Cremation is no new idea. For long centuries it was the almost universal custom of Aryan peoples—Indians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Teutons, etc.—to burn their dead. In Britain Druids, Celts, and the early British burned their dead. The practice of cremation was suppressed gradually in favour of Christian burial, where Christianity took root. The teaching of the truth of the resurrection of the body, and the accountability to God resulting therefrom, brought about this change.
In the writer’s young days cremation was quite unknown in this country. Today it seems as if the tide is turning, and cremation likely to supersede Christian burial. Its advocates hint that the day is coming when cremation will be made obligatory by the law of the land, and Christian burial forbidden.
Modern cremation was first introduced into Europe in Italy. In 1873 Professor Brunetti of Padua displayed at the Vienna Exhibition a model crematorium along with cremated ashes. Sir Henry Thompson, Bart, F.R.C.S., Surgeon to Queen Victoria, saw this exhibition, and was so struck by it that he returned to this country determined to press cremation as something to be preferred to burial.
He urged that “cremation was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger to the area occupied.” Early in 1874 he called a meeting at his house, having previously ventilated his views in an article in THE CONTEMPORY REVIEW and letters to the Press. A number of distinguished gentlemen were present at this meeting, and THE CREMATION SOCIETY OF ENGLAND was then formed.
At first the idea met with very considerable opposition. Many felt lurking behind the destruction of bodies by fire was the thought that it made the resurrection of the body impossible. There is no doubt that multitudes of men and women, whose motto for life is “let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32), would hail such a thought with relief, for resurrection carries with it the thought of accountability to God. It is, however, true that “every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12). “Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
Just as the utterly unproved theory of evolution became immensely popular with those who did not like to retain God in their knowledge (Rom. 1:28), so was cremation hailed by many as cutting athwart the solemn warnings of Scripture as to the end of a God-forgetting life. But man cannot get away from death. This world is the valley of the shadow of death. Surely deep down in the human heart there must be a conviction that we shall have to give an account of ourselves to God.
A gentleman who died, worth £242,000, in the first clause of his will left instructions that his ashes should be conveyed out to sea, and half way between Liverpool and New York cast to the winds and waves. It looks as if he had wished to make assurance doubly sure, that if, as he falsely hoped, the cremation of the body makes resurrection impossible, the scattering of the ashes beyond any power on earth to gather them together again, would make matters still more secure. It looks as if he were not quite so sure after all.
The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body, and sought to argue their point with our Lord by presenting to Him a supposed case of a woman having had seven husbands and dying, followed by the question, “Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be? for they all had her.” Our Lord replied,
“Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” (Matt. 22:29)
God’s eternal power and Godhead are seen in the wonders of creation. If God could create millions of worlds by a word, is it not possible for Him to raise the dead?
“Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” (Acts 26:8)
was the question that the Apostle Paul asked of King Agrippa as he stood before his judgment seat. Our Lord referred to the Scriptures, likewise, and we do well to pay heed to their testimony.
The first crematorium to be erected in this country was at Woking, near London. On the 20th March, 1885, the first cremation, that of a lady, took place, followed by two other cases during that year. In 1886 there were ten cremations, in 1887 twenty-seven.
PHAROS, the official Journal of THE CREMATION SOCIETY and THE FEDERATION OF BRITISH CREMATION AUTHORITIES, gives more recent figures, showing how cremation is rapidly increasing in popularity in this country. Between 1885 and 1937 there were 115,307 cremations.
In 1938 there were 16,312 cremations.
In 1939 there were 19,813 cremations.
In 1940 there were 25,175 cremations.
In 1941 there were 26,211 cremations.
In 1942 there were 28,528 cremations.
In 1943 there were 34,259 cremations.
In 1944 there were 39,016 cremations.
In less than a decade, to be accurate in seven short years, the number has considerably more than doubled.
The advocates of cremation urge its cleanliness, destruction of germs and infections, that its practice would do away with the necessity for the provision and the upkeep of large cemeteries, with a considerable saving to the taxpayers’ pockets. On the other hand it was objected that evil persons could quickly put away all trace of having poisoned their victims, if cremation could be carried out. To meet this contingency two independent doctors are required to sign the order for cremation.
To show how popular cremation is becoming, four members of the Royal Family have been cremated. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple, was cremated on October 31st, 1944, the first archbishop’s body to be so treated in this country. The comment on this was as follows: “The cremation of Archbishop Temple will do much to reassure the waverers, and, as a cleric recently said, it will remove mountains of prejudice within the Church itself.” A sad example indeed! Instead of searching the Scriptures as to this matter, waverers are asked to follow the example of an individual. The Westminster Abbey Authorities refuse interment in that historic lane unless the body is cremated. The body of the Unknown Warrior was the last to be interred there.
As to the body, it matters little whether it is reduced to dust through the slow process of decay, or to ashes by cremation in the course of an hour or two. The four million bodies of Christian dead, laid to rest in the Catacombs of Rome, have long since mouldered to indefinable dust. Yet bodies, whether cremated, or given Christian burial, or which disappear in the frightful explosion of an atomic bomb, will be surely raised in resurrection according to the word of God, and by His almighty power.
We have a friend in Australia, who carries on a very unique form of evangelism. In his garden is erected a very powerful telescope, and he advertises that he is willing to show the wonders of the sky to any who chose to avail themselves of his offer. He tells us that Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Communists, Socialists, Atheists, Evolutionists, Clergymen, Undergraduates attend freely. The effect produced on their mind, he says, is marvellous, awe, reverence, amazement, silence. One visit knocks all the atheism out of the Communists and Atheists, whilst the Evolutionists are reduced to silence, and are filled with amazement. The rings of Saturn, the satellites of Jupiter, the millions of stars in the Milky Way, the Moon with its hills, mountains and crater walls astound them when seen for the first time.
Would that those who disbelieve in the resurrection of the dead were similarly impressed by the mighty power of God, and receive the testimony of Scripture. Surely the sceptic is credulous and not the believer. The latter believes that great effects come from correspondingly great causes. The believer acknowledges that the wonders of creation come from the fiat of ALMIGHTY GOD. A sceptic, a man of culture and brains, sought to explain the universe as “a fortuitous concourse of atoms.” But where do the atoms come from, and where did life come from? If the believers were guilty of such brainless nonsense Christianity would perish in a night.
Many who advocate cremation are not aware that it is the revival of the practice of the pagan world, which was suppressed by the entrance of Christianity. At cremations clergymen generally conduct the service. Prayer is made; Scriptures, often bearing on the resurrection of the body, are read; Christian hymns are sung. It is at best a pagan rite with a thin veneer of Christian acknowledgment. There is still in this land, thank God, many who have come under the power of the gospel of God, but it is sad when such an acknowledgment is merely formal.
Let us turn now to what the Bible teaches:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou RETURN unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Gen. 3:19)
These were the words of God addressed to Adam, and form part of the sentence He passed upon him for his sin in partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is plainly stated that death is the penalty of sin. It is as plainly stated that just as Adam was created out of the ground, so he is to RETURN unto the ground. God ordained burial in the earth as the way of the disposal of the bodies of the dead. “TILL THOU RETURN UNTO THE GROUND” was and is God’s decree for sinful man. Cremation goes dead against this basic law of God, and THEREBY STANDS CONDEMNED FOR ALL TIME. Let there be no mistake about that.
It is madness to live in a fool’s paradise when plain, stark facts stare us in the face. The Christian Scientist tells us that death is an illusion, that man is incapable of sin, sickness and death. Why does it not open his eyes when he finds their members one after another falling to this illusion, and dying like ordinary people? The Spiritist says that death is a new birth to a fuller life. It looks strangely unlike a new birth. Birth speaks of life; death of corruption. Birth brings joy and hope; death brings sorrow. The Atheist says there is no hereafter, and many such will rejoice to see crematorial flames devouring the dead as being, as they foolishly think, the end of everything. But suppose the Bible is right after all, and that “after death comes the judgment,” as the writer most surely believes, what a rude awakening awaits those who live in a fool’s paradise of their own imagining. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) is God’s verdict and man’s opinion can never set that aside. Facts have to be faced.
There is no trace of cremation in the word of God. For human beings to be burned with fire, according to the Scriptures, is reserved as a punishment for the wicked, and not an act of respect of the living to the dead, as Christian burial is.
“And it shall be, that he that is taken with the accursed thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he has: because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has wrought folly in Israel.” (Joshua 7:15)
“But the sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken with bands: but the man that shall touch them must be fenced with iron and the staff of a spear; and they shall be utterly burned with fire in the same place.” (2 Sam. 23:6-7)
The burial of the dead was God’s appointment before our first parents had been turned out of the Garden of Eden. So we read of Abraham burying his wife in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre (Gen. 23:17). Abraham was buried in the same field by his sons, Ishmael and Isaac (Gen. 25:9). Jacob’s wife, Rachel, was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19). The body of Joseph was embalmed, after the custom of the Egyptians. After some three hundred years his body accompanied the children of Israel in their forty years wandering in the wilderness, and his bones were finally buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). Moses was buried in a valley in the land of Moab against Beth-peor BY GOD HIMSELF (Deut. 34:6). Many more instances in the Old Testament might be given, but let these suffice.
In the New Testament we read of Stephen, the first recorded martyr of the Christian Church, that devout men carried him to his burial, and made great lamentation over him (Acts 8:2). This stands as a model of a Christian burial. Lazarus was buried in a cave with a stone rolled upon its entrance, when our Lord raised him from the dead.
But the New Testament is pre-eminent as we read there of our Lord being buried in a new sepulchre, wherein man was never yet laid, the fulfilment of a prophecy of over seven centuries that His grave would be with the rich in His death (Isa. 53:9). Around that sepulchre circles every Christian hope, for our Lord died an atoning death, and on the ground of that death satisfied God’s holiness about the whole question of sin. God can now righteously forgive the believing sinner.
Did our Lord rise from the dead? Surely, for He had glorified God in His death, the fulfilment of all the types and shadows. The third day he arose triumphant from the tomb, the glorious Victor over sin and death and Satan’s power. The pledge is now given to all believers, who shall have died in the usual course of nature, that they will be raised from the dead by the same power by which our Lord was raised.
“Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” (1 Cor. 15:20-21)
Cremation destroys the truth and beauty of the thought of the close connection between the resurrection of Christ and that of the believer. Cremation puts Scripture sadly out of joint. Think of the time-honoured Scripture that has been read over the graves of hundreds of thousands of God’s saints. Please note particularly the “IT” repeated eight times in this precious Scripture, connecting the body sown with the body raised. There can be no resurrection unless what is committed to the Lord in death is raised literally. This is beyond human understanding, yet the believer relies on “the power of God,” and the plain teaching of Scripture.
“IT is sown in corruption; IT is raised in incorruption; IT is sown in dishonour; IT is raised in glory; IT is sown in weakness; IT is raised in power; IT is sown a natural body; IT is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:42-44)
How these verses are robbed of their beautiful meaning, if read over a coffin, about to be propelled by invisible machinery into a blazing furnace, and reduced to ashes in a couple of hours or less. Surely we do well to avoid a practice that weakens the meaning and comfort of Scripture at a time when hearts are torn with grief, and need all the comfort they can get in their hour of need.
At Christian funerals we have noted again and again how a note of holy triumph has been struck as the mourners looked into the grave, and realised that the body of their loved one, sown in corruption, dishonour and weakness, will assuredly be raised in incorruption, glory and power, aye, even in the likeness of their Lord and Saviour, who died for them that this hour of holy triumph might be theirs.
We end with a solemn warning. The effort of the enemy is to break down all God’s basic laws. This is clearly seen in marriage, parenthood and death. These basic laws are being trampled under foot in an alarming way today. Marriage, if convenient, is tolerated; if not, lightly set aside. Divorce courts are full, and queues waiting for their turn to be released, very often brought about by the connivance and arrangement of both parties. A few years ago a single judge was sufficient to attend to these matters; today it needs several judges to deal with this avalanche of unsavoury uncleanness. Parenthood is being lightly treated. Illegitimacy is woefully on the increase. Responsibilities of parenthood are largely refused. Children are being brought up as pagans.
So it is with death. There is a desire to keep death out of sight as much as possible. No more unsightly cemeteries, but columbariums with beautiful flowers, and no sign of death about them, must take their place. Crematoriums are built to be temples of light, and even the coffin is covered with a purple pall on which are placed wreaths of flowers. Put death out of sight as much as possible seems to be the order of the day. But will this feverish desire to put out of sight all trace of death alter grim facts? Will it do away with what comes after death? Assuredly not.
The wisest man that was, or ever will be, King Solomon, a man who had the opportunities of tasting life in its various phases more than any, wrote,
“It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.” (Eccl. 7:2)
That is exactly what the devil does not wish, that survivors should lay the solemn teaching of death to heart, but, on the contrary, that all trace of such an unpleasant thing as death should be put out of sight. The camouflaging of death, whether it be done by a Cremationist or a Christian Scientist, or any one else, runs counter to this Scripture.
We end where we began by bringing before you God’s basic law as to the disposal of dead bodies:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, TILL THOU RETURN UNTO THE GROUND: for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art [not ashes], and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Gen. 3:19)
Defy God’s basic law, and you will have to face Him about it. Above all, let Christians stand firm for Christian burial, and refuse Pagan Cremation.
A.J. Pollock (1946)