues new guidelines for cremation. Here's what you need to know," Catholic Online, 2016-OCT-25, at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2019-MAY-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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