To Bury or To Burn
Burial vs. Cremation
As a county medical examiner, I frequently have to sign death certificates of individuals who died of accidents, fires, suicide, homicide, or other, unknown causes of death, and who have not been attended by a physician within thirty-six hours of death. Although a burial permit need not be authorized by a medical examiner, a cremation permit must be signed by him. A cremated body cannot be exhumed, whereby all evidence, for example, of poisoning or other foul play, is destroyed; hence, the medical examiner's responsibility to authorize a cremation. As a medical examiner I have never signed such a cremation permit, not only for forensic reasons, but more importantly because I am not in favor of cremation on the basis of what I believe the Bible teaches us.
Since cremation is becoming such a common practice in our society and even among Christians, it behooves us as Christians carefully to examine this practice in the light of God's Word.
Arguments used in Favor of Cremation
Those who favor dispensing the remains of the deceased by incineration never base their arguments in favor of cremation on anything the Bible teaches or does not teach, but usually base their decision on practical reasons. These include economic, hygienic; ecologic, and aesthetic arguments. Indeed, economically cremation is much cheaper than a burial. One need not buy a cemetery lot, an expensive coffin and burial vault, a grave stone or marker, let alone pay for the cost of maintenance of the grave. But let's be honest, who would not gladly pay these expenses in respect to a loved one; besides, it is often the deceased himself who either has insured himself against these costs and/or whose financial resources are being used for the burial. A burial need not be extravagant, and, in cases where financial resources are lacking, the county will often absorb the cost of a simple burial.
Those who argue that cremation is more hygienic and thus less of a danger to human health and our environment probably do not realize that the laws regulating modern mortuary sciences, cemetery designs, and burial are such that one need not worry about any danger of ground water pollution as a threat to human or animal health. On the contrary, the smoke from a crematorium and the custom of throwing ashes of a cremated loved one on his garden or his favorite golf course may constitute a greater danger to air pollution than a burial does to ground pollution.
Those who argue for cremation for aesthetic reasons say that the body slowly decomposes in the grave, and during cremation everything is changed in a period of a little more than an hour into a small amount of fine ashes. Indeed, it is not pleasant to see or think of a slowly decomposing body in the grave, but neither is it aesthetically appealing to see a body burning in the oven. Death is ugly in any shape, manner, or form. Aesthetic arguments to support one form of interment over another are silly in my opinion.
As far as the symbolic so-called purifying or cleansing effect of fire is concerned, this idea is based on Greek mythology, namely, the phoenix saga. The phoenix, a mythical bird, feels its end approaching. Using its last strength, it reaches the hills of Heliopolis, the sun city. There it collects some twigs to build its own stake in preparation for cremation and regeneration. Apollos then appears, shooting a flaming arrow, declaring: “Be delivered from your old age by fire and fly away in a beautiful new shape.” The phoenix appears from the flames and rises into the blue sky with a brand new, rejuvenated body.
From a Christian viewpoint, however, “fire” in the Scriptures has a consuming, destroying, and judgmental action. Hebrews 12:29: “… our God is a consuming fire”; Matthew 3:12: “… the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (compare “pool of fire”); 2 Peter 3:10: “… the elements will be dissolved with fire.” Also in those cases in which the Bible speaks of burning of people, the element of punishment is present. This is in complete contrast with the heathen view of the so-called cleansing or purifying action of fire.
Why Burial and Not Cremation?
Although the Scriptures do not specifically forbid cremation or concretely command us to bury our dead, interment by burial is the normal and customary way taught in the Bible.
Abraham made a special effort to buy a grave site to bury his deceased wife, Sarah (Genesis 23:13). His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, later buried their father in the same cave (Genesis 25:9). Isaac and Rebecca were buried there as well, and Jacob buried his wife Leah at the same family grave site (Genesis 49:31). Joseph explicitly demanded that his bones be carried from Egypt to the land of Israel to be buried there (Genesis 50:25; Joshua 24:32). God Himself buried Moses in a valley in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 34:6). The kings of Israel were buried and slept with their fathers (1 Kings 2:10; 1 Kings 11:43).
In John 11 the burial of Lazarus is described. In Acts 8:2 we read that “devout men buried Stephen.” The laying in the grave of our Lord Jesus Christ was foretold in the Old Testament in Isaiah 53:9. Clearly the Lord Himself lay in the grave (Matthew 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:41, 42). From the grave, He has risen (Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6). His burial was an important link in His work of redemption. How would we be able to understand His resurrection if He had not first been buried? The apostle Paul in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians explains the relationship between burial and resurrection in the Biblical symbolic way of “sowing and reaping”:
…What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.vv. 36, 37
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.vv. 42-44
Of course, the resurrection is not dependent on having been buried. Many Christians have been burned at the stake; others have drowned in the ocean. But when we as Christians are in a position to choose, we should remember what God teaches us concerning the interment of our dead. It is clear from His Word that God wishes us to bury our dead. This is the normal, Biblical way.
As mentioned earlier, when we examine the Scriptures concerning the burning of bodies, we see that this often involves an element of punishment. Achan, after he stole from the spoils, was stoned and burned (Joshua 7:25). Tamar played the harlot and was with child by whoredom. Her father-in-law, Judah, demanded that she be burned (Genesis 38:24). In Leviticus 21:9, the Lord instructed Moses that “the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by playing the harlot … shall be burned with fire.” In the New Testament Christ teaches His disciples in Matthew 13:41 and 42:
The Son of man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.
Of course the furnace of fire, or oven, in this latter text, clearly points not to an oven where cremation takes place to shorten the decomposition of the body, but to the unquenchable fire of hell where unbelievers are punished. Nevertheless, fire here means punishment.
Burning of the dead in the Scriptures is almost always for punitive purposes, except in the case of the slain Saul and his son who were burned to protect their bodies from any further abuse by the enemy (1 Samuel 31:12). Also in emergencies of epidemic proportions, bodies were sometimes burned (Amos 6:10).
In conclusion, the usual, normal way of interment as taught by the Holy Scriptures is that of burial of the dead. In following the example of Christ, it expresses our expectation of rising from the grave again. Of primary importance to a Christian is the dying and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, from which is derived the sowing of a physical body and the resurrection of a spiritual body; a believer is buried and raised again with Christ.
Exceptions to the Biblical norm of burial can occur due to acts of war or epidemics, or in areas where burial is forbidden (e.g. Tokyo). However, the rule for Christians should be burial rather than cremation. The church should promote this rule and reject cooperation in the non-Biblical practice of cremation.