Cremation or Burial?

Author: Pastor Joel
April 26, 2016

This question has been far more prevalent in the last 10 years of ministry. "Pastor, is it okay to cremate rather than bury? I want to be cremated to spare a large expense to my estate, but I don't know if it's right or not. What does the Bible teach?" I've even been asked this question by Christians who have plenty to cover body preparation and a burial, but for stewardship reasons want a cremation. This option has become so popular amongst Christians that a funeral director friend recently left an established, profitable funeral business to start a new business offering lower cost funeral arrangements with a preference toward cremation. He believes both that this lower cost alternative will be profitable and that a lesser cost product done with tenderness and respect will help those unable to handle the exorbitant costs of full, traditional funeral arrangements. He will serve the poor with kindness. In addition, I've been part of cremations and the spreading of ashes and/or the placing of ashes in an urn in a respectful place. This can be just as meaningful and dignified as a burial. Up until the last several days, my pat answer was, "The Bible doesn't say anything against it. Certainly it's no greater miracle at the resurrection of the dead for Christ to reinvigorate charred ashes than decomposed ashes. Proceed as you see fit." However, recently I read an article by Pastor John Piper of Desiring God that gives me pause. I'll summarize his thoughts, and present them as a thoughtful counter to the tsunami of Christians planning cremations. I am in no way saying, "Thus saith the Lord," but merely want to spread a thoughtful alternative opinion. Please do not use this opinion as a basis for judgment, but rather as a perspective to help the Christian community think biblically about our burial processes.

Costs

Piper suggests that Christian churches should keep a funeral fund for its poorest members to help them with burials. If cost is the reservation behind a traditional body preparation and burial, then let the cost be carried by the body of Christ. These arrangements could be handled quietly and respectfully by church deacons and funeral directors, following an assessment that the family is unable to afford the burial they desire. The inability to afford a burial should not force Christian families into cremation. In addition, Piper suggests that pastors discourage expensive funerals. "In a Bible-saturated, counter-cultural church, made up of kingdom-minded sojourners and exiles (I Peter 2:11), no one should be pressured into the mindset that the more expensive the coffin, the more loved the deceased," writes Piper. I echo this second thought. If we can't depart simply, we have not apprehended the nakedness of death, and how all is stripped away but Christ. Simple is biblical at time of death.

Piper also suggests that burial is biblically preferable to cremation, but not commanded. The goal here is not complete conformity to burial, and ostracization of those who choose cremation. There can be respectful disagreements between friends. In addition to scripture and conscience, sometimes the demands of state will force one's decision. In some major cities of the world, cremation is law due to lack of cemeteries. So, without judgment to those who differ, here's a biblical case for burial.

The Dignity of the Human Body

First, at the heart of the case for burial is the dignity of the human body. The body is important here and in the life to come. During the early church period, the Platonists waged war on the body claiming the body was just a trap for the soul. Humans would only be truly human when they escape the body either through deep thinking or ascetic practice, and ultimately when they die. In this view, the body is not a part of what it means to be fully human. The biblical writers countered that thought. The Christian view of the afterlife never centered on merely immorality of the soul. Rather, the body is essential to the afterlife, so much so that Paul did not consider the intermediate bodiless state between death and resurrection as ideal (II Corinthians 5:4). The greatest example of the worth of the human body was that the eternal Son of God inhabited a body, resurrected His body, and took His body to the throne of God upon His glorious ascension. Today in heaven, Jesus has the body He had on earth, but now glorified (made eternal and perfect). When He returns to earth, He will transform believers' bodies into eternal bodies, and raise the bodies of deceased believers and make those bodies into eternal bodies like His. Human bodies are very important to the Christian faith. What do we suggest as we burn those deceased bodies rather than honor them in a burial?

I Corinthians 6:19-20 provides a strong foundation for burial theology. "19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies."

Our bodies are God's dwelling, God's purchase, God's possession, and for God's glory. Glorifying God is what the body is for, both in life and in death. The body is never discarded by God. Instead, at death, it is sown like a farmer sows a seed. I Corinthians 15:37, 42-44, "When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. . . . So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body." Burial is sowing. It begins the wait for living believers for a deceased loved one's resurrection.

The Place of Fire

Second, Piper teaches that the place of fire in the Bible warrants burying rather than burning. It was not glorious treatment of a body in the Bible to burn it. In fact, burning of bodies was considered contemptuous treatment. Achan's cremation was because he betrayed God's people. He and his family were not only stoned, but deprived of an ordinary burial by burning.

Fire is God's gift when it warms, brightens, guides, protects, refines, and is used to cook. But fire is dreadful when it wounds, tortures, kills, and destroys. This is most prominent in relation to the place of fire after the death and judgment of those who do not believe in Jesus Christ for the atoning sacrifice for one's sins. Fire will be used for torture. Fire is the metaphor for hell. "Fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Matthew 10:28

Might we be too loose with scripture when we burn Christians' bodies?

Counter-Cultural

In most places where Christians are a small minority, cremation is high. In addition, where Christianity's influence wanes, cremation rises. Almost everyone adhering to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism cremate their dead. (Islam requires burial.) Japan has a 99.85% cremation rate (2008). The United Kingdom has increased from a 34.7% national average in 1960 to 73.44% average in 2008. In Canada, cremation has risen from 5.89% in 1970 to 68.4% in 2009.

What a counter-cultural presence we Christians can deliver as we reverence what God made honorable by respectfully burying our dead. This symbolizes the wondrous place the body has in biblical teaching.

Ouch, This Hurts

There will be someone reading this who cremated a loved one. You may find this article penetrating and convicting. However, please go forward now in this new light. Do not cast blame or live in guilt over the past. You did the best you could with the information you had. Up until a few days ago, I would have easily advised you to do whatever you preferred, cremation or burial. Now, when my opinion is solicited, I will lean toward burial. However, I will love your family and walk tenderly and respectfully beside you no matter what decision you make. This article was written to give us all pause. That's very important as we apply the Word of God to every area of our lives, including end of life practices.


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