Burial or Cremation?
Written by David Kranendonk
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Reformed Ethics - Burial/Cremation

A Rising Trend

For centuries, cremation was unknown in Western society. Prior to 1876 no crematory existed in America and not until 1902 were the first three cremations reported in Canada. In the first half of the 20th century there was a gradual increase in the acceptance of cremation, yet the numbers remained small. A more marked increase began some time after World War II. In 1966, 3.94% of those who died in America were cremated and 4.93% of those in Canada. By 1986 the figures had risen to 14.28% and 27.94% respectively.

In 2004, Statistics Canada reported 215,742 deaths. The Cremation Association of North America estimated there were 120,714 cremations. In other words, 56% of those who died in Canada were cremated. In British Columbia 78% were cremated that year. The percentage in the United States of America was 30.88% in 2004. The Cremation Association projects that in 2025 over 50% of those who die in America will be cremated.1

To put this in a global perspective, R. Decker notes that in 1999, Japan’s cremation rate was 98%, Britain’s was 70%, Spain and Italy’s were under 10%, and in Greece cremation is still illegal due to the pressure of the Greek Orthodox Church.2

Reasons for the Rise

Several reasons are given for this rise. According to Monica Hatcher, Cremation is done “chiefly for convenience and savings.” People feel it is much simpler than finding a coffin and a funeral home, and making other funeral arrangements. Furthermore, with the rising costs of burial plots, cremation is significantly cheaper. Another factor is that people are more mobile today. Burial is more common in rural areas where people have local ties, and less common in cities where people have no lasting ties. Cremation also allows greater flexibility for gathering scattered family members for a memorial service.3 These are pragmatic reasons.

There are also religious reasons. While orthodox Jews and Muslims forbid cremation, the Second Vatican Council of 1963 allowed Roman Catholics to cremate. More generally, even secular sources note “a decline in religiosity has contributed to the shift.”4 At the same time, studies show that African Americans and Baptists are least likely to choose cremation.5 Cremation figures are lowest in the American “Bible belt.” The question is whether this avoidance of cremation is simply due to tradition or based on Scriptural conviction.

Scriptural Examples of Burial

Scripture is clear that burial was the norm among God’s covenant people. Already in Genesis 15:15, the Lord promised Abram: “Thou shalt be buried in a good old age.” It is striking that the death of Sarah led Abraham to purchase a burial plot, which was the only land he owned in Canaan, showing the importance burial in the land of Canaan had for Abraham (Gen. 23). The Lord Himself buried Moses in an unknown location (Deut. 34:6). Ruth confessed, “Where thou diest, I will die, and there will I be buried,” even though she came from a society that appears to have practiced cremation.6 The New Testament records several being buried, including John the Baptist, Ananias and Sapphira. Burial was either in a cave or in a hewn out sepulchre or in the ground, with or without a stone marker (2 Kings 23:17).

The greatest example is the Lord Jesus himself. John 19:40 records: “Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” He was laid in the grave. Could you imagine the Lord Jesus being cremated? If a believer may be cremated, then Jesus could have as well. But he was buried in the grave and rose from it, thereby sanctifying it for His people and making it their temporary resting place, while they await resurrection glory.

Scriptural Examples of Burning

There are several references in Scripture to the burning of bodies. Sometimes, people were burned alive by the fire of God’s wrath, such as Nadab and Abihu, as well as the captains with their fifties who went to capture Elijah (Lev. 10:2; 2 Kings 1:10-12). In the Old Testament, the Lord prescribed that the bodies of those who had committed certain flagrant sins be burnt with fire (Lev. 20:14). After Achan was stoned, he was burned (Josh. 7:25). Amos also prophesied that he would “send a fire upon Moab” because “he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime” (Amos 2:1-2). These “cremations” bore a dreadful character!

In a few cases, cremation is not associated as directly with God’s wrath. Amos 6:10 records that during a great siege, a man would burn the bones of his nephew. Rev. David Silversides notes that if this practice of burning is not condemned here it is only because there is no alternative in the siege. When the Philistines had carried off the bodies of Saul and his sons, and dishonoured them, and hung them as trophies before their idols, the men of Jabesh-gilead took these bodies, “burnt them” and buried their bones (1 Sam. 31:12-13). Silversides notes this was done to prevent the bodies from being disinterred and further abused by the Philistines.7

A survey of Scripture practice indicates that burial was the norm, and that the burning of bodies was associated with God’s wrath or distressing times of God’s judgments.

Bodies Given by God

Cremation and burial each cohere with a certain view of the body. If our body is merely a burdensome prison for the soul, as the Greeks taught, then the sooner the body is destroyed the better. If we are locked in the circle of reincarnation, then each time we die, it is best to destroy the body. But if we are the handiwork of God as human beings with body and soul (Gen. 2:7), then we must treat the body with respect even after it dies.

We should never think that all that matters is where the soul goes. The body is not a disposable item but an essential part of our being as cre- ated by God. If God has made us body and soul, we are to seek direction from God as to what we are to do with the body after death. Our bodies belong to God as our Creator, and if we are redeemed, they belong to “our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ... in life and in death.”8 Thus, we are
neither to attempt to preserve them in perpetuity nor destroy them ourselves. After the fall, God declared what would happen, when he said, “to dust shalt thou return.” He did not prescribe, “thou shalt turn bodies to dust.”

Hope of the Resurrection

The most important belief relating to the handling of the body is the bodily resurrection. While cremation is consonant with annihilation, which is the belief there is nothing after death, burial agrees with the belief that every body will rise again. Jesus declared, “the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28-29). While burning the body can do nothing to thwart the future resurrection of that body, the issue is not what God can do in raising incinerated bodies, but what we ought to do in light of the resurrection.

In burial, we sow the body in the earth in the belief that it will sprout again at Christ’s return. Paul uses this image of burial as a sowing of the body in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44, where he also brings out the contrast between the body being “sown in corruption” and “raised in incorruption.” Just as a farmer does not burn his seed but sows it in the hope of it rising up again, so we may lay our loved ones who belong to Christ in the ground as an expression of our hope that they will rise again.

Scripture also pictures death as sleep. Daniel 12:2 prophesies that “many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Just as a mother lays her child in his bed, so we lay the body in the grave. The difference is, as Thomas Watson wrote, “we are more sure to arise out of our graves than out of our beds.” Concerning the righteous man’s death, Isaiah says, “they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness” (Isa. 57:2). The grave of a believer is a bed. At death he may “sleep in Jesus” until the day his Saviour awakens him to eternal life, where he shall glorify God with body and soul (1 Thess. 4:13-14).

When you go to the cemetery with this hope of the blessed resurrection, you may grieve, but that grief may be mixed with a joy that is unknown at the “celebration of life” for someone cremated in unbelief.

Conclusions

Scripture indicates that burial is not only the norm but one filled with meaning. In contrast, the burning of bodies was a sign of God’s displeasure. While Christianity ensured the dominance of burial for centuries, its receding influence has resulted in a return to the earlier practices of cremation. Amid many who cremate as an expression of unbelief in the future life and many mainstream Christians who cremate out of ignorance, let us be a witness by burying our deceased loved ones with respect for their bodies as created by God and in the expectation of the coming resurrection. As they “set their house in order,” seniors should specify to their children their desire for a funeral and make the necessary arrangements. May God prepare us for the day of our death so that our confession would be: “my heart is glad...my flesh also shall rest in hope” (Ps. 16:9).

Rev. David Kranendonk is the pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Bornholm, Ontario. This article was published in the FRC Messenger and is republished here with permission.

ENDNOTES

1 All statistics taken from The Cremation Association of North America (www.cremationassociation.org).

2 R. Decker, “Is It Better to Bury or to Burn?” (Baptist Bible Seminary, 2005), 2.

3 Monica Hatcher, “Are We Becoming a Cremation Nation?” Miami Herald (6 Feb. 2006).

4 “Dust to Diamonds? Cremated Remains Turned into Precious Gems,” Pakistan Times (2 May 2006).

5 Monica Hatcher, “Are We Becoming a Cremation Nation?”

6 Joseph Jacobs and Samuel Krauss, “Tombs,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906), 183.

7 David Silversides, “Cremation – Is it Biblical?” (24 June 2001), available from www.sermonaudio.com.

8 Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1.