“Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” John 19:40 (KJV)
By Kathy Beardsley
I was asked what I believed about burial vs cremation for Christians not too long ago and my answer was, “eventually we decay until there is nothing left so what is the difference between getting it done faster compared to the slower process?” Then I was reminded of the symbolic references in scripture to being buried versus burned with fire, and that got me to stop and think.
I have learned when a question on whether a Christian should or should not do something arises, the best thing to do is go to God’s word and do the homework needed to find the answer. I did that, but also as part of my homework I searched sites explaining the cremation process and a striking detail I did not know stood out to me. Most people think that when they receive their loved one’s ashes, they are receiving them from the body and the bones. Not so! The flesh is completely incinerated to nothing leaving only the bones (or fragments of them) which are then transferred to a cremulator that grinds the bones to a fine powder and that is what the family receives. If you want further detail of the whole process you can find it at the Cremation Institute website. https://cremationinstitute.com/cremation-process/.
Keeping what I just told on the back burner as they say, I will begin by stating the obvious first; of the several examples for burial, the most notable one is Jesus. He was buried 1 Corinthians 15:4, John 12:7; Mark 14:8 not cremated. The gospel of Jesus Christ is his death, burial and resurrection as ordained by God the Father in heaven.
Peter, in chapter two of his first book, gives examples to a diverse group as to their manner of behavior, etc., and as part of that in verses 21-24 he says,
“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.”
The word follow implies imitation and is defined in the Strong’s Concordance as such. We can never achieve perfection like Jesus while on this earth, but we have Him as our example in the generalities of life and death—burial is the example He gave us.
In the Bible, all inhabitants of the earth from Adam forward have been buried with only a few exceptions. Pagan’s didn’t believe in an eternal soul except through reincarnation—they believed that deceased person’s soul would never come back to the same body, and maybe not even in a human being. They also burned people alive as a sacrifice to their pagan gods. “Fire from heaven,” or “fire from the sky,” in the Bible is denoted as lightning. God took his wrath out on the wicked by striking them down with fire or fire and brimstone i.e. Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 1:7). This would not constitute cremation, and I dare say that word and the concept itself was probably not in their vocabulary.
Concerning Saul and his sons being burned, 1 Samuel 31:1-13 tells us that Jonathan and his brothers were killed by the Philistines and Saul being told this fell on his own sword for fear the Philistines would thrust him through and abuse his body. Nevertheless, abuse him they did. No doubt to make a mockery of Saul and his sons while at the same time boast of their accomplishment, the Philistines decapitated Saul, sent his head and armor around the land before bringing it to the house of Ashtaroth, and fastened their bodies to the wall of Beth-shan. When hearing word of this atrocity the valiant men from Jabesh-gilead recovered their bodies and burned them, but buried the bones. This incident was reported to David who said nothing about the burning of their bodies, but rather he thanked them for “this kindness unto your lord, even unto Saul, and have buried him.” 2 Samuel 2:4-6.
As explained earlier, cremation (in the true sense of the word) only happens to the bones. Would you consider the burning of bodies in the Bible and burying the bones the same as cremation today? Is it possible that the men of Jabesh-gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons as a symbol of cleansing from the defilement to which their flesh was subjected by the uncircumcised Philistines? To David, they were buried—later to be removed and reburied in their own land.
Another example of burial is on a much larger scale. The armies whom Gog joined together to war against the Israelites were massive in number, yet in the end as prophesied by Ezekiel, they were cut down and in Ezek. 39:11 God says,
“I will give unto Gog a place there of graves in Israel, the valley of the passengers on the east of the sea: and it shall stop the noses [stink; pungent smell] of the passengers: and there shall they bury Gog and all his multitude:“
Verses 13, 14 “all the people [Israelites] of the land shall bury them, etc.” It took seven months! Many of those bodies would have been decayed to the point of nothing but bone being left to bury. One would think if cremation was accepted or practiced at any point, this would be the time. But God told them to bury the bodies and burn the weapons (burning the weapons occurred over seven years).
God himself buried Moses in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor, Deuteronomy 34:5, 6. He could have disciplined him by striking him down with fire for his disobedience but instead Moses was only allowed to look upon the promised land that he was now forbidden to enter into.
This brings us to the symbolism of fire. When John was preaching baptism of repentance in Matthew 3 he was baptizing the crowds of people in the Jordan river after they confessed their sins. Then in verse 7 he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism to whom he said, “O generation of vipers.” He was still speaking to them in verses 11 and 12 when he announces,
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he [Jesus] that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.“
Figuratively, the wheat (believers/saved) is gathered in heaven for all eternity, the chaff (unbelievers/unsaved) is burned with eternal fire.
To quote Mr. Easton (Author of the Easton Bible Dictionary) concerning the various meanings both literally and figuratively of fire: (the underlined sections pertain particularly to death)
1 For sacred purposes. The sacrifices were consumed by fire Gen. 8:20. The ever-burning fire on the altar was first kindled from heaven Lev. 6:9, 13; 9:24 and afterwards rekindled at the dedication of Solomon’s temple 2 Chron. 7:1, 3. The expressions “fire from heaven” and “fire of the Lord” generally denote lightning, but sometimes also the fire of the altar was so called Ex. 29:18; Lev. 1:9; 2:3; 3:5, 9. Fire for a sacred purpose obtained otherwise than from the altar was called “strange fire” Lev. 10:1, 2; Num. 3:4. The victims slain for sin offerings were afterwards consumed by fire outside the camp Lev. 4:12, 21:1ff.; Lev. 6:30; 16:27; Heb. 13:11. (fire used for judgment)
2 For domestic purposes, such as baking, cooking, warmth, etc. Jer. 36:22; Mark 14:54; John 18:18. But on Sabbath no fire for any domestic purpose was to be kindled Ex. 35:3; Num. 15:32-36.
3 Punishment of death by fire was inflicted on such as were guilty of certain forms of unchastity and incest Lev. 20:14; 21:9. The burning of captives in war was not unknown among the Jews 2 Sam. 12:31; Jer. 29:22. The bodies of infamous persons who were executed were also sometimes burned Josh. 7:25; 2 Kin. 23:16. (fire used for judgment)
4 In war, fire was used in the destruction of cities, as Jericho Josh. 6:24, Ai Josh. 8:19, Hazor Josh. 11:11, Laish Judg. 18:27 etc. The war-chariots of the Canaanites were burnt Josh. 11:6, 9, 13. The Israelites burned the images 2 Kin. 10:26 (R.V., “pillars”) of the house of Baal. These objects of worship seem to have been of the nature of obelisks, and were sometimes evidently made of wood. Torches were sometimes carried by the soldiers in battle Judg. 7:16.
5 Figuratively, fire is a symbol of Jehovah’s presence and the instrument of his power Ex. 14:19; Num. 11:1, 3; Judg. 13:20; 1 Kin. 18:38; 2 Kin. 1:10, 12; 2:11; Isa. 6:4; Ezek. 1:4; Rev. 1:14 etc. God’s word is also likened unto fire Jer. 23:29. It is referred to as an emblem of severe trials or misfortunes Zech. 12:6; Luke 12:49; 1 Cor. 3:13, 15; 1 Pet. 1:7 and of eternal punishment Matt. 5:22; Mark 9:44; Rev. 14:10; Rev. 21:8. The influence of the Holy Ghost is likened unto fire, his descent was denoted by the appearance of tongues as of fire Acts 2:3.
In my understanding and perspective of this matter in relation to people being buried versus being burned and equating it to cremation, it seems that fire for the disposal of a body was not so much looked on as cremation in the definition we know it to be, but rather a judgment for either the purpose of removing the wickedness of man, or a cleansing to purify after the wickedness was removed. Either way there is more than one reference to burying the bones regardless of the condition of the flesh; therefore, the burial took place.
There is no direct scripture reference for or against burning the body for the purpose of cremation, but the examples we are given seem to be a clear indicator as to what the decision should be. Having more knowledge about the process may help in your decision and researching ways to cut expenses of a funeral can’t hurt, for instance; those who want to buy flowers or donate money towards flowers can offer it to help with expenses instead.
While you contemplate your decision, take a few moments to reflect on the following and discuss these points and options with your loved ones (whether you are the executor for someone else or you are leaving instructions for yourself):
1 The dead are no longer with us.
2 They cannot see or hear what is taking place so they cannot be offended at a less expensive coffin versus a super fancy one that will get covered up and ruined anyway.
3 It is not disrespectful to the dead to be prudent with the expenses that is now left in your hands to manage.
4 A funeral is for the sake of friends and family to reminisce and share how much the deceased loved one meant to everyone, as is a memorial service.
5 Virtually all the same things can be done at the gravesite (weather permitting) instead of multiple places which serve to cost more because, if going through a funeral home, they charge for every little thing including the transportation needed from one place to another.
6 Immediate burial followed by a planned memorial service in one location (whether it be a church, the gravesite, or somewhere else) saves the cost of going through a funeral home where charges add up very quickly.
7 A memorial service would allow time for all who are a distance away to make arrangements to be there.
8 For a Christian funeral/memorial service, it is my opinion that it should be for the purpose of bringing glory to God and his work in the person’s life who is now home with Him in conjunction with a short gospel message for those in attendance who are not saved.
In light of the few (of many) scriptural examples presented, it is my belief burial should be the choice of a Christian!
For another viewpoint to this question:
Burying vs. Burning – https://wng.org/roundups/burying-vs-burning-1617229998