Cremation or Burial: A biblical persective

(Originally published June 30, 2006– and published in the church’s newsletter after this topic came up in discussions in Sunday school.)

Cremation vs. Burial: A Biblical Perspective

I have to admit that this is a controversial topic, but I don’t think it should be. In fact, it has been a blessing for me to speak to a number of you on this point. I love the fact that you are interested in the subject and have challenged me with some thoughts on the topic. As we look at this topic of cremation, realize that my love for you will not change if we disagree. If you hold to the cremation of your body after your death, I still love you as a brother or sister in the Lord. How your body is disposed of after death is between you and the Lord. My affections for you will not change. This came to light when one of my elders asked me the simple question: “If someone from our congregation is cremated, will you officiate the memorial?” That told me more about myself than I realized. Even though I have strong convictions about this, my convictions towards the congregation are stronger.

The answer was “Yes, I would.”

As a pastor, I feel it is my job to teach you what the Bible has to say about these things. While cremation is not a black and white issue, (in other words, there is no command: thou shalt not use cremation) I do believe the Bible does hold enough evidence to give us a clear picture on what we should do with our bodies after death.

Therefore, I would like to present to you some of the evidence for Christian burial as opposed to Christian cremation. If you do not agree with me at the end of this article, that is fine. All I ask is that you read the article, pray about it, and see where the Lord leads you.


In my comments about the Apostles’ Creed in worship on June 18th, I mentioned that we believe in the burial of the body because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. I said that cremation is not a Christian concept and Christians should not resort to this method of burial. Afterwards, it came to my attention that there was some confusion over the issue. Allow me to clarify some of my statements. First, I am not saying that by using cremation that we are not Christians. Our Christianity is based upon belief in Christ for salvation, not how we bury our bodies. Yet, how we bury our bodies does make a statement about what we truly believe. More on that in a moment.

The second misconception about cremation concerns those that are killed in events like 9/11. What about their bodies? Does that mean that they are not Christians because their bodies were incinerated? Of course, the answer is no. Those who die in war or events like 9/11 are not cremated. They may have had their bodies incinerated, but this is not cremation, even though the end result is the same. Those who die this way, have no say over their funeral. They did not set out to be incinerated, or leave it in their last will and testament for such.

Finally, another misconception is the belief that God cannot handle their ashes at the Second Coming. I’m not saying that either. God can do anything as far as His character will allow Him. The reconstitution of our bodies is nothing for Him, whether our bodies become dust through natural decomposition or they are ashes through incineration. If God can take dust and turn it into a man, as He did with Adam, He can take the dust of our bodies and do the same.

Biblical Example

We believe that the Bible is the only rule and authority for faith and practice. There is no authority outside of Scripture. So, when it comes to beliefs and practices that are not expressly stated, we must come to the Scripture for example to help us know how we should live. For example, there is no specific passage that says we should use wine over grape juice, but the text seems to indicate the use of wine. This is why we practice using wine in communion.

The same is true for burial. There is no one passage that states we should bury our dead, but the evidence seems to indicate that this is the biblical practice both in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.

In Genesis 23, Abraham negotiates with the Hittites for a cave in which to bury Sarah and the rest of his dead. In Genesis 47, Israel gives specific instructions to his sons not to be buried in Egypt, but to have his body buried in the land of Canaan. Joseph also gave instructions that when the descendants of Israel came out of Egypt, they were to bury him in the land of Canaan as well. The people carry these instructions out and he is buried in Canaan (Exodus 13:19 and Joshua 24:32).

We also see Joshua buried on his own land (Joshua 24:29ff, Judges 2:9), Gideon buried in the tomb of Joash, his father (Judges 8:29ff), and others in Judges, Ruth, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, in which David was buried (1 Kings 2:10ff), and host of other examples.

Clearly burial is the practice of Old Testament saints. If cremation is acceptable, it seems that they would have used this practice, especially in these cases, for it would have been much easier on them. But they did not use cremation.

There is cremation in two instances in the Old Testament. However, these instances seem to be the exception, and not the rule. The first instance of cremation is that of King Saul by the people of Jabesh Gilead (1 Samuel 31:11ff). Even then, King David has the bones of Saul buried with the bones of his father. While fire was used on Saul, burial was as well. Apparently the bones were left behind, of which, David instructed that they were to be buried with Saul’s fathers. There is a second account again in 2 Chronicles 16:14 with the cremation of Asa.

But for both cases, we don’t want to look to Saul or Asa for our example. Neither man was something we are to follow or emulate. Saul was in constant rebellion against the Lord and eventually had his kingship removed from him for disobedience. As for Asa, he took articles from the Temple showing disrespect and made a pack with Syria, showing a lack of trust in the Lord. Both of his actions brought about strong rebuke from the Lord, who would plague him with many wars. He eventually died from diseases in his feet because he did not seek the help of the Lord, but the help of physicians. Therefore, we do not want to follow in either one of these men’s footsteps in life or death.

The New Testament shows that burial was the normative practice among those who believed is Jesus as their Savior. Jesus stops the funeral procession in Luke 7:11ff and raised the widow’s son from the dead. The point of the miracle is to show Christ’s power over even death. Yet the people were not taking the man’s body to a funeral pyre, but to a tomb, as was the practice.

We also see that Lazarus, friend of Jesus and believer, was buried in a tomb in John 11. Jesus waited until the tomb was sealed to arrive in order to raise Lazarus from the dead four days after he died. He then performs one of His greatest miracles and Lazarus comes forth out of the tomb. Had they performed cremation, would this miracle have taken place? Jesus would have had to reconstitute ashes, which would have been perfectly in His capabilities. The point that I’m trying to make is that they buried the sickly body of Lazarus. They did not cremate him.

There are two reasons why this miracle was important.One is that many want to be cremated because of the disfiguring and gruesome illnesses that they have. Yet, here is a case where Lazarus was ill and they buried him. The other way this miracle is important is that Jesus points to His future Resurrection from the grave and to our spiritual and bodily resurrection as well.

Jesus Himself died and was buried three days as well. Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb, it was not cremated. If we are to identify with Christ in other aspects of our life, then let us follow this example in our death as well. Why? Because of what we are saying to those left behind. We place our bodies in the grave because we are looking forward to the future hope of the resurrection of the body, of THIS body. The entire doctrine of the resurrection is one which shows us that Christ died on the cross, not just to redeem us spiritually, but to redeem the entirety of our being. We are not two entities, body and soul, but one entity consisting of body and soul. These two entities are not meant to be separated. They will be at our deaths, and this is why death is sad, but at the resurrection, our bodies and souls will be reunited and glorified.

By burying our bodies, we are telling those around us that this resurrection is real. It is something we look forward to. It will happen. Cremation does not convey this truth. It merely eliminates the body for us, and allows us to enter into the pagan tradition of dumping our ashes in a lake or on the beach, or in our flower garden out back, or shaken together with our spouse’s ashes.

Yet, our entire lives and death are to point to Christ and who we are in Christ. It is a point of identification. The reason that Christ was baptized was so that He could identify with us in our baptism. He didn’t need it at all. It is also a point of identification for us. We identify with Christ when we are baptized. The same is true for our funerals. I am not saying our funerals are a sacrament. Baptism is merely and example of our identification with Him. So too is our burial a means of identifying with Jesus. He was laid in the grave and resurrected, and we are to be as well.

Fire Often Means Judgment

Now, lets examine the practice of cremation. While burial was the Biblical example, let’s look at what burning the body after death also conveys, for there is meaning in everything we do.

Cremation is the burning of the body after death. It is the use of fire on the body. This is done by the Hindus in order to return the body to ashes, so that those ashes can be spread among creation, symbolizing the person’s return to creation and oneness with creation. Our oneness is not to be found in creation, but in the Creator. He is the One whom we worship. To worship anything else, even the creation, is idolatry.

However, the symbolism of fire also has another meaning in the light of Scripture. It is the meaning of judgment upon a person.

In Genesis 19 we see God’s displeasure with Sodom and Gomorrah when He rained brimstone and fire on both cities for their immorality. After it was said and done, there was nothing left of the town or the people. This was a real event in history, but also the same imagery we have of those in the after life who are wicked. God will punish them with fire that is never quenched and the worm never dies (Isaiah 66:24). Clearly fire is used to show God’s displeasure. There is also nothing left of these individuals to be mourned. They’re names are removed from memory by the fire, blotted out.

In Leviticus 11:1-3 both Nadad and Abihu are consumed by fire for their unauthorized worship of God. There was no burial for the two, because they were consumed, or devoured by God’s wrath. Aaron, the two men’s father, was even prevented from morning their death.Again, God is showing His displeasure with the two by the use of fire.

In Leviticus 20:14, God instructs the people for a man not to marry a woman and her mother. If they do, all of them are to be burned with fire, because what they have done is wickedness. Again, God’s displeasure is shown by the punishment that is to be given to the wicked. They are burned to death.

In Leviticus 21:9, the daughter of a priest who plays the harlot is also to be put to death using fire. Again, this shows God’s displeasure with the wicked.

In Joshua 7 we have the story of Achan’s unbelief in taking accursed things. This brought God’s fierce wrath against the nation because it showed unbelief among the people. When it was discovered that Achan had sinned against God, the people of Israel stoned Achan and his family and then burned them with fire after they had stoned them. God’s wrath turned from Israel. Again, the Israelites did not bury the bodies of Achan and his family. They burned the bodies. This too showed the displeasure of God upon Achan’s family. The memorial that was left there is a memorial of shame, not a memorial of a faithful saint that lived out his life and went to be with his fathers. The name of Achan is a name of reproach and the burning of his body symbolizes the future hope of his wickedness.

In 2 Kings 1 we see judgment come down on the military guard that confronts Elijah the Tishbite, not once but twice. Both times, the men came to get Elijah, and Elijah called fire down upon their heads. Again, this is not seen as a blessing, but a curse. There is no burial for these men because their bodies are consumed by fire.

The bulk of Biblical evidence leads us to believe that the burning of the body does not represent something good. It signifies the wrath of God upon unbelief, wickedness and rebellion against God. Therefore, why would we want to adopt a symbol that represents God’s wrath, as opposed to His grace?

By having our bodies placed in the tomb, sepulcher or grave, we are giving testimony one last time to the grace that we have been given and look forward to. This is why 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is read at the graveside service. But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

It is the future hope and shows that the grave is only temporary, not permanent. Since this is true, let us return to the biblical practice of burial, by living and dying for Christ.

If you read this article and still have questions about death, cremation, or burial, please feel free to call me or come by and talk with me. I will be glad to discuss these, or any issues with you. Let this not be a topic which divides us, but unites us in our common belief in Christ our Savior.

UPDATE: For further reading, may I recommend Nick Batzig’s article, A Biblical Theology of Burial.


Filed under Archived Posts, Christianity

12 responses to “Cremation or Burial: A biblical persective

  1. My sole concern on the topic of burial vs cremation is the financial burden it leaves on those I leave behind. From the research I’ve done, you can expect a normal funeral and burial to cost anywhere from $5000 to $10,000. That’s to put you in the ground. The same funeral and standard cremation would cost around $2000 less simply because of the lack of a casket. A cremation alone costs around $1000, dropping the financial burden on the family to a fraction of what a full funeral and burial would cost. Since my family will have needs beyond my death, and since we are to provide for our families, it seems an unwarranted waste of necessary funds to bury rather than cremate. Could you perhaps comment on this line of thinking?

  2. Hi Stan,
    I agree that the cost of burial is way too high. I think part of the problem is the fact that we have given over the burial of our loved ones to professionals instead of dealing with it ourselves. The church can help in this area, but getting back into taking care of their own. If you look at older churches and churches in Europe, you will notice that graves yards always accompany the older churches. This is because they took care of their own. It has only been since we have turned it over to “professionals” that the cost has skyrocketed. If we would take this back from them, the cost would come down. Yes, there are things to think about such as coffins and burial, but this should be our responsibility to our family members, and not seek to put it back into the hands of those who see it for a profit.

    Also, the process of having to bury our own dead, approaching the meeting house with our family members buried around the meeting house would also help in our understanding of our future, on this earth and in heaven. The cemetery around the church reminds of the reality of this life.

    This is one reason why I hate “memorial garden” type cemeteries. They seek to cleanse the reality of death from death, making people think that they have been buried in a park. “Hey, let’s drop grandma into the ground and then throw the Frisbee!” No! A cemetery should be a sober reminder of our future and lead us to dealing with Christ all the more.

    I hope that helps.

  3. Yes, churches with burial grounds … it’s like having a LITERAL crowd of witnesses surrounding, eh?

  4. But, in answer to my question, since churches today do not (and, likely, cannot) do that kind of thing, your answer would be, “Yes, it’s terribly expensive, but that’s what we’re stuck with. Burial rather than cremation is that important, so pay what it costs and do it”, right?

  5. Hi Stan,
    Without taking an active role in changing it, that is what we would be left with. So the responsible thing to do is save up and pay for it now, so our families do not have to deal with the costs then, or seek to change it on the church level. When I originally wrote the article, I was at a church that was willing, in principle, to put a graveyard at the church. However, they never actually moved in that direction. I’m hoping at my next church to be a part of something that focuses on that as well.

    The church I am at now has the land to do it, but I don’t have the time to address the issue, nor the wherewithal. But the church as a whole needs to address this topic.

  6. Denise H.

    I understand what you are saying about the incineration of bodies on 9/11. They didn’t choose to be incinerated. I find it hard to believe..that the Good Lord, would hold you responsible for what happens to your body after death…How on earth can you control that??? God is all powerful and then some, but his hands are tied because we chose cremation??? It is just another non-essential, man made rule! Why would people choose to fight over this. So, the people who suffer the most, as usual, are the poor. You can’t bury someone with your next paycheck..give me a break. I mean you could, but for the most of us. We can not entertain the idea of burial. It makes me sick..that non-essential, not worth dividing people or arguments among believers. Your only as good as how you were buried? Yes, God doesn’t have the power to resurrect you, if only your loved one could have afforded burial. Whatever, your point is lost on me. I know that God will do as he chooses at all times. We do not think like him!!! I guess maybe when you can put momma in the back yard in a garbage sack or whatever, as long as she is buried she might make it to Heaven….Do you understand how many people you are hurting with this? I’m sure burial is idea for anyone but it can’t be helped. unless they give me a free casket and a spot in the ground God is happy…but if i don’t…I’ll have to answer and possibly lose my Salvation. The divisions among Christians….and so called Christians is getting wider and wider. I’m sure burial is important, i’m not ignorant of the scriptures, however, i believe people should be able to agree to disagree. Creamtion or dying in a fiery crash should not be looked down upon. No one can be responsible for what others do with your body after you are dead….i no longer have control, i am dead!

    • Hi Denise,

      Again, this post is not mean to divide anyone from anything. It is simply meant to point out the way we should bury our loved ones if we have the control to do so (9/11 is the example of not being in control). We bury our dead because of the hopeful resurrection to come. By doing so, we are saying that we believe in the resurrection of the body for those who are in Christ and look forward to His return so that the body we are placing in the ground, will then be united to the soul of that person at His coming. That body will be made new again, like Christ’s present body, and will no longer suffer from the wages of sin and the threat of death.

      Not doing this does not make one a Christian. But by burying our loved ones, we have another opportunity to proclaim the gospel to those around us.

  7. Elijah

    Pastor Timothy, just wanted to say thank you for your summation. We were just having this discussion in our family and this helps very much. I agree there is no black and white rule and if it were really a sticking point, there would have been a rule for us to follow. You are right in that we need to follow and make our lives as examples to those around us and if we can do that even in death glory goes to God. We all know and believe that our God looks to our hearts and the decisions and choices we make. Even when we take a step in the wrong direction, God’s grace and mercy still flow. We all have free choice and can either choose what God wants for us in every way, or we can try and often fail at doing things our way. Again, like you state we don’t lose our Salvation. But if we turn our hearts towards God and allow his will to be done in our lives, we will walk in the right path as he has already gone ahead of us laying out. Thank you much and may our Lord continue to bless you and your family.

  8. Helen

    Hi, I have had the interest to investigate this topic of how one must be buried and obviously landed on your site. Thanks for your work. and some research. I guess we must all pray and ask the Lord for more wisdom on this topic. Another thing that just concerns me that one must make sure that your family do get indeed buried. There are many evil satanist that dug up bodies for rituals etc. OK I know it sounds horrible to bring these issues up.. I also found some information, also tonight on a Gunter von Hagens who plastinate bodies. He claims that the bodie he plastinate and put in museums or for medical research was donated to him but i do wonder though. When I saw some of his work on his site and youtube I had really mixed feelings on his work… to a degree yes bodies could be used for medical research…. which I still have mixed feelings about but what this von Hagen does he would create the dead bodies in museum pieces and in various forms and shapes etc…. which I think is an abomination what he is doing…. would love to hear your comments on this..

  9. Marcus Fisher

    Thank You sir for your insight on these two subjects.

  10. Desmond Iloputaife

    Satisfy with the answer given on burial and cremation. I still have one question which goes like this, in chritianity is it acceptable to have burial ceremony twice?