Life, Death & Growing Old—Burial vs. Cremation
1. Does the Bible and the Christian theological tradition have anything to say about our handling of the body of a dead person?
a. Are the responses of burial of the body and the cremation of the body equally valid?
b. What does the Bible say about this issue?
c. What does Church history tell us?
d. What theological messages are we communicating by burial? By cremation?
2. I would like to state my theses up front so you know where I’m going and what I’ll be arguing for:
3. Important statement regarding differences of viewpoints!
a. I know that some of you have already reached convictions on these matters… will you test your convictions by the Word of God?
b. I know that some of you have already participated in fulfilling loved one’s desires to be cremated. The goal is not make you feel guilty or bad.
c. We need to recognize there may be differences of view on this issue. We should strive for a biblical-theological approach in all of our thinking no matter where we end up in our decision-making.
4. Definitions and descriptions
a. Burial: “to deposit (a corpse) in the ground, in a tomb; to inter.”
i. Technical term is “inhumation”: “the action or practice of burying in the ground.”
ii. “There is a tendency in discussions of cremation, especially by advocates of that practice, to use bury in the sense, ‘to dispose of a corpse’—and assume that cremation is one way to bury. This is a sloppy use of language—though it is often helpful to cremation advocates by making the process appear to be just a variation of more common (in our day and culture) burial practices.”
b. Cremation: the disposal of a corpse by means of fire.
i. “The Encyclopedia of Cremation defines cremation as the practice of intentionally heating a deceased human body to ‘between 1,400 and 2,1000 F to consume … the body’s soft tissue and reduce the skeleton to fragments and particles.’”
ii. “The process now takes only a few hours (depending on the size of the body) and produces 5-7 pounds of bone fragments (sometimes referred to by the neologism, cremains). These fragments are run through a mechanical grinder, shredder, or tumbler to reduce the bone fragments to a small size. Although popularly referred to as “ashes,” these remains are not like the soft flakes characteristic of wood ash; they are more like sand with some larger bone fragments the size of rice, though this depends on the equipment used (newer systems produce a very fine powder).”
c. “Promession”—the corpse is frozen and dried using liquid nitrogen. A mechanical vibration then causes the body to fall apart into powder.
a. First American cremation: Colonel Henry Laurens 1792
· He was afraid of being buried alive
b. Next recorded cremation: 1876—Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palma
· First use of commercial crematory furnace
c. After 1876 for the next three years there were only four recorded cremations
d. Not until 1880’s and 1890’s is there an increased momentum for cremation
e. At the end of the 19th century:
i. 24 crematories in 15 states
ii. 10,000 cremations performed—less than 1% of deaths in U.S.
f. Cremation percentages grow over time
i. 1% crossed in early 1920’s
ii. 2% in 1930’s
iii. 3% in 1940’s
iv. 1963: 4%
v. 1999: 25%
vi. 2004: 29%
g. Recent figures and trends
i. 2005: 32.3%
ii. 2010: 40.4%
iii. 2015: 48.5% vs. Burial rates at 45.4%
· First time cremation rates were greater than burial rates nationally
h. “A funeral practice that was practically unknown 100 years ago has become mainstream and appears to be growing quite rapidly.”
6. Cremation in the Bible: Three potential references
a. 1 Samuel 31.8-13—Saul and his sons
b. Amos 2.1-3—Judgment on Moab
c. Amos 6.8-10—translation issue
i. “a relative who is to burn the bodies” (NIV; cf. KJV, RSV, NRSV)
ii. “undertaker will lift him up to carry out his bones” (NASB)
iii. “the one who anoints him for burial” (ESV)
· If cremation is involved it may be that “In the carnage of war, normal burial is not always possible, especially when the number of casualties is high.”
· “The text can also be understood as referring to someone who burns incense or a memorial fire for the deceased.”
d. A couple of summary points:
i. There are only three references in the Bible to actual cremation.
ii. These instances come from narrative and prophetic texts describing things that happened or will happen. “It is not legitimate to build a theological conclusion on such texts. They do, however, form the first part of a larger picture of the biblical view of cremation.”
7. God’s use of fire in judgment (partial cremation)
a. Leviticus 10.1-2—Nadab and Abihu
b. Numbers 16.1-38—Korah’s rebellion
c. Joshua 7.1-26—Achan’s household
d. Leviticus 20.14—man who marries a woman and her mother; all burned with fire
e. Leviticus 21.9—priest’s daughter “profanes herself by harlotry” is burned with fire
· “Such a history of judgment fire ‘hardly provided a positive incentive for the burial practice of cremation’ in ancient Israel.”
8. Fire is often used in the Bible as symbolic of judgment
a. Old Testament: Isaiah 10.16-17; 30.27-28, 33; Jeremiah 4.4 (cf. Lamentations 2.3-4); Zephaniah 1.18; 3.8; Malachi 4.1
b. New Testament:
i. Jesus: Matthew 3.10, 11, 12; 7.19; 13.40, 42, 50; 18.8; 22.7; 25.41 (just to cite Matthew)
ii. Paul: 1 Corinthians 3.13, 15; 2 Thessalonians 1.7
iii. Others: Hebrews 10.27; 12.18, 29; 2 Peter 3.7; Jude 7
iv. Revelation: 8.5, 7, 8; 9.18; 11.5; 14.10; 16.8; 18.8; 19.20; 20.10, 14, 15; 21.8
· “In themselves, these passages say nothing directly regarding cremation. They do, however, help us to sense how God’s people would have viewed such a practice against their conceptual world view… Though perhaps not as negative to 21st century Americans, fire would have had a much more negative association for the Israelites. That fire would form any part of their funeral practice seems quite unlikely.”
9. Burial in the Bible
a. Sarah (Genesis 23.3-18)—1st recorded burial
i. Abraham goes to great lengths to secure a tomb
ii. This tomb becomes the burial place for next few generations:
· Abraham: Genesis 25.9-10
· Isaac and Rebekah: Genesis 35.29; 49.31
· Jacob and Leah: Genesis 50.13
b. Rachel buried by Jacob on the way to Bethlehem: Genesis 35.19-20
c. Joseph made his sons promise to bury his bones in the land of Israel (Genesis 50.25; Exodus 13.19; Joshua 24.32; cf. Hebrews 11.22)
d. Aaron (1st high priest) buried in Moserah (Deuteronomy 10.6)
e. Moses was buried by God opposite Beth-Peor (Deuteronomy 34.5-8)
· “The burial of Moses is one of the most intriguing in Scripture, for it was performed by God himself, and it was followed by a dispute between the archangel Michael and Satan, who apparently desired the body of Moses for an unspecified reason.” (cf. Jude 9)
· “If this was God’s preferred method in the only such recorded instance, it ought to be treated as a significant precedent.”
f. Joshua: Joshua 24.30
g. Various judges: Judges 8.32; 10.2, 5; 12.7, 10, 12, 15; 16.31
h. Samuel: 1 Samuel 25.1
i. David: 1 Kings 2.10 (cf. Acts 2.29—Peter mentions David’s burial and tomb)
j. Various kings:
i. 1 Kings 14.31; 15.8, 24; 16.6; 22.37; 22.50
ii. 2 Kings 8.24; 9.28; 10.35; 12.21; 13.9, 13; 14. 16, 20; 15.7, 38; 16.20; 21.18, 16; 23.30
k. John the Baptist: Matthew 14.12
l. Lazarus: John 11.17-18
m. Ananias and Sapphira: Acts 5.6, 9-10
n. Stephen: Acts 8.2
o. Jesus: John 19.38-42—“as is the burial custom of the Jews” (v. 40)
10. Refusal to show care for a corpse or to deny a decedent burial as a sign of judgment
a. Individuals denied a proper burial
i. Jehoiakim: Jeremiah 22.19
ii. Jezebel: 2 Kings 9.30-37
iii. Ahab’s offspring: 1 Kings 21.17-24
iv. Sisera and Jabin: Psalm 83.9-10
b. Other references related to lack of burial being a sign of contempt or judgment
i. Deuteronomy 28.26; 2 Samuel 21.6, 9; 1 Kings 14.10-13; 2 Kings 9.10
ii. Psalm 79.1-4; Ecclesiastes 6.3
iii. Jeremiah 8.2; 14.16; 16.4-6; 25.33; 29.22
iv. Revelation 11.9
11. Summary statements on biblical material
a. Biblical record consistently depicts burial.
b. Cremation is virtually unknown in biblical practice.
c. “The biblical text suggests that cremation was viewed as abhorrent or at least offensive. The connotations of fire imagery in Scripture are consistent with this reaction.”
d. “These observations are strictly descriptive. There is no normative statement forbidding, allowing, or commanding cremation. (The only exception being the two legal dictates in tightly defined situations as retribution for particularly heinous sin.) On the other hand, it must be observed that neither is there any prescriptive statement establishing burial as the only acceptable practice for God’s people. In and of themselves, descriptive statements in the biblical text are not normative. Even though we have a consistent, positive pattern for burial, and even though we have some indications of God’s preference for burial in two particular situations (Moses and Jesus), we cannot hermeneutically extrapolate a divine imperative for all situations. For this we need to involve additional considerations, both theological and cultural.”
12. The nature of the human body
a. Created by God and declared good: Genesis 2.7; 1.31
i. Material body is not denigrated
ii. Body is not a “prison-house” of the soul (e.g., Plato)
b. Incarnation: Jesus shares in our flesh and blood—Hebrews 2.14
c. Body and salvation
i. Body will be redeemed—Romans 8.23
ii. Body will be transformed—Philippians 3.21
iii. 1 Corinthians 6.12-20
· Lord is for the body—v. 13
· Raise us up—v. 14
· Body is a temple of the Holy Spirit—v. 19
· We are called to glorify God with our body—v. 20
d. When someone is buried, the New Testament still refers to the person as being buried
i. Mark 15.44-47
· “Mark refers to Jesus as a person—though what was taken down from the cross, wrapped, and placed in the tomb was, indeed, the corpse.”
ii. Mark 16.1, 6—personalized speech about the body
iii. John 11.43—Lazarus is called for even though the spirit of Lazarus is not in the tomb
· “Even in death the body that is laid in the tomb is not simply a body. It is the body of the person. More properly, it is the person as respects the body. It is the person who is buried or laid in the tomb… So what is laid in the grave is still integral to the person who died. In and during death the person is identified with the dissolved material entity.”
· “This is not to suggest that a corpse is all there is of a person, but it certainly does argue that we ought not speak of the immaterial soul as the ‘real person’ who only possesses a (disposable) body.”
13. The resurrection of the body
a. All will be raised—John 5.25-29
b. Bodily resurrection—Philippians 3.21
c. 1 Corinthians 15.35-44
i. Image of sowing a seed—vv. 37-38
· Burial tends to more accurately picture this reality
ii. Contrasts—vv. 42-44
Sown a Perishable body
Raised an Imperishable body
Sown in Dishonor
Raised in Glory
Sown in Weakness
Raised in Power
Sown a Natural body
Raised a Spiritual body
iii. “There is an organic connection between a seed which is planted in the ground and the stalk of wheat which grows from that seed—and that despite the fact that the atoms of the seed are not necessarily the same atoms to be found in the plant which grows from it. Paul argues the same is true of the resurrection. The body which is planted in the grave is not identical with the body that is raised (vv 42-44). The body which is planted (the ‘seed’) is perishable and dishonorable since it is dead and decaying; it is a weak and natural body. But the body raised, though organically connected with the body planted, will be imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual.”
Historical and Cultural Considerations
14. Non-Christian systems and their approach to cremation
a. Hinduism—has practiced cremation for thousands of years
b. Buddhism—follows the example of Buddha who was cremated (486 BC)
c. Confucianism—originally forbade cremation but later embraced the practice
· Japan has the highest cremation rate in the world: 100%
15. Burial and the spread of Christianity
16. Cremation in the United States—some historical aspects
a. “The changes in America regarding the practice of cremation over the past century are significant in that they entail a shift ‘from certain religious beliefs and metaphors (most of them Christian) to alternatives (some Asian, some New Age, and some more modern versions of Christianity).’ It has been, in other words, a theological shift in how people view death—actually a shift in how the person is viewed in relation to this world and to God, and that deliberately and consciously away from an orthodox Christian worldview. The increasing popularity of cremation is often no less ‘spiritual’ than traditional Christian burial, it is just a different spirituality—a nonchristian one.”
b. “Throughout the history of the pro-cremation movement in the 19th and early 20th century it was almost exclusively unorthodox in leadership. Though this argument should not be pressed too far, the histories written make it quite clear that ‘free thinkers,’ whether they be Masons, Unitarians, Theosophists, or atheists, were the primary advocates of cremation in this early period, particularly those enamored with eastern thought.”
c. “Liberal Protestant ministers … were especially concerned with eradicating the popular notion that the earthly body would have some continued existence in the afterlife—an idea which in their view defied both science and rational thought… [They] considered the immaterial world of the mind and spirit as the true reality and … deemed an undue attention to the body as ‘unsophisticated.’”
d. The advance of cremation since the 1960’s—what caused the expansion of the practice?
i. Rodney Decker references Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America (Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 2001) as mentioning the following items:
· Vatican II
· Expose’ of funeral industry—Jessica Mitford The American Way of Death (1963)
· Rise of the counter-culture and environmentalism movement—“Save the land for the living.” (Slogan by some cremationists)
Conclusions and Some Objections Answered
17. The Bible is consistently pro-burial.
a. There is little about cremation in the Bible
b. The most that can be said for cremation biblically is that there may be cases where it is not condemned
c. Objection: Our culture is different than the biblical culture. There are other practices we modify to fit our culture (e.g., “greet one another with a holy kiss” becomes a handshake or hug).
i. Wayne Grudem lists out six potential candidates for culturally relative commands in the New Testament
· Holy kiss (Romans 16.16; 1 Corinthians 16.20; 2 Corinthians 13.12; 1 Thessalonians 5.26; 1 Peter 5.14)
· Foot washing (John 13.14; compare 1 Timothy 5.10, which is not a command)
· Head covering for women or wives in worship (1 Corinthians 11.4-16)
· Short hair for men (1 Corinthians 11.14)
· No jewelry or braided hair for women (1 Timothy 2.9; 1 Peter 3.3)
· Lifting hands in prayer (1 Timothy 2.8)
ii. Grudem notes that “all of these examples refer to physical items or actions that carry symbolic meaning.”
iii. He further notes: “only the physical, surface manifestation is culturally relative, and the underlying intent of the command is not culturally relative but is still binding on us today.”
iv. Rodney Decker applies this to the burial/cremation issue:
18. The practice of burial better reflects and symbolizes biblical and Christian theological distinctives—salvation of the body through resurrection.
a. “[W]hat practice best reflects the Christian hope of the gospel? Should we be concerned to testify to our hope even in the form of our funerals and the disposition of our corpses? I would suggest that this is the case and that burial of the body presents a much clearer picture of resurrection than does the deliberate destruction of the body by fire. Although only an analogy, Paul’s picture in 1 Corinthians 15 of death and resurrection as that of a seed which germinates is a deliberate and important analogy. … The analogy is deliberately chosen to illustrate the resurrection. If we are to proclaim the hope of the gospel in death, we are wise to conduct our funerals and dispose of our corpses in a similar way. Burning and grinding a corpse to ash does not seem to reflect the Christian hope of resurrection. The mental picture seems to be at odds with our theology. It would seem most appropriate to preserve the deliberate biblical analogy of a seed planted rather than devise a new fiery picture—one never used theologically in the Bible to portray the death or resurrection of the believer.”
b. “As Paul taught, the very body that is sown perishable is raised an imperishable body (1 Cor. 15.42). The is best symbolized by burial, for it anticipates the final preservation of the body in the resurrection. The image presented of the dead being asleep (1 Thes. 4:13-18) is also preserved through burial. The Christian has escaped the judgment of fire presented in the Bible (Rev. 20:14). Cremation is the wrong picture to remind believers of salvation in the body by resurrection (cf. Rom. 8:11). On the other hand, cremation better symbolizes pantheism, which in its Eastern forms is usually associated with a salvation from the body by escaping the cycle of reincarnation.”
19. The practice of burial betters honors the body as a good creation from God and as an integral part of the Christian’s life.
a. “For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing. It is caring for a person. In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the ‘real’ person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.”
b. “Deliberate destruction by fire and grinding seems a quite inappropriate means by which to ‘honor’ the body, and that despite the word games played by cremationists to make the burning and grinding sound palatable.”
20. Objections and answers
a. Objection: “It doesn’t matter what happens to the body because God will resurrect it anyway. God is powerful enough to resurrect a cremated body.”
i. Yes, God can and will resurrect all bodies (buried, cremated, eaten by animals, etc.).
ii. The issue is not God’s power but what theological statements we are making with our practices with the dead body.
iii. Burial is a better imagery for the future resurrection.
b. Objection: “Cremation is more economical than burial. Burials can run into the thousands of dollars and this is not good financial stewardship.”
i. “First, since when have economic factors been determinative in theological issues? This is not to suggest that economic factors are irrelevant. It does claim, however, that in itself this does not constitute a determinative argument.”
ii. “Second, it is a false picture to contrast cremation and burial in terms of cost. The difference in the cost of a funeral is not between burial (expensive) and cremation (inexpensive), but between extravagance and simplicity.”
21. Final Concluding Thought…
Rodney J. Decker, “Is It Better to Bury or Burn? A Biblical Perspective on Cremation and
Christianity in Western Culture,” (William R. Rice Lecture Series; Allen Park, Mich.: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, March 15, 2006), 1-46. Online: https://www.dbts.edu/pdf/rls/Decker-Cremation.pdf
Norman Geisler and Douglas E. Potter, “From Ashes to Ashes: Is Burial the Only Christian
Option?” Christian Research Journal 21/1 (July-Sept 1998), 28-35. Online: http://www.equip.org/PDF/DC765.pdf
David W. Jones, “To Bury or Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation,” Journal of the
Evangelical Theological Society 53/2 (June 2010), 335-347. Online: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/53/53-2/JETS_53-2_335-347_Jones.pdf
Russell D. Moore, “Grave Signs,” Touchstone 20/1 (Jan/Feb 2007), 24-27. Online:
“The NFDA Cremation and Burial Report: Research, Statistics and Projections” (September
2014). Online: http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/healthnewsfl/files/201507/03-a_2014_cremation_and_burial_report__2_.pdf
“2015 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report: Research, Statistics and Projections” (July
2015). Online: https://iogr.memberclicks.net/assets/docs/2015%20nfda%20cremation%20and%20burial%20report.pdf
“Funerals and Ripoffs” http://www.funerals-ripoffs.org/
Funeral Consumer Alliance of Arizona http://tucsonfunerals.org/
Christianity in Western Culture,” (William R. Rice Lecture Series; Allen Park, Mich.: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, March 15, 2006), 4. Online: https://www.dbts.edu/pdf/rls/Decker-Cremation.pdf. Decker is quoting the The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971).
 David W. Jones, “To Bury or Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53/2 (June 2010), 335. Online: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/53/53-2/JETS_53-2_335-347_Jones.pdf.
 This new process is still in the developmental stages. See the article, “Sweden’s New Funeral Rite—Bodies Freeze-dried, Powdered and Made Into Tree Mulch,” by Kate Connolly in The Telegraph (September 28, 2005). Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/sweden/1499426/Swedens-new-funeral-rite-bodies-freeze-dried-powdered-and-made-into-tree-mulch.html. Also see “Freeze-drying the Dead Could Help Save the Planet” by Nicholas Tufnell Wired (October 14, 2013). Online: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/promessa.
 These are taken from the “2015 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report: Research, Statistics and Projections” (July 2015). The 2015 percentages were announced by the NFDA—see “2016 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report Released: Rate of Cremation Surpasses That of Burial in 2015” June 30, 2016. Online: http://www.nfda.org/news/media-center/nfda-news-releases/id/1310/2016-nfda-cremation-and-burial-report-released-rate-of-cremation-surpasses-that-of-burial-in-2015.
 “It is ‘spiritual,’ not in the sense of ‘immaterial’ but of ‘supernatural,’ as he will explain with the help of Scripture in v. 45, because it will have been recreated by Christ, who himself through his resurrection came to be a ‘life-giving Spirit.’” Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians—NICNT, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987), 786.
Option?” Christian Research Journal 21/1 (July-Sept 1998). Online: http://www.equip.org/PDF/DC765.pdf.