Throughout history, inhumation (burial) and cremation have been practiced, sometimes simultaneously in the same culture (Roman and Greek). Each have enjoyed various times of prominence and preference within various cultures. However, the Christian era brought with it the practice of inhumation and sought to eliminate cremation, basically reserving that for times of plague or for “heretics,” e.g. Wycliffe.
The trend in America is toward choosing cremation over inhumation (burial). I believe this trend is evidence of the desacralizing of human life and a loss of a Christian cultural conscience. This trend is viewed not only by many non-Christians as a viable alternative, but to many Christians as well. This is not to say that cremation is new to human history or that it is even sin, but rather that it does, historically and biblically speaking, seem to deemphasize the biblical sacredness associated with the body. Consequently, I think Christians need to consider rejecting this trend. We should always ask, are Christians, once again, being naively led by the trends of an ever-increasing secular milieu, is this trend based upon some newfound biblical truth, or is burial a tradition that has no biblical support? I believe it is the first of these for the following reasons:
1. When God created everything, including man, He pronounced it good (Gen. 1:31). This included the body. God created man’s body from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and pronounced that when man died the body was to return to the ground (Gen. 3:19; Ecc. 12:7). This does not seem to imply a return via a broken jar or the scattering one’s ashes.
2. We bury presidents, popes, and other societal notable’s bodies with significant pomp and circumstance. Why would we treat any human who is created in the image of God with less respect? By that, I do not mean parades, etc., but how we should treat a body created by God, whether it is that of a president or pauper.
3. The Jews buried their dead in tombs or in graves. There was a lot of ceremony attached to funerals because of their reverence for human beings, including the human body. Consequently, cremation was never normalized in Judaism.
4. Pagan cultures regularly saw cremation as appropriate, often associating it with pagan rituals or totally unbiblical concepts of creation, life, death, and eternity. Some, like the Egyptians, did use inhumation based upon an elaborate system of the transmigration of the soul to the next world. Consequently, the Jews were well aware of cremation, and yet, they buried their dead.
5. Fire is commonly used as a symbol of judgment in the Scripture, e.g. Matt. 8:11-12, 13:42-50; Rev. 19-20.
6. The Bible predicts the resurrection of the body. When Jesus rose from the dead, He rose in a physical body. Although our body will be changed and glorified, it is sacred and will be used in the future. And while it is true that God can raise up one from an urn as easily as the ground, that does not seem, in and of itself, to neutralize the biblical principles and precedence. It is consistent with biblical revelation that one should not burn that which is going to be used at a later date.
7. Burial is the final Christian testimony of our belief in the resurrection, and cremation is the pagan testimony that your spirit has been forever delivered from the prison of the body.
8. Christians throughout history have followed the same tradition as the Jews of not burning the body. Even until modern times, cremation was virtually unknown in
America and still only accounts for approximately thirty percent of deaths. This is because of the strong presence of Christian beliefs. Even today, states with a higher percentage of Christians, especially evangelicals, have fewer cremations. As a matter of fact, traditionally, bodies have been buried facing eastward based on the fact that Jesus said He would come out of the east at the resurrection (Matt. 24:27).
9. Even in our own time, with few exceptions, fire is seen as a destroyer. We protect our most prized possessions from fire. The body is something God created and something for which the Lord Jesus Christ died. He did not die merely for our bodies, but His death did include the redemption of our bodies; consequently, to burn what Jesus died for seems to be at best incongruent.
I believe the rise in the number of people being cremated in our country is directly proportionate to the rise in the humanist and pagan mentality of our country. Though I do recognize that funerals are expensive, and many are against the whole procedure, the funeral itself serves us well for many reasons. It reminds us that death is an enemy to be conquered by our Lord Jesus Christ. It gives us an opportunity to show respect, not only for the person, but also for the body that God created. It serves a great purpose in allowing people to mourn and go through the grieving process so they may go on with their lives after the funeral service is over. It allows us one last time to witness to our faith in the resurrection.
While many attend the interment of the body as an important part of caring for the deceased loved one, few, if any, desire to gather at the actual 1700 degree incineration of their loved one’s body, a disinclination which should not go unnoticed.
I always think of the reality that humans burn trash, but we delicately and thoughtfully bury treasure. It seems like an obvious parallel with how Christ’s body was handled and how Christians have cared for the bodies of the deceased through the centuries.
Consequently, burial seems far more biblically compatible with Christianity both from the vantage point of being created and redeemed by God, as well as how the Jews, Christ, and Christians throughout history have treated the body of the deceased with reverence.