Burial, cremation & Christians
This Sunday is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, in which we will recognize and celebrate the sanctity of human life, from womb to tomb. While Christians are in full agreement about the value of life at every stage, there is some disagreement about what to do with our bodies after death. Increasingly, people are choosing cremation over burial, for economic or other reasons.
What the best or preferred method for Christians–burial or cremation–therefore warrants careful discussion, and I want to propose that the discussion does matter. Before discussing it, allow me to list a few important ideas at the outset.
For some people, due to accident or disaster, such as fire, floods or being eaten by a shark–there was no choice what would happen to their body at death. This, though, is rare, and we fully know God can and will resurrect those people’s bodies.
Next, I also do not know of any Christian who thinks God cannot and will not resurrect people who are cremated. Also, everyone knows that even the best cared body will decay and disappear in part.
Lastly, each of us knows a godly person who chose to be cremated and was, and we firmly believe they will be resurrected at the last day because of Jesus Christ, and I, for one, would not pass judgment on their decision.
Given these understandings, I present two main statements why burial would be preferred over cremation for Christians, and then I turn the discussion to some thoughts from other important Christian thinkers and theologians.
- Burial is consistently seen as the biblical method
From Old Testament to New, from Leah to Lazarus, from Jacob to Jesus Himself, the Lord’s people were buried upon death. (There are, of course, just a few exceptions, but by and large, the Lord’s people in the Bible did not cremate their dead.)
This cannot be an accident, as many surrounding cultures cremated their dead. Could Lazarus still have come forth if he had been cremated? Yes of course, but every person among God’s people in the Bible buried their dead.
This is not just about what happens at death; it is also about the last days. Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).
It has to be said that the Bible does not have a verse specifically condemning cremation, nor do the Scriptures shout from the rooftops on the subject. Instead, the Bible consistently and clearly shows God’s people—again and again—burying their dead. The late historian J. Rufus Fears notes that the obvious transition, when Ancient Rome trended away from paganism toward Christianity is proven in part by when Romans moved away from cremation toward burial. Burial, therefore, is a distinctly Christian choice.
- Burial sends a better message
In Christianity, burial lays the body to rest until it will be resurrected. There is a direct correlation between the body that you have and the glorified body you will have in resurrection.
The Bible tells followers of Christ to be salt and light and faithful witnesses. In life and in death, we have an opportunity to tell the world about what we believe will happen in the Last Day. If we do not bury our dead, we can unwittingly send the signal that we do not care about the bodies God gave us in life nor in death. Care for the body through burial sends a better message.
Cremation is popular today, partly because it is convenience and cheaper. Many poor decisions–such as casual divorce–are done for these reasons. To follow Christ is neither convenient nor cheap.
Yes burial is expensive, but it also gives location for those left behind to grieve. If someone is cremated and has their ashes scattered at sea, the mourners have no physical location where to remember and grieve. Burial offers this consolation in a better way. If someone wishes to be buried but cannot afford it, this is an opportunity for the church to step in and assist.
/// What others are saying
“Who are you to talk about this topic?” someone might say. I’m just a Baptist blogger. There are others who bring more weight to this discussion.
Southern Baptist historian and theologian Timothy George, in his essay on the topic for Christianity Today, said, “As the catacombs in Rome attest, the early Christians insisted on burying their dead. Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means ‘sleeping places,’ reflecting belief in a future resurrection. Early liturgies for the dead included the reading of Scriptures, prayers, hymns, and almsgiving for the poor.
“Why were Christians so concerned about proper disposal of the body? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human was created by God, bore his image, and deserved to be treated with respect because of this. (2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever. (3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor. (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come.”
Southern Baptist author and ethicist Dr. Russell Moore has some profound thoughts on why burial is what Christians do. In his essay, “The Godly Waste of Christian Burial,” Moore said, “Of all the issues of controversy among Christians, I find few more incendiary than whether or not we should, well, incinerate the bodies of our loved ones. I find that Christians become agitated, defensive, and personally insulted more quickly on the question of cremation than on almost any other contemporary question. And I find this odd. A Christian burial seems, in this culture, more and more nonsensical: a waste of money, a waste of otherwise usable land, a waste, perhaps, even of emotion, as we try to ‘hold on to the past’ and fail to ‘move through our grief and get on with life.’ But if someone had asked any previous generation of Christians or of pagans if cremation were a Christian act, the answer would have seemed obvious to them, whether they were believers or infidels: Christians bury their dead.”
It is not only contemporary Christian thinkers and theologians who have recognized burial as the better alternative, as Moore himself notes. All previous generations of Christians, by and large, have preferred burial over cremation until our own day. Is it possible that every previous generation was wrong and we are right? By choosing burial, we are humbly submitting to the wisdom of other Christians before us.
Moore also said, “Today, however, an anti-cremation stance is often ridiculed by Christians as, at best, Luddite and, at worst, carnal. When I counsel a family to reject the funeral director’s cremation option, I am often asked: ‘Can’t God raise a cremated Christian just as he can raise a decomposed buried Christian?’ The question is more complicated than whether God can reconstitute ashes. Of course he can. The question is whether we should put him in a position of having to do so in the first place.”
He concluded, “For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing. It is caring for a person. In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the ‘real’ person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.”
Respected Bible teacher John MacArthur is not emphatic on the issue. While Dr. MacArthur admits, “However, burying the body was the standard practice among the Israelites in the Old Testament and Christians in the New,” he says, “The believer will one day receive a new body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Job 19:25-26), thus the state of what remains of the old body is unimportant.”
“Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff points out, though, that there is a “one to one correlation” between the body that is and the body we will have in the resurrection. In other words, the Body of Christ that lay in the tomb was not swapped out for a new one (recall Christ had wounds in His Hands and Feet), it was the same physical body, glorified.”
In a very careful analysis of the issue, Christian author and ethicist Norman L. Geisler said, “Whereas burial is an important practice and symbol in Scripture, cremation is a poor symbol of scriptural truth.”
In summary, while there is room for disagreement on the issue, and God can and will resurrect cremated Christians, burial is by far the more biblical and better choice for how to handle our dead.
Regardless of your personal view on the issue, we can all agree and rejoice in the fact that death is not the end, but resurrection life is awaiting all who are found in Christ. Thanks be to God!