Burn or Bury?
Recently there have been a lot of Google searches of people wanting to know whether to cremate or bury someone? Cremation is the burning of a dead human body, especially after a funeral ceremony. It is an act that is predominantly in Asia. To bury is to hide or put something underground. Usually, after a funeral ceremony, people would put the dead person’s body (usually in a coffin) six feet (1.8 meters) underground and cover the hole.
Religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and other Christian denominations like the Lutherans practise cremation. At the same time, others have no clear rules about cremation like the Quakers and Jehovah witness, while others strictly forbid cremation like the Anglicans, Jews, Baptists and Mormons. So what should Christians do, burn or bury? What does the Bible say about Cremation?
Reasons for Cremation
People prefer cremation for various reasons, and some find it cheap since you will not have to keep the body in the mortuary. Burial can cost a lot because of the need to buy a casket, buy land, or space at the cemetery for burying, among many other expenses. Cremation only needs you to pay for the crematorium and get the body burnt to ashes, which doesn’t take long.
Some believe that cremation only hastens the process since buried dead bodies decompose. So there is not much difference between cremation and burring since the body will eventually disintegrate in both. And as such, the Bible says that believers will receive new bodies upon resurrection, so whatever happens to these remains doesn’t matter (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Job 19:125-26), and there is nothing that we can do to undo the promise of God for resurrection and the glory of salvation (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Christian Historical view of Cremation
Since neither burning nor burying stop the promises of God, why then do certain evangelical denominations discourage cremation? It is because, historically, the church discouraged cremation. A question arose: What if a pagan who subscribes to cremation at the point of his death receives Christ and his relatives knew nothing about his faith that preferred burial over cremation? What should the church do? The answer given by evangelical church leaders in 1884 was, “You must not approve of cremation, but remain passive in the matter and be careful in how you instruct people in the matter.”
Examples of People Cremated in the Bible
In the Bible, there are instances where some individuals were cremated. These individuals were cremated for various reasons. First, Saul and Jonathan were cremated because their bodies were severely mutilated because of the battle (1 Samuel 31:8-13). Second, Achan and his family in Joshua 7:25 were cremated because they had transgressed against the Lord, and as a punishment, their bodies were burnt. Finally, the King of Edom was cremated as punishment for mistreating the people of Israel (Amos 2:1).
These were exceptional circumstances, and they were not the norm for the Hebrew community. They believed in burying the dead in the best way possible, which in their eyes was not burning their bodies but burying them. Abraham was seen buying land to bury his wife Sarah (Genesis 23:7-9), and he did not want to be given land or even choice tombs from the Hittites (Genesis 23:6-9). He instead wanted to provide Sarah with the best burial that cost him something as an expression of love. Jesus was also buried in a new tomb belonging to one of the richest people in Jerusalem at that time (Matthew 27:57-60). This shows how the Hebrew people had high regard for the dead and wanted to send them out well.
Reasons why Christians may not Choose Cremation
Based on what we see in the scriptures, should we burn our bodies or bury them? Here are a few reasons why Christians may not choose cremation but burial.
- The unity of the human body and the soul. Most religions that practise cremation view the body as the soul’s prison. And upon death, when you burn the body, you release the soul leaving the body entirely behind. This is not the Scriptures view of the body. Christians believe that the soul will be set free at death, and their body will join them in a resurrected state later (2 Cor. 5:2-4). Scripture doesn’t teach the eternal separation of the soul, and the body at death as other religions teach (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Therefore, burning the body loses the opportuning to promote the belief that the body will be resurrected to be with Christ (Philippians 3:20-21).
- The God-given value for the body of a human. Of all creation, man was created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). Every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalms 139:14). The body is of God. It is not our own, and it is the body that is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Especially for Christians, they are bought by a price by God (1 Peter 1:18-19, Matthew 20:28). They are rescued, redeemed, restored and forgiven by God (Colossians 1:13-14). Therefore, the body of a human has value and burning it sends a message that it is not valuable.
- Dust to Dust. The Bible states that man was made out of the earth (Genesis 2:7). And when Adam sinned, sin brought death, and God gave Adam instruction on how he will go after his death; back to the ground (Genesis 3:19). Genesis 3:19 seems to suggest that Adam’s body was entirely made from the earth, and it should return in the same way.
- Following Christ’s example. Christ, the Son of God, was incarnate and took the human body(John 1:14), and he died and was buried not burnt and note that the third day he resurrected with that body, and he will have it forever. Christians who are Christ’s followers (Acts 11:26) are required to do their best to follow the example of Christ (Matthew 16:24, John 10:27). The same Spirit who raised Jesus from death is in us, and he will rise and give our mortal bodies life (Romans 8:11). Therefore, following the example of Jesus and being buried as opposed to cremated is a way to show that Jesus is your Lord.
- Death is a symbol of sleeping or laying the body to rest. (Mark 5:39; 1 Cor 15:51). Since death is symbolised by the body sleeping in the scriptures (Mark 5:39, 1 Corinthians 15:51), there is the idea that it will wake up one day. Buring the body instead of burning it expresses hope that death is not the end, but there is hope to wake up to.
- Fire symbolises consuming and completely doing away with something (James 3:6). Cremation undermines the hope of resurrection because the body is burned. Burning suggests the end has come, and there is no hope for the body. Consider the message that you could send upon your death that there is hope beyond the grave because you don’t want to have your body burned.
Is Cremation a Sin?
Does the Bible say cremation is a sin? NO! Does it prefer burying? Yes! We should prayerfully consider whether to cremate or bury, and at that consideration, we should ask ourselves which of the two will bring the most glory to God and show hope in the gospel? Cremated bodies of believers will be resurrected just like those of the buried ones because God’s promises are true and do not fail (Joshua 21:45, 1 Kings 8:56). We know of Martyrs like John Huss who, against their will, they were burnt at stake for their faith, and they too will be in heaven with glorified bodies just as you and I. So we can say, like John Piper, “I say preferable, not commanded, in the hope that the culture created would not condemn or ostracise a person who chose differently (cremation)…It would be best if you had the mindset of a God-centred, gospel-rooted, Christ-exalting simplicity when it comes to funerals. So Paul resolved to glorify God in his body whether by life or death (Philippians 1:20).”
Let us not struggle with this question as if it is a matter that would divide us or make one lose his salvation since it is not. Instead, we should focus in hope on the tremendous, glorious day of our Lord that is to come. John Mc Author said. “What we need to focus on as Christians is not how to dispose of our earthly bodies, but that one day new bodies will be fashioned for us like our Lord’s glorious resurrection body (Philippians 3:20-21, Luke 24:30-40, John 20:19, 26, 21:1-14, Acts 1:1-9). That transformation will be eternal!”