What would you like your loved ones to do with your body after you die? The question is perhaps a bit more morbid than many of us would like to spend too much time contemplating. For most Americans, though, the traditional solution to dealing with the dead has been simple: bury them, whether in a family plot or some other location.
That trend has been changing for several decades, however, and last year marked the first time that more people were cremated than buried in the US. While there are a number of factors behind the change—such as the drastically lower costs for cremation, environmental concerns, and general shifts in the nature of our society—it seems unlikely that the trajectory will change significantly any time soon.
I must admit that when I first read about this shift towards cremation, my initial reaction was “that’s interesting” and little more (spoiler alert: that’s pretty much how I still feel about it). A brief look into the topic, however, revealed that a rather large and vocal contingent of people feel very strongly in favor of traditional burial. Some even believe that a cremated person can’t go to heaven, which, if true, would obviously be problematic. Consequently, whatever your views on cremation vs. burial, it’s a topic that must be approached with the awareness that many favor one side quite strongly. To speak flippantly on the subject, in one direction or the other, would potentially place a stumbling block in the life of another believer (1 Corinthians 8:9).
With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at a few of the biblical arguments often offered in favor of traditional burial. The first, as alluded to above, is an argument from tradition. Throughout Scripture, when biblical figures die in good standing with the Lord, they are most often buried. From Abraham buying a plot for his wife Sarah (Genesis 23) to Jesus’ burial after his crucifixion (John 19), we find examples of God’s people being buried when the pagan culture favored cremation.
Moreover, cremation was used, at times, to dispose of the bodies of those whose sins were considered particularly egregious. Achan, for example, kept back some of that which was to be offered to God while the Israelites conquered the Promised Land and his body was burned rather than buried as a result (Joshua 7:25). While cremation did not always equate to condemnation in biblical times, we see it used most often in that context among the Israelites.
That said, its use in that role then does not necessarily equate to our culture today. The symbolic power of the act was, in large part, borne from the fact that it was so different from the traditional manner in which the deceased were treated. Cremation was a way of reinforcing the heinous nature of the individual’s actions rather than an inherently evil process in any context. In a culture where cremation is increasingly common, even among Christians, it no longer holds that same degree of symbolism and, thus, should not be viewed in the same way.
A second argument for traditional burial is tied to the inherent value of the body as part of God’s creation. John Piper points out that part of the reason why cremation was so popular during Greek and Roman times—the transition period from the Old Testament to the New and on into the first few centuries of the Church—was that the body was considered to be an inherently evil prison that held the soul captive. Such a view is in direct contrast to Scripture, where the body is a fundamentally valuable part of God’s creation and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
In addition, the Bible teaches that the saved will experience a bodily resurrection in which the Spirit will “give life” to our mortal bodies just as he did with Jesus (Romans 8:11), transforming “our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). That bodily resurrection has bred the last of the arguments against cremation that we will examine today.
Throughout much of Christian history, and particularly during medieval times, the belief persisted that a body that was burned could not be resurrected. The thinking was often that, since bodily resurrection was clearly part of God’s plan for the believer, there had to be a body for him to raise. While such a stance has several problems—such as the implications for those martyrs who were burned by the Romans, the fact that even the bodies of those first believers who were buried have long turned to dust, and the assumption that the God who created us from the dust could not do the same again—it created a powerful tradition that continues to influence believers today.
Ultimately, while Scripture offers more support for burial than cremation, the vast majority of it comes from tradition rather than timeless mandates. As such, it is perhaps akin to circumcision in how it should be viewed by believers today. While some will feel more strongly about it than others, we must not allow it to divide or distract us from more important kingdom issues. Then, and only then, would one’s beliefs on the subject become a matter of right and wrong rather than opinion