Many believers have struggled with the decision to bury a body vs. cremation and burial of remains. Without getting into a whole schpeel of historical paganism or Old Testament practices let’s consider a few practical implications and a few theological consequences of the arguments.
There are some that believe burial more Christian because the body is resurrected. Well, what about the Martyrs or those who die because of fire or have been burned due to disease during the plagues? Have those bodies been disposed of sinfully? I think not. While the Old Testament does reveal a prescription for burial for the Israelites, hopefully, no Christian practices the precepts of Judaism. If you want to know why that would be an offensive option, just read Galatians and then the Book of Hebrews.
Practically, burial is a cultural phenomenon, and because of this, it carries with it religious implications. However, the practice of burial is different among Christians in almost every culture. As Americans, we have “westernized” every detail of our thinking about Biblical study and practice to the point that missionaries feel ‘westernizing’ evangelized people groups is Christ-like. I won’t get into that here, but I argue that it is an abomination to do so. Burial, while carrying religious significance, is a matter of preference, law, economics and culture. While I prefer burial of my body and the bodies of my loved ones, I would be hard pressed to suggest that it is a more Godly manner of disposing of a body. Know I know my use of words seems harsh, but when I die, I am just a body. And better yet, a body worthy of the fire! In other words, I pray that my family won’t worship my corpse but rather remember my legacy, and that, by the Lord’s grace, will be a gospel-centered legacy that points to the worship of Jesus Christ as God, not me as daddy, husband, friend, pastor or philanthropist.
In some places, the law requires bodies to be cremated before burial, and in all places, the laying to rest of human remains is a legal matter and requires a judicial approval as to where they will be kept. Thankfully this is the case lest we all buy a house and find grandpa’s body in the bbq pit. I know in my tenure in California, there was a time limit that a body could be kept for burial without extra storage fees and also that a full burial plot could cost upward of $15,000 for one placement. The additional funeral costs could soar over $45,000 making the death a complete bankruptcy for the widowed spouse or family. Here in our community, a full burial ranges from $15K to $30K while cremation services can be obtained for a mere $1000 or less. I have personally presided over the memorial service of several cremations who were later laid to rest in a cemetery and find the funerals no different than those who use a coffin.
Biblically speaking, the Scripture speaks nothing of how a body should be prepared for burial, disposal, etc. While some well-meaning people like to use the instructions given in Chronicles or Samuel and even Jeremiah (and other places) as proof texts that burning a body is sinful, I would argue that these individuals do not understand basic literary comprehension or they have not read the complete text of those books of the bible and thus are only repeating what they’ve been told over and over again. Some suppose that ‘glorifying’ the Lord Jesus in death means not to be burned, but that is a gross abuse of Scripture to promote one’s agenda. That type of Biblical abuse is a gross sin, and the Bible teaches that it brings with it grave judgment. (James 3:1, Revelation 22:18)
“Let the dead bury the dead.” This direct quote of Jesus found in Luke chapter 9 is where Jesus uses a “pun” to show spiritual and physical death in the same breath. The man was grief-stricken over his father’s death, but in Jesus’ command to follow Him, this man was rebuked that he would desire to finish the burial preparations of his family first. While this is not a contextual conclusion, those who promote a dishonoring the Lord in improper burials, etc., then Jesus would be guilty of violating this kind of teaching. It is best when people use scripture they say what it intends to portray, not read into it. If I were to employ their line of biblical use I could say, “Here Jesus is saying we out not to bury people at all….” Which is nonsense! What does the Scripture teach about burial?
It reveals the cultural NORM of the periods and the practices of the Lord’s people in comparison to the worldly practices of their neighbors. We know that Joshua was told by the Lord to burn the possessions and the members of the family of Achan, but this doesn’t give us a prescription for saying that those that are burned are cursed. It does show us though, that for the people of Israel, death was viewed as a temporary state and that preserving the body and laying in the ground was a normative way of showing such things. In the New Testament times, the Romans buried their dead. Burial is a sign of respect and memorializing. But the condition of the body at burial is not necessarily a mandate from God. What I think we all should see here is that it is a matter of conscience. That means that one is justified in his desire to cremate someone as long as his heart is right in the desire and that his convictions are not superstitious. This thinking goes both ways. To do a customary burial because one thing that it makes the Lord happy or makes them more righteous, this too is sin. If burial is a way of worshipping or idolizing a loved one, it too can be sin. Many people choose cremation for that purpose as well, so they can keep the remains close by.
In the end, some of what I’ve read recently closes with the same argument I do. That burial is a culturally honorable practice but that the Spirit of God must be our guide. It is not a sin to practice cremation and there is no need for repentance and forgiveness for the use of cremation. In some sense, I could argue that it is a poor use of resources to spend tens of thousands of dollars on burials, but I would never counsel anyone against the conviction of that unless they were going to be going into debt to do so.
I hope this short article will at least cause us to think about the differences between what Scripture teaches for us to do and what our culture and customs teach us. When those things collide, God’s word wins out, because He is the truth. When Scripture is silent, we must make our own prayerful decision on matters like these. It is much more realistic that in our day, cremation is not only a better option for space, money, and closure, but it eliminates us from having such an idolatrous relationship with a body instead we should use burial as an opportunity to proclaim the promise of the Resurrection of God’s people and to worship our living Lord Jesus.
Just a few thoughts… not a theological treatise.