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Cremation or Burial: Does It Matter?

Charlie Wingard

Charlie Wingard

Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson and Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Yazoo City, Mississippi

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More and more Christians choose cremation instead of burial. The reasons vary. For some it is a matter of hygiene, for others it is the only option available; still others choose cremation for financial reasons. Many Christians believe the Bible is silent on the matter.

Since I am frequently asked whether cremation is a viable Christian alternative to burial, let me share with you some thoughts on both cremation and burial. I believe the Bible has more to say about the matter than many suppose.[1]

At the outset let me make clear that while I believe a good scriptural case can be made for traditional Christian burial, I do not intend for a moment to cast doubt upon the faith of believers who have chosen cremation. I do, however, believe that the issue is of enough importance to share these thoughts.

First, a historical note. For 1900 years burial was the exclusive means of disposal for the remains of Christians. Certainly, other means were well known. Cremation was common in both ancient Greece and Rome. Many believed that the destruction of the body contributed to the happiness of the departed spirit whose ties to the world were now severed, and to the living who were subject to potential torment by the departed spirit. As the gospel made inroads into Europe, the practice of cremation gradually subsided. The doctrine of bodily resurrection and the nearly uniform practice of burial in the Old Testament scriptures provided a strong incentive for burial. Even if persecutors burned the bodies of martyrs and scattered their ashes or bones, Christians sought to gather and bury them.

Next we turn to the scriptures. Certainly, there is ample biblical precedent for Christian burial. Burial of the body was the practice of the Jews[2]. To leave a corpse unburied or to exhume a body after burial so that the remains were exposed as food for beasts was a gross indignity – or even worse, a sign of judgment.[3] Even criminals were allowed burial.[4] Of significance is the fact that the burning of the body was often an act of divine judgment.[5]

New Testament teaching further promoted the practice of burial:

  • That Christ was buried is a fundamental element of the gospel message.[6] When buried Christians follow the path of humiliation taken by their Lord, Houghton observes “the grave’s dishonor is removed by the burial of Christ, even as death’s sting is removed by His death and its power is snatched from it by His resurrection.”
  • The word “cemetery” means “a place of sleeping.” The body, being united to Christ, sleeps in the grave; the soul departs to be with the Lord. Both Jesus and the apostles referred to deceased believers as being “asleep.” It seems strange to incinerate a body that is referred to as being “asleep.”
  • Christians referred to the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Recognition that our bodies belong to the Lord is a powerful incentive to holy behavior. Service to God in our physical bodies is a central reality of the Christian life – both in this life and the life to come.
  • In the seed imagery of 1 Corinthians 15:44, the body is sown, not burned.
  • Believers are asleep not only in the grave but in Jesus.
  • The doctrine of the bodily resurrection points to the significance of the human body after death. There is continuity between the body that is laid in the grave, and the resurrection body to come. J. B. Payne notes “the biblical insistence upon proper burial, as well as its general opposition to cremation bears inherent testimony to the continuing significance of the human body after death. This significance derives ultimately from the doctrine of the bodily resurrection ‘of those who sleep in the dust of the earth.”[7]

In summary, we may note that the manner of death and the disposition of the corpse do not affect the resurrection, for the resurrection of the body is a display of God’s sovereign power. However, because redemption is of both soul and body, great care and thought should be given to the treatment of the human body immediately after death. I am convinced that the whole biblical doctrine of redemption is best represented in a traditional Christian burial. The souls of believers, united to Christ, are gone to be with the Lord. Yet, the body, too, is united to Christ and rests in the grave, awaiting its glorious resurrection. On that great Resurrection Day the bodies and souls of believers will be reunited, and they will enter into the new heaven and new earth to serve and worship their God.

As Christians we gather around the grave, giving testimony to this resurrection hope. All our longings will at last be fulfilled when Christ returns in glory. Completely renewed in body and in soul, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Let’s keep and cherish the rich tradition of Christian burial.

_____________

[1] For a more extended discussion, see the article by S.M. Houghton in the Banner of Truth, issue no. 70, pp. 37-46. I am indebted to him for many of the insights below and highly recommend a careful reading of his article.

[2] John 19:40

[3] 1 Kings 14:11; 16:4, 2 Kings 9:37, Psalm 79:3; Jeremiah 7:33; 8:1; 16:4,6; 22:19: Ezekiel 29:5; Revelation 11:9

[4] Deuteronomy 21:22ff

[5] Numbers 11:3; 16:35; Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7:25,26; 2Kings 1:10-12

[6] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

[7] In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, 1915), 1:556-561. See Daniel 12:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:52; Revelation 20:13


4 Comments

  1. Micah Harvey says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Charlie; I’ve been enjoying reading your posts.

    Would you explain what you mean by saying that the physical body is united to Christ?

    I have always considered that the important part of the burial process is respect for the body that was created in God’s image. it seems that the burial act is almost unimportant so long as that respect is maintained and the hope of the resurrection is preached God has set up creation to return our physical bodies to dust (Gen 3:19, Ecc 3:20, Ecc 12:7), so the process of returning to the dust – through time and decay or through cremation – seems irrelevant.

    I hope you guys are doing well! I miss you both!

    • Dear Micah –

      Great question. I think our Westminster Shorter Catechism is helpful at this point:

      Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?

      A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.

      Thomas Boston comments on this answer: “[The bodies of dead believers] are still united to Christ. Though death separates their souls from their bodies, it cannot separate them from Christ, even every part of their body from another (1 Thess 5:14). They are members of Christ still, though in a grave (Romans 8:11). … The soul is the man, and it enjoys the glory of heaven; meanwhile the body rests in the grave, where it will enjoy a profound and tranquil repose, till it be united to the soul at the time when the dead in Christ shall rise from their long sleep.” Commentary on the Shorter Catechism, Vol. 2

      I think the traditional Christian burial reflects favorably the examples and teaching of the scriptures, and serves as a comfort to believers and a witness to the world.

      Yours in Christ,

      Charlie

  2. I have almost completed an ethical manuscript on the subject. Bruce Baugus recommended my ethical commentary on suicide. Would you be interested in taking a look at my ms on Burial vs. Cremation?

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