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Cremation or Burial: Does It Matter?

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

The Thought of Death – A Sanctifying Influence

Louis Berkhof points out that death is not necessary for sanctification, for Enoch and Elijah were made perfect without experiencing death. Nor is it absolutely essential for delivering us from this present evil age, for God may do this without the instrumentality of death, as he most certainly will for those who remain alive at Christ’s Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). Rather

“[t]he very thought of death, bereavements through death, the feeling that sickness and sufferings are harbingers of death, and the consciousness of the approach of death, – all have a very beneficial effect on the people of God. They serve to humble the proud, to mortify carnality, to check worldliness and to foster spiritual-mindedness. In the mystical union with their Lord believers are made to share the experiences of Christ. Just as He entered upon His glory by the pathway of sufferings and death, they too can enter upon their eternal reward only through sanctification. Death is often the supreme test of the strength of the faith that is in them, and frequently calls forth striking manifestations of the consciousness of victory in the very hour of seeming defeat, 1 Peter 4:12-13. It completes the sanctification of the souls of believers, so that they become at once ‘the spirits of just men made perfect,’ Hebrews 12:23, Revelation 21:27. Death is not the end for believers, but the beginning of a perfect life.” Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1939,1941 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 670-671

The fact of our future death should cultivate a seriousness about life that makes personal holiness a pre-eminent concern. Truly, to the believer, the thought of death is a sanctifying influence.

The Art of Dying

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In the later Middle Ages and through the first centuries after the Reformation, both Protestant and Roman Catholic writers produces literature on the ars moriendi, the art of dying. Recognizing that death is an event of great weight and everlasting consequence, these writers taught that dying well does not come naturally but is a practice that must be learned. Furthermore, they saw dying as a practice that must be learned throughout the whole of life if it is to be executed well . . .

Many people today express the sentiment that the best death is a sudden death that involves no extended period of pain or suffering. While such a perspective is eminently understandable, we should appreciate why so many people in other times and places regarded a sudden and unexpected death as a great misfortune. A sudden and unexpected death leaves no time to put one’s house in order, no time to say goodbye to loved ones, no time to reconcile with those who are estranged, and, most importantly, no time to be sure that one is right with God . . .

Yet sudden death often occurs, whether from natural or unnatural causes. The fact that we go through life not knowing the day of death, not knowing whether it will come tomorrow, though we feel well today, ought to give us pause. The only way to be prepared for this momentous event of death is to be ready at all times. If we make the effort to prepare in youth, in early adulthood, in middle age, or wherever we find ourselves in life’s pilgrimage, we will not be left unprepared even if death comes tomorrow completely unexpectedly. The responsible Christian life involves having one’s house in order now, cultivating relationships with loved ones now, reconciling with those who are estranged now, and taking account of one’s standing before God now. If they are committed to these practices, Christians will be prepared for death – whether it is sudden or gradual – in a way that they would not otherwise be.

– David VanDrunen, Bioethics and Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Crossway, 2009), 175-176.