Burial or Cremation; Part 2
Written by Malcolm Watts
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Reformed Ethics - Burial/Cremation

The Scriptural Case for Burial

Not one of these arguments for cremation is in any way convincing, based as they all are upon human reasoning. A question of fundamental importance must now be asked: ‘What saith the Scripture?’ (Rom.4:3).

  1. Immediately after the Fall of Adam, God made it clear that, because of his sin, man was to be interred in that earth from which he originally came: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken’ (Gen.3:19). As Francis Roberts once correctly observed, ‘Here man is not only sentenced to death, but also to the grave’.God’s Word still stands. Adam and all descended from him must ‘return’ to this appointed place (Ps.90:3; 104:29; Eccl.12:7). A grave belongs to every man. Hence that Scripture which says, ‘His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth’ (Ps.146:4).
  2. Not a great deal is known about very early funeral rites and customs, but enough evidence is available to show that cremation was certainly the ancient and widespread practice of the heathen world. We know, for example, that among the Babylonians ‘cremation, mostly incomplete, was the practice’ (A Dictionary of the Bible edited by Sir William Smith). Among the Greeks it was also usual to dispose of the body in this way: ‘Greeks burned the bodies of their dead, and deposited the ashes in graceful urns or under Stelae (tall tablets)’ (Black’s Bible Dictionary). The Romans too seem to have preferred this method and ‘during the first four centuries of the empire, the body was, in the great majority of cases, consumed by fire, and the ashes consigned to the tomb in an urn’ (A Manual of Roman Antiquities,  by William Ramsay). In modern heathendom little has changed. Buddhists still bring their dead to the pyre; Hindus do the same. This connection with heathenism becomes a strong argument for rejecting it. God has said: ‘Learn not the way of the heathen’ (Jer.10:2; cf Lev.18:3,30; Deut.18:9).
  3. From the beginning God’s people rejected the heathen way of treating the dead. As Dr Alfred Edersheim observed: ‘Cremation was denounced as contrary to the whole spirit of Old Testament teaching’. The Jews believed very strongly that burial was divinely appointed and this became the universal custom among them (Gen.25:9; 35:29; 50:13; Josh.24:30; 2Kgs.13:20; 2Chron.9:31), the only exceptions being when there was fear of mutilation by an enemy (1Sam 31:12) or when it was physically impossible in a time of plague (Amos 6:9-10). That the Jews always chose ‘to bury rather than to burn their dead bodies’ is a fact noted by Tacitus, the Roman historian; but we really do not need the testimony of secular history: Scripture itself tells us that ‘the manner of the Jews’ was ‘to bury’ (Jn.19:40). Although the burning of the dead prevailed throughout the Roman Empire when Christianity first appeared, the early Christians strongly objected to it. Accepting, as they did, the main Jewish arguments against cremation, they believed that in the burial of the Lord Jesus, an example had been given to the church (1Cor.15:3; cf Rom.6:5 – ‘we shall be... in the likeness of his resurrection’. It would seem fitting to be like Him in His burial too) and so their dead were deposited very carefully in sepulchres. After the death of the first martyr, for example, we read how ‘devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him’. (Acts 8:2; cf. 5:6,10). Municius Felix, an early defender of the Christian faith, no doubt spoke on behalf of the whole church when he said: ‘We observe the old and better custom of interment’. The church’s opposition to cremation eventually brought about change. It is an indisputable fact of history that ‘when Christianity began to increase, the funeral flames did cease, and after a few emperors had received baptism, there was not a body burnt in all the Roman Empire’ (John Pearson).
  4. The Bible teaches that when the soul returns to God at death, the body enters the grave as into a new ‘house’ (Job 30:23; Is.14:18). This is represented as a vast house, with many private rooms or apartments called ‘chambers of death’ (Prov.7:27) and in these the dead ‘rest in their beds’ (Is.57:2; 1Chron.16:13-14). This language, so descriptive of burial, would be quite inappropriate – in fact, devoid of all meaning – once cremation is considered. This also applies to the apostle’s illustration in 1 Corinthians 15, where he likens the body to a seed: ‘that which thou sowest’ (1Cor.15:36-44). Since all these allusions point to burial as the proper mode, we certainly do not feel at liberty to institute the very radical change required by cremation.
  5. Throughout history, the burning of the body has been associated with hatred and enmity. With horrifying cruelty men have inflicted punishment and shown contempt by means of fire (Jer.29:22; Ezek.23:25; Dan.3:6; Amos 2:1 – this last verse is very relevant to the subject in hand). In marked contrast, love has been thought chiefly responsible for the burying of the dead (2Sam.2:5-6; 21:10-14; Mt.14:12. See also Mk.14:3-9). Since love was appointed by our Lord as the distinguishing mark of His disciples, by which this world might know us (Jn.13:35; cf 2Tim.3:3 – ‘without natural affection’), we surely ought to seize this special opportunity of manifesting it. Who knows what effect it might have upon unbelievers? Before summarily dismissing that question, a remark once made by Julian, the Roman Emperor (AD 361-363), ought to be considered. He said that, in his opinion, the spread of Christianity was at least partly due to the early Christians’ ‘forethought about the burial of the dead’.
  6. If and when burial takes place, believers are able to make profession of their faith even in death. A silent but impressive testimony can be made to ‘those things which are surely believed among us’, such as: Creation (Gen.2:7), the Fall (3:19), Redemption (1Cor.6:20 – our bodies belong to Christ as much as our souls), Union with Christ (6:15), Indwelling by the Holy Spirit (6:19), Preservation (Jn.6:39-40), Resurrection (Ps.17:15), and Eternal Life (Jn.5:28-29). Since there is one final opportunity to declare faith in all these truths, ought it not to be taken? Only burial enables you to do so. Then let burial be the choice and ‘glorify God in your body’. (7) Fire has always been connected with judgment. Sacrificial victims, charged with sin, were burnt (Lev.4:12; 6:30). Idols and images, so hated and abhorred by God, were thrown contemptuously to the flames (Exod.32:20; Deut.7:5). The bodies of people guilty of heinous crimes were consigned to devouring fire (Gen.19:24; Lev.10:2; 20:14; 21:9; Num.11:1; 16:35; Josh.7:15). Related as it is to punishment, it is not at all surprising to find that fire is the element of torment in hell (Mt.13:50; 25:41; Lk.16:24). It must surely be wrong to use fire in disposing of the body. For the Christian, whose sins are all pardoned, it is so dreadfully inappropriate.

Burial - Fitting and Right God has shown that burial is fitting and right. When there was nobody around to arrange for the disposal of Moses’ body, God saw to it Himself and ‘he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab’ (Deut.34:6). We should take very careful note of the fact that it was Satan who objected to this, desiring to deprive God’s servant of a decent and honourable burial (Jude 9). In the light of all that God has revealed, a decision must be reached. That done, we really ought to make it absolutely clear to those with charge of our affairs that our wish is to be buried. That was what Joseph did when he ‘gave commandment concerning his bones’ (Heb.11:22). Many have wisely followed his example, including John Calvin in whose Will the following words appear: ‘I desire that after my passing, my body be buried according to the customary form, in expectancy of the day of the blessed resurrection’. We close with a further quotation from John Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed (1659): ‘The first Christians wholly abstained from consuming of the dead bodies with fire, and followed the example of our Saviour’s funeral... The description of the persons which interred Christ, and the enumeration of their virtues, and the everlasting commendation of her who brake the box of precious ointment for His burial, have been thought sufficient grounds and encouragements for the careful and decent sepulture of Christians. For as natural reason will teach us to give some kind of respect unto the bodies of men, though dead, in reference to the souls which formerly inhabited them: so, and much more, the followers of our Saviour, while they looked upon our bodies as living  temples of the Holy Ghost, and bought by Christ, to be made one day like unto His glorious body, they thought them no ways to be neglected after death, but carefully to be laid up in the wardrobe of the grave, with such due respect as might become the honour of the dead and comfort of the living. And this decent custom of primitive Christians was so acceptable unto God, that by His providence it proved most effectual in the conversion of the heathens and propagation of the gospel’.

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.