(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.
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.
UPDATE: Also Richard D. Phillips article What Should Christians Think About Cremation is helpful.