Burial or Cremation; Part 1
Written by Malcolm Watts
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Reformed Ethics - Burial/Cremation

Although cremation, or the disposal of the dead by burning, was practiced in ancient times, it was not re-introduced into England until the end of the nineteenth century. Sir Henry Thompson, an agnostic who became professor of Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, publicly urged the case for cremation and due to his influence it became widely accepted in this country. In 1874 he played a major part in the forming of The Cremation Society, which was specially founded ‘to advocate this rational and hygienic method of disposal of the dead’. This new method met with strong opposition at first but it gradually gained favour. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘Freemasons, materialists, and Marxists… joined the movement’. Klaas Runia, in the  Encyclopedia of Christianity, draws attention to the fact that in these early days, support chiefly came from ‘humanitarians and liberal theologians’. When in 1884 Justice Stephen declared cremation to be a legal procedure, the necessary impetus was given to the movement. It quickly became an established practice. By 1960 about one third of all who died in England, Scotland and Wales were cremated and the proportion was then increasing by two per cent per annum. Today cremation is often the preferred alternative, as evidenced by the Obituary columns in national newspapers. Ministers have tended to assume a position of neutrality on this matter. One well-known evangelical was asked which method he thought ought to be chosen by the Christian. His reply, given in the column of a denominational newspaper, was fairly typical. ‘Neither’, he wrote, ‘has any marked advantage over the other, providing the ceremony is carried out with the dignity that is to be accorded to the human body’. Neither Scripture nor conscience will allow us to agree with him. Before proceeding any further, we must make one point absolutely clear. It does not make any difference at all so far as the resurrection is concerned. At the second coming of Christ, there will be a resurrection of all men (Jn.5:28-29; Acts 24:15). Divine omnipotence will then be displayed in the raising of human bodies and whatever process those bodies may have been subjected to after death, every single one of them will be reconstructed and transformed to suit a different sphere of existence (Acts 26:8; Rev 20:13). There is nothing any man can do to his body to prevent that from happening. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) well expresses the teaching of Scripture in its 32nd chapter: ‘At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls for ever’.

Arguments of Cremationists

 Advocates for cremation often present their case quite skilfully. In a booklet issued many years ago by The Cremation Society, the following points were made in favour of the practice:

  1. It safeguards health. The booklet argued that in already overcrowded towns and cities, burying the dead could become a real health hazard. This was considered ‘a problem of the first importance’. But although burial has been practiced for centuries, there is no evidence that this has ever been a threat to people’s health; and today, with the present legal requirements respecting burial, there is even less possibility of that ever happening. In fact, if biblical precautions were taken, there would be no risk at all. Public burial places used to be outside towns and cities (2 Kings 23:6; Mt.27:52-53; Lk.7:12; Jn.11:30-31): ‘two thousand cubits from the Levitical cities; for all other cities a great space, if not the same’ (John Lightfoot). Josephus, the Jewish historian, supplies the additional information that ‘through that place [ie of burial] was no current of waters to be made; through it was to be no public way; cattle were not to feed there, nor was wood to be gathered from thence’.
  2. It leaves the land for the living. The system of burial is wasteful, it was claimed, ‘preventing the economic use of valuable land for housing and recreation’. A sentence from the quaint biblical commentator, John Trapp, deserves consideration here. ‘It is remarkable’, he says, ‘that the first purchase of possession mentioned in Scripture, was a place to bury in, not to build on’ (see Gen 23). The patriarch, taught by nature as well as grace, had learned the importance of caring for the bodies of the dead and of making provision for decent interment. Only heartless materialism would dare to challenge that loving concern.
  3. It preserves the countryside.  Attention was drawn to ‘the sprawling wastes of neglected graveyards and cemeteries’ which could only be described as ‘an eyesore’. That such places do exist, no-one will deny, but it does not have to be so. In Bible times, sepulchers were generally situated in attractive places; under the shade of trees (Gen.23:8-9,17; 35:8), in groves or in gardens (2Kgs.21:18,26; Jn 19:41) and, in the case of public burial-grounds particularly, every effort was made to preserve natural beauty. It was the observation of George Douglas that ‘burial-places in the East are still kept with great neatness’. As to the tombs themselves, when looked after, they can appear quite ‘beautiful’ (Mt.23:27). Our Lord, though rebuking the ‘hypocrisy’ of the scribes and Pharisees who professed to honour the prophets while manifesting the spirit of their murderers, mentions the fact that at least they showed care for their tombs. ‘Ye build the tombs of the prophets’, He said, ‘and garnish (or adorn) the sepulchers of the righteous’ (Mt.23:29). In a day when money and time are freely spent, it is to the nation’s shame that so little is done to improve the state of our cemeteries.
  4. It prevents crime.  This claim is made because ‘the law respecting cremation demands two certificates signed by independent medical practitioners, and the approval of a medical referee’. This means, they say, that ‘the cause of death’ is ‘definitely established’. However, it must surely be apparent to all that a situation could arise when, after the funeral, a further examination of the body could prove to be of immense value. With cremation, of course, it would not be possible, whereas with burial, exhumation could take place (cfJer.8:1). This being so, burial would tend to discourage crime far more than cremation.
  5. It makes for a more rational outlook. Here the emphasis is laid upon ‘the heartbreak of the yawning grave’ and ‘the clammy clay’. It is true that whatever provision be made for the disposal of the body, death’s bitterness cannot be altogether removed. Yet, that agreed, given the choice between placing the bodies of those we love in an incinerator heated to over 2,000°F and laying those bodies gently in the ground that they might, as it were, ‘sleep in the dust’ until the grand awakening of the resurrection morning (Dan.12:2), we, for our part, unhesitatingly choose this latter course as every way more conducive to our comfort and consolation.
  6. It is an economic method. The point made is that not only is ‘the process itself inexpensive’ but also that there is ‘no grave to buy and no tombstone to provide and preserve’. Is economy, however, the all-important factor? Evidently Abraham did not think so when, out of love and respect for ‘his dead’, he paid the high price of ‘four hundred shekels of silver’ for a plot of ground (Gen.23:13-16). We even read that the chief priests devoted the betrayal money to this purpose so that they might appear devout, so generally was it considered to be an act of mercy and kindness (Mt.27:7; cf 2Sam.2:5). Neither ought tombstones to be reckoned items of unnecessary expense. What lessons they are able to teach the living about mortality and eternity! Yet their main service, surely, is to those who have died. To use the words of James Hervey, it is as if those stones have received ‘a charge to preserve their names’ and are ‘the remaining trustees of their memory’. (Gen.35:20; 2Kgs.23:17; cf Ezek.39:15). So long as these engraved records are before the public, the dead will be kept in remembrance and, according to God’s Word, that is a blessing not to be lightly esteemed (see Job 18:17; Ps.112:6; Prov.10:7).

Continued here.

Rev. Malcolm Watts is the minister of Emmanuel Church, Salisbury.  Malcolm Watts is Chairman of the Trinitarian Bible Society and Chairman of the Bible League Trust. He is a visiting Lecturer at the London Reformed Baptist Seminary and at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids. This article was printed in the Free Church Witness and is republished here with permission.