Should believers bury their dead only?
While many believers may never have given this a passing thought, some others might think quite a lot about it, and may even have some concerns about it, especially as they or their loved ones grow older. The issue is this: is it right for a Christian to be cremated upon death? Or is burial the only real option for the believer?
Some general things can first be said. Often for the believer and non-believer alike a main consideration is the price. Cremation is simply much cheaper than a burial. Poorer folks – including poorer Christians – may thus think twice about a burial if they know a much cheaper option is available.
But mere pragmatism alone is not the best way to resolve this matter. “What does Scripture say about this” is the first question the Christian should ask. And on this topic we have some descriptive texts, and perhaps a few prescriptive ones, but in the main, we do not have clear and direct biblical teaching on this.
Yes, burial has always been the norm for believers, but are there hard and fast biblical rules that tell us one way or another? An important and long standing theological and hermeneutical principle has to do with “things indifferent”. The term used is “adiaphora” – this has to do with those things which are neither sanctioned nor prohibited by Scripture. See more on that subject here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/15/on-adiaphora/
That is, there is some room to move here, and we need not go to the wall over such matters. Certainly, the salvation of the believer is not at risk regardless of which way he proceeds on this. And there are plenty of questions we still have about the resurrection body.
Jesus was recognisable when he came back from the dead, as were some other biblical characters. But let’s say I die at age 100. Will my resurrection body take on the form of that 100-year-old? Or a 50-year-old? Or my current almost 71-year-old? How exactly we will appear in our resurrection body is not exactly clearcut from Scripture.
And plenty of people can be horribly disfigured in their death, say from explosions, fires, and so on. In some cases there may be no real bodily remains left at all to bury. Yet we know that these folks will have a new resurrection body, presumably complete and intact – and recognisable.
Sure, there are plenty of things that happen in life, often by accident, that we don’t go out of our way to emulate or imitate. But just in terms of imagery alone, the biblical notion of falling and rising, of death and resurrection, is nicely captured in being lowered into the earth, awaiting the return of Christ. That picture is not seen so readily in cremation.
Cremation, in terms of religious traditions, is much more routine in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. In those belief systems the body is seen as something to escape from, not celebrate. But in cultures where Judaism, Christianity and Islam dominate, burial is the main option. These faiths do have a much higher view of the human body – especially the Judeo-Christian tradition. Bodily resurrection is certainly crucial in the biblical worldview.
The Biblical data
I already mentioned that we do not have all the much clear and direct biblical material to draw from here. Some Christians have said that burning was a part of God’s judgment when dealing with sinners, and so we should stay away from that.
In Joshua 7 for example we read about the sin of Achan. Verse 25 tells us the fate of the guilty: “And Joshua said, ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.’ And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.”
Some sins are so abhorrent that burning with fire is the punishment meted out. Sexual sin seems to predominate here. In Genesis 38 we read about Judah and Tamar. Verses 24-25 read: “About three months later Judah was told, ‘Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned’.”
And in Leviticus 20:14 we read this: “If a man takes a woman and her mother also, it is depravity; he and they shall be burned with fire, that there may be no depravity among you.” But some other Old Testament passages could be seen as being a bit more ambiguous. In Leviticus 21 we read about priestly holiness. The priest is not to go near dead bodies, thereby making himself unclean (v. 11). A possible case for cremation then? But a sinful daughter of a priest “shall be burned with fire” (v. 9).
In the context of our discussion about cremation, it must also be mentioned that in some of these passages – and others like them – it is not always clear if the sinners were burned to death, or if they were executed and THEN their corpses were burned.
Also consider 1 Samuel 31 where we read about the death of Saul. It says “valiant men” from the Israelite town of Jabesh-Gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons (vv. 11-13). Were they right to do so? Saul of course was a king of Israel, chosen by God, but he did go off the rails at the end of his reign.
Other rather general texts could be presented here, but the truth is we do not have a direct condemnation of cremation in the Bible. So the short answer to our question is this: burial has always been the traditional Christian way of doing things, based as it is on a high view of the body, and the blessed hope we have of the return of Christ and living forever in resurrection bodies.
I could finish here, but perhaps I can quote just one Christian leader on this. Some years ago Russell Moore penned a piece on why he is no fan of cremation. The entire article is worth looking at, but his closing paragraphs can be offered here:
I suppose I shouldn’t find the heat that comes from the cremation debate all that surprising. It is deeply personal, especially for those of us with loved ones resting now in urns or scattered beneath oak trees or embedded in man-made reefs off the coast. What bothers me as a Christian minister is not so much that some of us are cremated as that the rest of us don’t seem to care.
Like the culture around us, we tend to see death and burial as an individual matter. That’s why we make our own personal funeral plans, in the comfort of our living room chairs. And that is why we ask the kind of question we ask about this issue: “What difference does it make, as long as I am resurrected in the end?”
Recognizing that cremation is sub-Christian doesn’t mean castigating grieving families as sinners. It doesn’t mean refusing to eat at the dining room table with Aunt Flossie’s urn perched on the mantle overhead. It doesn’t mean labeling the pastor who blesses a cremation service as a priest of Molech.
It simply means beginning a conversation about what it means to grieve as Christians and what it means to hope as Christians. It means reminding Christians that the dead in the graveyards behind our churches are “us” too. It means hoping that our Christian burial plots preach the same gospel that our Christian pulpits do.
I wish my grandfather hadn’t been cremated. As I preached his funeral, I wished I could join with centuries of Christians in committing his body, intact, to the ground. I hated his cremation, but I didn’t hate it as others do, as those who have no hope. Instead, I thanked a faithful God for a great man’s life.
And then I paused in recognition, knowing that one day the wisdom of the embalmers and the power of the cremators will be put to shame by the Wisdom and Power of God in the eastern skies above us. And I expect it will be glorious to see what the voice of Jesus can do to a south Mississippi funeral home’s medium-price urn. https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=20-01-024-v&readcode=&readtherest=true#therest
Whatever direction you end up heading in as to this matter, we need to extend grace to others, especially when they are in a time of grief and bereavement. Indeed, exactly 42 years ago today I married a wonderful Australian woman. For 41 years my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. This year – today – I celebrate it alone.
The last thing I need now (or six months ago when we buried her), would be a big Christian argument over these matters. Think and pray about it, and do what you sense God wants you to do on this.