In the end, the bottom line here is this: if the Lord was especially concerned about this I am confident he would have given us a clear and definite instruction somewhere in his Word. That he hasn’t tells me we are likely to be making a bigger deal out of the means than God does, which rarely seems like a good idea to me.
Discussions among Christians about cremation or burial are nothing new. There have long been discussions about these things floating around. But I saw a Gospel Coalition article on this yesterday that argued for “Christian burial”, not as a command, but as a preferred practice. You can read the case made in the post here if you like. I have never been fully convinced by these arguments.
First, let’s start with what we all agree to be true. Indeed, a true point that is often quickly overlooked as the definitive point that I think it might be. Namely, burial is nowhere commanded in scripture. There simply is no command nor instruction for burial to be the preferred method of bodily disposal. Whatever else we make of that, we have to accept there is no biblical instruction here so we are not dealing with a sin issue regarding whether we bury or cremate.
One might argue against that, in the face of no specific command, we still want to look to God’s original design. Something akin to what Jesus does with the Pharisees concerning his teaching on divorce. But we can’t do this in relation to burial and cremation because God’s original design did not include death. We can’t go back to the original blueprint in that way to determine what God would have us do in the world in which we now live. The practice of burial or cremation is a necessary consequence of God’s design being broken.
Some would then argue, in the face of no expressed command and no original design to guide us, we can look to biblical example. Here we might have more joy; it is certainly true that the prevailing practice in scripture is burial. However, when we look at the reason for the first burial in scripture, it has nothing to do with the rightness or appropriateness of burial itself. Interestingly, death occurs and is specifically mentioned a number of times prior to the first burial but there is no mention between Adam and Abraham concerning how those particular bodies were disposed. We’re just told people died.
The first burial we read about comes in Genesis 23 when Abraham buries his wife Sarah. But the particular concern of the passage isn’t primarily to do with the importance of burial. It is to do with Abraham gaining and owning a stake in the land for him and his descendants. It is interesting (though in no way conclusive) that burial simply is not mentioned before this point and in this particular case is very much linked to issues to do with inheritance in the land itself. The later instances of burial in Genesis are similarly concerned with this same issue.
If that is true in Genesis, it may well make more sense to view later comments about burial in the same vein. So, for example, in Numbers 20:1 in which Miriam is buried in the wilderness of Zin, the point seems less concerned about the mode of bodily disposal as the geographical location in which she was buried. The point seems to be less that Miriam was buried as part of a repeated example-cum-instruction for God’s people and more to do with the fact that the wilderness generation have no stake in the land. They not only fail to enter it, but fail to even be buried in it like their forefathers. The same is true of Moses in Deuteronomy 34:6.
This point is even more pronounced and clear in Joshua 23:32, in which Joseph’s bones – which were already buried in Egypt – are moved to Israel. The concern is not the means of disposal and very particularly about where the body is laid to rest. The emphasis is on being buried in the land and being associated with the Patriarchs and the land God had given them, even to the point of moving already buried people. This is precisely the point made of David’s burial in 1 Kings 2:10 where the emphasis is on being buried “with his ancestors… in the City of David.” The only break from this apparent pattern is the burial of Elisha in 2 Kings 13. Nothing is particularly said about it other than ‘he died and was buried’ but the purpose for its inclusion becomes clear in the next couple of verses that describe a miraculous event surrounding the body of Elisha. The burial itself is not deemed significant and is only mentioned because of the miracle that followed.
If that contention is correct and burial was to do with association with the land itself – and I think that is clear in most the examples we read and explicitly clear when Joseph’s post-interment body is moved from Egypt to Israel for this reason – we surely have to question the assumption that this is a pattern for Christian burial rather than a pattern concerning the land of Israel and its people. To put it another way, if my contention about burial and the land is correct, does that make any difference to us when we consider the New Covenant people of God who are from every tribe, tongue and nation and not connected to the physical land of Israel in the same way?