Cremation or Burial: Does Our Choice Matter?

Cremation or Burial: Does Our Choice Matter?

My goal isn’t to condemn or shame anyone who has chosen cremation for others (much less those who’ve simply carried out their departed loved ones’ directives). My desire is forward-looking, to give us something to think about as we make decisions about our funerals and as we discuss plans with our friends and loved ones, especially those who are in Christ. Burial is a Christian act in that it better represents the biblical examples, biblical analogies, and biblical teachings on the body. So as our culture paganizes, let’s be countercultural. Let’s reclaim Christian burial. 

For most of history, no one asked whether Christians should cremate their dead. Burial was such a standard practice that it was usually referred to as a “Christian burial,” and cremation was something people read about in Viking tales.

But things have changed in the West. And as cremation has become more common, it has become less strange. In many countries, cremation is now more common than burial, and often Christians now opt for cremation without a second thought. Nevertheless, “What do you think about cremation?” is a question I still get asked as a pastor, so it’s worth pondering.

I argue that “Christian burial” isn’t a misnomer but a fitting description.

It’s not that God is somehow unable to resurrect cremated remains (it’s easy for him). And it’s not that cremation is a violation of a direct biblical command (it’s not, but that doesn’t mean all cultural practices are an equally good fit with Christian theology). Rather, I argue burial is a Christian act in the sense that it better reflects biblical precedents, biblical imagery, and biblical theology about the human body and its future.

For that reason, Christian burial is a practice worth reclaiming as a sorrowful yet joyful way to visibly proclaim the Christian hope amid a hopeless culture.

Ask the Right Question

While there’s no moral prohibition on cremation in the Bible, Scripture gives numerous examples of God’s people burying their dead and almost no examples of God’s people being cremated. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph, Miriam, Moses, David, Elisha, John the Baptist, Stephen, and most famously Christ himself were all buried (Gen. 25:10; 35:19, 29; 49:31; 50:14Num. 20:1Deut. 34:6Josh. 24:321 Kings 2:102 Kings 13:20Mark 6:29Acts 8:21 Cor. 15:4). 

It’s worth asking why. There were other options—Stephen Prothero says that “with the notable exceptions of the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Hebrews, cremation seems to have been the standard practice of the ancients” (5). Yet burial was the standard practice of God’s people in both Testaments. Why?

This pattern didn’t stop with the completion of the Bible. History shows that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, cremation disappeared and was replaced by burial. The same is true in basically every culture where Christianity has become dominant or influential. One could argue it has only been with the waning of Christianity’s influence in the Western world that cremation has been making a comeback (though the rising population and funeral prices have also played a role). Why?

Why has burial always been the dominant practice among God’s people throughout history, even when it was countercultural? Could there be natural fitness between Judeo-Christian beliefs about the human body and Judeo-Christian burial practices?

The answer is yes, for a simple reason. Namely, what we believe about the human body and its future influences how we treat the human body—even after it’s dead.

The Body Among World Religions

To take one example: historically, Hindus have burned their dead. In places like India or Nepal, cremations are often done in public. This is at least partly because of what Hindus believe about reincarnation and the human body. According to one Hindu website, “After death, the outer flesh, the physical body serves no purpose and the quickest way to release the soul & help in the re-incarnation process is to burn the body.”

There’s a natural fitness between Hindu beliefs about the body and the afterlife and Hindu cultural practices surrounding death—which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Other religions view the body as a shell or a prison for the soul. While this doesn’t necessarily rule out burial, it does make belief in a bodily resurrection seem pointless—after all, who wants to go back to prison once he’s escaped (Acts 17:32)? On the flip side, while not all who practice burial believe in a bodily resurrection, belief in a bodily resurrection does seem to lend itself to burial (as we see throughout Christian history).

Religion is part of culture, and cultural beliefs influence cultural practices.

The Body in Christianity

Christianity is different from Hinduism in this respect. As Christians, we don’t only believe in the immortality of the soul—we believe in the resurrection of the body. Unlike many other religions, Christianity has a positive view of the human body and of creation in general. Scripture teaches that God created the world and everything in it and then pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31; see Gen. 1–2).

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