Cremation, while the customary practice of the ancient Greeks, and not unknown among the Romans, was certainly not the ordinary mode of disposing of the dead among the Hebrews or other oriental peoples. Even among the Greeks, bodies were often buried without being burned (Thuc. i. 134,6; Plato Phaedo 115 E; Plut. Lyc. xxvii). Cicero thought that burial was the more ancient practice, though among the Romans both methods were in use in his day (De leg. ii.22,56). Lucian (De luctu xxi) expressly says that, while the Greeks burned their dead, the Persians buried them (see BURIAL, and compare 2 Samuel 21:12-14). In the case supposed by Amos 6:10, when it is predicted that Yahweh, in abhorrence of "the excellency of Jacob," shall "deliver up the city," and, "if there remain ten men in one house, that they shall die," and "a man's kinsman (ARVm) shall take him up, even he that burneth him," etc., the suggestion seems to be that of pestilence with accompanying infection, and that this, or the special judgment of Yahweh, is why burning is preferred. When Paul (1 Corinthians 13:3) speaks of giving his body to be burned, he is simply accommodating his language to the customs of Corinth. (But see Plutarch on Zarmanochegas, and C. Beard, The Uersal Christ.)
How far religious, or sanitary, or practical reasons were influential in deciding between the different methods, it is impossible to say. That bodies were burned in times of pestilence in the Valley of Hinnom at Jerusalem is without support (see Ezekiel 39:11-16). The "very great burning" at the burial of Asa (2 Chronicles 16:14) is not a case of cremation, but of burning spices and furniture in the king's honor (compare Jeremiah 34:5). Nor is 1 Kings 13:2 a case in point; it is simply a prophecy of a king who shall take the bones of men previously buried, and the priests of the high places that burn incense in false worship, and cause them to be burned on the defiled altar to further pollute it and render it abominable.
There is in the New Testament no instance of cremation, Jewish, heathen or Christian, and clearly the early Christians followed the Jewish practice of burying the dead (see Tert., Apol., xlii; Minuc. Felix, Octav., xxxix; Aug., De civ. Dei, i.12,13). Indeed, cremation has never been popular among Christians, owing largely, doubtless, to the natural influence of the example of the Jews, the indisputable fact that Christ was buried, the vivid hope of the resurrection and the more or less material views concerning it prevalent here and there at this time or that. While there is nothing anti-Christian in it, and much in sanitary considerations to call for it in an age of science, it is not likely that it will ever become the prevailing practice of Christendom.
George B. Eager
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