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 people are now roughly 50 percent more likely to choose cremation than the more traditional alternative.
A number of factors are behind the change, e.g., the much lower costs for cremation than burial, environmental concerns, and general shifts in the nature of our society. And it seems unlikely that the trajectory will change significantly any time soon.
However, 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 be resurrected which, if true, would obviously be problematic.
Consequently, whatever your views on cremation versus 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 burial.
An argument for burial from tradition
The first argument in favor of burial is based in 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.
In contrast, 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 the spoil from the battle of Jericho that was meant to be offered to God, 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 during biblical times does not necessarily equate to our culture today.
The symbolic power of the act was, in large part, born 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 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.
The inherent value of God’s creation
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 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.
Can the cremated be resurrected?
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. This belief was also why the church often burned the bodies of heretics, even if they had already died by other means.
However, such a stance has several problems.
For example, if this were true then early Christians who were burned by the Romans could never experience the fullness of heaven. Nero, for example, was supposedly fond of martyring early believers by turning them into human torches for his parties.
If those writing the later books of the New Testament were concerned about the fate of those who endured such suffering, one would think they would have mentioned it. That they didn’t points to the fact that the first generations of believers were not worried about the Lord’s ability to resurrect those whose bodies were burned.
Moreover, the fact remains that even the bodies of those first believers who were buried have long turned to dust. Clearly, the God who created us from the dust could do the same again, and there is no reason to think the same would not be true for those turned to ash instead.
Is cremation a sin?
Ultimately, while Scripture offers more support for burial than cremation, the vast majority of it comes from tradition rather than timeless mandates. As such, the question of cremation is perhaps akin to circumcision in how it should be viewed by believers today.
While some will feel more strongly about burial versus cremation 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.