Cremation and Burial


Posted by Matt Postiff April 30, 2019 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Theology  Death 

In my seminar on death and dying, section 8 is about cremation. Because the question about cremation comes up frequently, I reproduce the section below.

Introduction: He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab.

Deut. 34:6 records the burial of Moses. It tells us that Moses was buried by God in the valley in the land of Moab. His grave was concealed so that no one knew where it was. We can speculate this was done purposely to avoid future generations turning Moses’ grave into an idolatrous stumbling block. But for this lesson, the point is that God buried Moses. So is burial the biblical way to dispose of a dead body, or are there other ways, particularly cremation?

This lesson will argue in favor of burial as the best way to dispose of a corpse. I will not say that cremation is an outright sin, for there are a few instances in the Bible where it is used, but it should not be the general practice. Furthermore, you may have had a relative cremated while not understanding all the principles that may be raised in this lesson. Do not think you are being condemned in these notes for doing that.

In preparation for this lesson, I found very helpful a paper delivered in 2006 at the Rice Lectures at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. The paper is entitled “Is it Better to Bury or to Burn? A Biblical Perspective on Cremation and Christianity in Western Culture” by Dr. Rodney J. Decker, who was at the time Professor of Greek and New Testament at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. This esteemed servant of God is now with the Lord.

The Question

In the whole issue of death and dying, a very common question is this one: “Is it OK to cremate?” But not much is written on the subject from a conservative Christian perspective. Decker reports that very few books on ethics even address the topic. Davis’s book Evangelical Ethics which I happen to have on my shelf does not have the subject listed in the index.

One importance of Deuteronomy 34:6 is that it shows how God preferred to dispose of a dead body. This would immediately seem to give priority to burial, but the question is somewhat more complicated than that. Let’s look at a few issues to clarify how we as Christians should think about burial and cremation.

The Culture and Cremation

Generally cremation is practiced when there is less knowledge of and belief in the Bible. Consider cremation in other religions: Hinduism and Indian belief as well as Buddhism all practice cremation. In these eastern religions, the burning is supposed to release the spirit of the person and prepare it for reincarnation. Buddha was cremated and his example is followed down to today. Confucianism initially did not allow cremation but later forms did allow it. Cremation is associated generally with non-Christian spirituality.

Burial was a cultural practice for Jews and early Christians, whether Jew or Gentile. That does not make it right or wrong per se. Furthermore, the Christian sub-culture with burial developed in various places around the world in the face of the pagan systems that it lived within, including the use of cremation. Christians lived—and died—differently than the pagans around them.

The first phase of the history of cremation in America is connected to liberal Christian belief, Masons, Unitarians, and atheists. A second phase was a pragmatic phase, including the building of many crematories and perfecting methods. The cremation rate was about 5% by the late 1960s. Funeral directors had the upper hand in the market of disposing dead bodies, because bodies were cosmetically altered to make them look more natural.

The third phase of cremation in America is from the 1960s until now, and it has been affected by the counter-culture movement (which often did the opposite of what was traditional), Vatican II (which allowed cremation in 1963 for Catholics), and the exposure of funeral industry practices. Cremation became an economic and commodity issue instead of just a religious one. Environmentalism also plays a role in the recent history of cremation (it is claimed to be better for the environment). The cremation rate today in the United States (2010) is about 30%. By 2025, it is projected to be about 43%.

Cremation and burial are contrasted and promoted by the popular books and movies Star Wars (cremation of the Jedi heroes) and Lord of the Rings (burial for the good guys and cremation for the bad guys).

The Bible and Cremation

Does the Bible encourage cremation? No. There are no passages that encourage cremation.

Does the Bible allow for cremation? Yes, but only in extreme circumstances. Thus cremation cannot be called a sin in every case, but in some cases it is. 1 Samuel 31:8-13 tells of the burning of Saul and his sons after their bodies were recovered from the Philistines. They were probably terribly decomposed and mutilated. This is a war-situation and not a normal civilian situation with regard to handling of dead bodies. Furthermore, 2 Samuel 2:5 shows that this was considered a kindness to treat the bodies the way they did—perhaps to avoid further desecration by the enemy. Finally, note that after the burning, the bones were buried, so burial was still done. 2 Samuel 21:14 shows that the bones were re-buried much later. Amos 2:1-3 and 6:8-10 also mention cremation—the first one as an atrocity and the second as a necessary way to dispose of a massive quantity of bodies. These are the only references to disposal of a body by cremation in the Bible.

There are some other references to murder or attempted murder by burning. See, for instance, Judges 15:6 and Daniel 3.

There are three passages where people are burned in judgment, so the primary emphasis is not on disposal of a body but rather on judgment. Leviticus 10:1-2 is the first, where Nadab and Abihu were killed by fire for offering “strange” or unauthorized or profane fire. Evidently they were drunk when performing tabernacle service and did not follow the proper procedures (Lev. 10:9). Numbers 16, particularly verse 35, recounts how fire came out from the LORD and consumed Korah and his co-conspirators. Joshua 7:25 is the third passage, which tells of the stoning and subsequent burning of Achan for his sin of covetousness and not obeying the “ban” put on the spoils of Jericho. In Joshua 6:24 the city was burned after killing of its inhabitants. This burning was used to implement the ban of 6:17. Achan was burned, in a sense, to complete this destruction of the city and all its inhabitants and spoils. In a sense, all these objects of judgment were cremated.

The other times that bodies were burned was in human sacrifice (2 Kings 17:17; Jer. 7:30-31; 2 Chron. 28:3; forbidden in Deut. 12:31; Lev. 18:21). There is obviously no connection to cremation with these examples.

So, the practice of cremation is not endorsed by the Scriptures.

The Bible and Burial

Many clear examples show that the normal Biblical practice is burial. Jesus was buried, and it was prophesied to be so (Psalm 16:10, Isa 53:9). Lazarus was buried (John 11:39). Sarah was buried (Gen. 23:19). Abraham likewise was interred (Gen. 25:10). Jacob was buried (Gen. 49:29). Many of the kings were buried too (e.g., 2 Kings 23:30 regarding Josiah).

Do the Bible and Biblical example encourage burial? Yes. This is a pattern in the narration of what happened, but does not explicitly teach that burial is the only method allowed to dispose of a body. To solidify our understanding, we have to examine the Bible’s teaching on subjects related to the body and human nature and future.

Biblical Theology and Cremation

This category is called out separately from the previous category because these are ideas put together from systematic theology and not directly from texts in the Bible.

The Connection with the Image of God

We believe it is important to treat the human body with dignity and respect because it is part of God’s creation of man in the image of God. We do not honor the body by itself, but we show respect for the whole person and the person’s memory, of which the body is a part.

Note that the burning of bodies, such as in the trash dump in the Valley of Hinnom (Isaiah 30:33, 66:24, Mark 9:48), is a sign of reproach and shame. Bodies left out for the dogs and vultures (2 Kings 9:36-37, Jer. 34:20), or even hung on a tree, indicated a curse on such people (Deut. 21:23, Joshua 8:29; cf. Acts 5:30, 10:39, Gal. 3:13). Such were not dignified or proper treatment of the body. Additionally, the symbolism of fire is not usually good. It is sometimes connected with purification, but more often it is connected with contempt, with judgment, and with Hades or Hell.

If you are a materialist or believe in nihilism, then cremation is natural. That is because a materialist believes all of life is just matter and there is no “image of God.” The mind and spirit are just molecules and chemicals and electricity and so forth. When we die, we just cease to exist. The natural thing for such a person would be to elect to be cremated.

If you view the spirit as the “real person,” then you will be more likely to accept cremation because the body is not relevant after death. If you believe that the body is a part of the image of God, then burial will be the acceptable way to dispose of the corpse.

What method of disposal is most dignified? Does active burning and destruction best honor the image of God in man? Or does allowing the natural process to decompose the body seem a better method?

The Unity of the Human Body and Spirit

A person is not just his spiritual part, nor is he just his material part. Both together make a human being according to Genesis 2:7. Furthermore, the natural state of human existence in this life and in Heaven or Hell is an embodied existence. All will be resurrected at one time or another (1 Cor. 15:22, Rev. 20:12). The state of the spirit being “naked” at death (2 Cor. 5:3-4) is not normal, and it is only temporary. Because both are part of the human, the body should not be treated as irrelevant.

At a funeral, I almost always say that the old tent (2 Peter 1:14) is not being put away forever, but will be resurrected according to 1 Cor. 15 and 1 Thess. 4:13-18 and many other passages. It is common to hear the phrase that “Grandma so-and-so is not here at the funeral, she is in heaven.” But the reality is, a part of her is down here, and her spirit is in heaven. Obviously, her conscious existence is not down here; it is in heaven. But that body is her body. It belongs to her.

If instead you believe that a person possesses a body instead of the body being an integral part of the person, then cremation will not be a problem for you.

The Connection with Resurrection

Does the Christian’s future hope have anything to do with how to dispose of the body? Yes. Just like baptism by immersion in water symbolizes death and resurrection with Christ, so burial follows the teaching of Paul in 1 Cor. 15 about being planted and raised. Burning and grinding up a body does not seem coordinate with planting and the hope of a future imminent resurrection.

The question arises as to how God will resurrect a cremated or otherwise destroyed body. This is no problem for the omnipotent God, who will resurrect our bodies so they have a substantial identity with our bodies before we died. As to the question of the precise molecules he uses, we do not need to concern ourselves with that. Our bodies are always changing with old cells dying and new ones being formed. And, our resurrected bodies are like plants compared to the seeds that were planted in death. Seeds and plants obviously have differences, but they are inextricably linked. We cannot object to cremation on the basis that it will somehow prevent us from being resurrected because that is just not the case. Our objection has to come from other reasons, which we have discussed already.

Summary of Theological Issues

When the many burial narratives are connected to theological issues of the image of God, the unity of the human personality, and resurrection, the narrative is strengthened so that it gives direction about what we should do—burial.

Other Issues

Organ donation is not a sin and is up to the discretion of the person before they die, or family of the person who has just died. It does not prevent the rapture or resurrection in any way.

Someone may be inclined to donate their body to science. This is a noble goal, since the person probably wishes to help their fellow humans have less pain and suffering. I could not say that it would be a sinful decision. From what I have heard, bodies that are donated are treated with a certain dignity, though whatever is done to the body in terms of anatomy or other studies may be less than dignified. For instance, at the University of Michigan Medical School, there is a memorial service for families after the bodies are "used."

Conclusion

What is the best way to display our Christian convictions about honoring the image of God, about following the Biblical example, and about picturing a future resurrection hope? Cremation seems to fall short in all these areas. A more wise approach is to follow the example of burial.

Decisions should not be reduced only to economics. Otherwise, cremation would win every time since it is cheaper. We should decide things based on the Bible and on the glory of God.

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