Burial or Cremation?

As one grows older in age the relevance
of death becomes a greater issue.
Death is inevitable for all who die
before the Coming of our Lord Jesus.
Is one’s wish to be buried as per normal
custom, or would one’s preference be
for cremation?
Is the latter option one that might
upset other family members, or close
relatives, and therefore be a cause of offence
to these people?
Does Scripture prohibit cremation,
leaving only burial as an option?

Although certain forms of cremation have been around for millennia, it has really only gained prominence within European culture since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Some religions have traditionally frowned on the practice, and relatively few have made use of the process in the disposal of their body.

In one religious article Why Cremation is Unscriptural, Paul Mahar outlines the history of the practice as related to the United Kingdom (from The Testimony Magazine, February 1994, pp 45-48).

“As for England, the idea of cremation reappeared in the middle of the nineteenth century. Sir Henry Thompson, an agnostic, was chiefly responsible for the founding of the first Cremation Society in 1874. But it was not until 1902 that an Act of Parliament legalised the practice of cremation, while at the same time guaranteeing exemption from participation for any minister who found it repugnant to his convictions. This coincided with the liberal theology that began to invade the churches and today finds its expression in rejecting the belief in the resurrection of the body and the literal physical resurrection of Jesus himself. This view rejects the idea that the hope of redemption includes also that of the body. Yet Jesus said to Thomas: “Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (Jno. 20:27).”

The first Crematorium in New Zealand was built in 1875, following the UK example by one year.The first modern cermatory in the U.S. was built in 1876. The first in Australia was South Australia’s West Terrace in 1903.

Cremations are becoming more common in recent years with current cemeteries becoming full, and suitable land for extension being already taken by suburban housing. New sites for cemeteries are becoming progressively unavailable. There may come the time when such growth restrictions disallow further ‘normal’ burying, making cremation the only option.

So we should examine both Burial and Cremation in order to establish whether indeed the two options are viable, or whether Cremation is excluded on a Biblical basis.

The age-old practice of burial can be substantiated on several grounds:

  • Biblical practice
  • Biblical types

Biblical practice of burial

In using the term burial when associated with Biblical times, we should not imply the digging of deep graves such as we are familiar with in our day. Due to the rapidity of decomposition in that climate, burial was generally accomplished the day of the death, or within 24-hours of death. This necessitated a method that required little or no preparation. Placing a body in a cave was the generally accepted method of burial.

When Abraham’s wife, Sarah, died he was anxious to dispose of her body.

 “Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.” … So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.” Genesis 23:1–6;17–20

 These caves were most often used by several generations. A body would be laid in a prepared shelf, along with grave goods (food, pottery, weapons, tools), and then later the skeletal remains were removed and placed in another chamber or an ossuary box, or simply swept to the rear of the tomb to accommodate the next burial1.  The phrase ‘buried with their fathers’ would have been literal.

 The body was washed in preparation for the burial,2 and wrapped in a cloth or closely bound in bands. Recall the incident of the raising of Lazarus:
The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
John 11:44

Wealthy people on preparing the dead burned fragrant materials,3 or added spices and perfumes to the body.
Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.” John 19:39–40
Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.”  Matthew 27:59–61

The ‘burial’ of Jesus was therefore typical of burials in Biblical times, and such sites are to be found  In recent years we have inspected such sites in Turkey,4 Jordan,5 and Israel,6 and viewed inside them. They either contained shelves on which the bodies were placed, or dug-outs (bath-shaped) in which the bodies were placed. They were not covered over with soil.
The Old Testament contains 81 references to a pit, which was a hole especially dug for water, but was also used where water was not present. It also describes the place of a physical burial, a hole with graves dug into the sides.  By analogy it can refer to a burial crypt or burial chamber. They also had stone mausoleums.

It is fairly evident that our current burial practice does not follow that which was the custom in Bible times. The picture of burial that we have in mind is different to that of the lands associated with the Bible, and does not really compare.

Biblical types associated with burial

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,…”  1 Corinthians 15:3–4

The death and resurrection of Jesus forms an essential part of the Gospel message, and fulfilled the prophecy made concerning him:
By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.9

Paul continued his dissertation on death by using the typology of sleep.
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. …But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. …For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:18,20,23

The association of death with sleeping is widespread within the pages of Scripture. We recall Jesus himself used the association when referring to the deceased state of Lazarus:
Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, …” John 11:11–14

This pattern is used throughout Scripture. For example concerning David we read,
So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.I Kings 2:10

The angel consoling Daniel used the same symbolism:
…at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:1b-2

Jesus used the same symbolism when referring to the future day of resurrection. We are perhaps familiar with his words.
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.  29 KJV

These passages are generally viewed to be in support of our process of burial. There are many similarities between sleep and death which would appear to appeal to burial rather than cremation.

  • We are not aware of the instant in time that we fall asleep. Our first notification we have of it is when we awake.
  • In sleep many functions of the body are stopped and only restart on awakening. In death however all functions not only stop, but cease to exist. The functions are regenerated at the resurrection.
  • We generally sleep while resting horizontally. In the grave the bodies are similarly laid horizontally.

Many Bible students consider that these types in Scripture, alluding as they do to death being a mere sleep, enforce the idea that Jesus Christ led us by example, and therefore we are duty-bound that when we “die in the Lord”7 we lay the body in the grave to honour this belief and strengthen one’s conviction of the hope of resurrection at the coming of the Lord, when “the dead of the Lord shall rise first.”8

Cemeteries today

Walking through the cemeteries of our day we see a regular grid of graves, many with headstones listing those buried beneath and perhaps accompanied by a short Scriptural quotation, or as is more likely today a brief epithet considered to be suitable for the grave. It is a vastly different picture to that from Biblical times. This is noticeable in a modern translation of the passage previously quoted from John’s Gospel message:

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”  John 5:28–29 ESV

The word graves has been replaced by the word tombs. Our word cemetery is derived from the Greek word koimȅtȅrion, a sleeping room, and that still echoes the times when cemeteries were merely a collection of sleeping rooms or caves. Just as the risen Lazarus could stand up and loose his cloth ties, so could Jesus at his resurrection stand up and loose his cloth ties. Our form of burial under two metres or more of soil simply does not enable us to replicate the example that was provided by Jesus. Bones of dead people were either left at the back of a cave, or tomb; or left in the field or dropped into trenches. There was no practice of burying under soil. When the carcass of a man was tossed into a cave, the carcass made contact with the bones of Elisha:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.” 2 Kings 13:21, NIV

We see also this exposure of dead bones in one of Ezekiel’s closing prophecies.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.” Ezekiel 37:1–2

This further illustrates that we cannot therefore legitimately claim that burial today conforms to the Biblical type. However, it is probably the closest one may get should one be is anxious to comply in this manner. There is no stringent requirement in Scripture for compliance in this respect, for as the wise Preacher instructed his readership,
…the dust returns to the earth as it was,
 and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7

Cremation

The word cremation comes from the Latin word cremare, to burn.

An illustration of this is to be found at the conclusion of King Saul’s life, when the bodies of he and his sons were burnt in a fire.

But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.” 1 Samuel 31:11–13

In order to ‘expunge’ this Scriptural reference to the burning of bodies, some attempt to change the original word saraf, ‘burned’, to be sarab, ‘anointed’, but there is no recognised English translation that so translates it. Furthermore—it is claimed—that their bones were buried,1 and therefore they couldn’t have been cremated. But cremation does not disintegrate bones, so the Biblical description is consistent with cremation as practised at that time.

There are occasions when fire was used in the destruction of wicked people. When Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelled against Moses God made use of fire.
And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Tell Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest to take up the censers out of the blaze.” Numbers 11:34–37

Other instances involved judgment on men that offered “strange fire”,10 involving certain human relationships,11 and the companies of fifty sent by Ahaziah.12

An episode describing the burial of Asa is somewhat ambiguous:
They buried him in the tomb that he had cut for himself in the city of David. They laid him on a bier that had been filled with various kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer’s art, and they made a very great fire in his honor.” 2 Chronicles 16:14

We should not lose sight of Abraham, who at God’s command was prepared to offer up his son Isaac for a burnt offering, and proceeded to carry out the divine mandate, intending to slay Isaac as he would a lamb, and then cremate him upon the altar he had erected for the purpose.13

Though these examples have principally utilised fire as a destructive force, we cannot omit recognising that cremation in correct settings can be pleasing to our Father.

Modern Cremation

We have already established that burials practiced throughout the Holy Lands in Bible times, differ in concept to burials today, so also modern cremation differs in concept from the form practised in Bible times. Unfortunately, cremation is still associated today with a picture of vivid flame and intense burning.

Fortunately, the real situation is distinctively different.

The body is not burned in an oxidising atmosphere, as for example, if we were roasting a chicken on a rotary spit over a barbeque. We all know the result, that some exposed surfaces may char or catch alight in flame. In chemical parlance, the body of the chicken during barbequing can become oxidised, with some unwanted by-products being produced.

With a cremation the body is introduced into a vault pre-heated to a high temperature. The body’s constituents are then vapourised by the heat, without any contact with flame being made—it has a ‘reducing’ atmosphere and not an oxidising one as found around a BBQ. Organic components, volatiles and water are vapourised, and removed to atmosphere, leaving behind the mineral portion of the body. The bones are the largest portion of the mineral portion, and these retain their shape unchanged. They are subsequently milled to a powder and blended with the mineral remnant. The ashes are then available for burial, for inclusion in a solid memorial container, or to be dispersed at sea or as the person may have previously willed.

The end results of cremation —so far as the body is concerned— are the same as that of burial ‘2-meters under’. Cremation achieves that end-point very much sooner than does a grave.

The Resurrection

One of the barriers to cremation expressed within the brotherhood is that the dispersal of bodily material would make the resurrection of the body impossible.

In our consideration of the plight of Abraham, when God had commanded that he offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering, we are aware that God abruptly stopped the sacrifice taking place. The writer to the Hebrews passed comment on Abraham’s feelings at that time:
He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Hebrews 11:19

Here is the revelation that Abraham did not reckon the resurrection of his son being lost simply because substance from the offering would be destroyed or dispersed. Abraham relied implicitly on God’s word. Isaac having been typically slain and burnt upon the altar and restored again to his father in the flesh, may be fairly taken to represent the resurrection at Christ’s coming of those servants of God whose bodies have been actually reduced to ashes by fire.

If “loss of material” was a factor in making bodily resurrection impossible, then what of those who lose their life in a house fire or in bush fire? Would such miss out on the resurrection through possibly no fault of their own?

However, comment such as this is not confined to cremation, but effects burial as well. A person would be naïve to think that a body buried in a coffin remains intact over a period of years—even hundreds or thousands of years!

As soon as death takes place, the spark of life is extinguished and decomposition of the body begins immediately. Over a period of time both the coffin and its contents progressively decay until their deterioration is complete. At that stage both coffin and contents are effectively reduced to soil, the nutrients of which are taken up by tree roots, plants, and subsequently transformed into food that is eaten by the passing animals. And so the cycle continues…

Job had some very perceptive thoughts on the mode of resurrection.
“Oh that my words were written!
    Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
    they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
    My heart faints within me!” Job 19:23–27

The New Living Translation gives the following rendering for verse 26:
And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!

This captures the essence of what Job was saying to his friends. He not only recognised the reality of the resurrection, but he knew that his resurrection body would not be the body he was presently struggling with. The significance of this aspect of the resurrection cannot be over emphasised. Job’s friend, Elihu, followed up this point, also stressed the disappearance of the present body.

His flesh is so wasted away that it cannot be seen,
    and his bones that were not seen stick out.
His soul draws near the pit,
    and his life to those who bring death.
If there be for him an angel,
    a mediator, one of the thousand,
    to declare to man what is right for him,
and he is merciful to him, and says,
    ‘Deliver him from going down into the pit;
    I have found a ransom;
let his flesh become fresh with youth;
    let him return to the days of his youthful vigor’ ”  Job 33:21–25

Elihu stated that the resurrection body is one’s body as it was in prime. Have we further evidence?

Adam and Eve

The task involved in resurrection is not far removed from that of creating both Adam and Eve in the first place.

It should be obvious to all that Adam and Eve were not created as babies. If such was the case, it would have been problematic for Adam to have named the animals on Day 1 of his life! It would also be difficult to appreciate loneliness if he was a day-old infant.

A much more reasonable scenario is that with Adam we have a mature and very capable adult responding to God’s instruction—a person already ‘programmed’ with language, reasoning, morality, and an awareness of God.

Later that same first day Adam was able to recognise Eve when she was brought to him, and recognise the benefit of companionship and marriage.

Neither of them needed any training session to develop the power of thought or reasoning—they were inherent in their creation as human beings. When producing Adam, God did not need to gather suitable bits and pieces, proteins or tissue… . Adam was formed complete. With Eve, a starting point was taken from the body of Adam, but the remainder of Eve was flash-generated by God without the need for Him to look around for suitable parts. They were generated on the spot!

Putting two and two together

There is a need now to assemble some considerations we have covered in order to appreciate the whole picture of resurrection. Only when this has been accomplished are we in the position to seek an answer —or answers—to our question: Burial or Cremation—Have we a choice?

Paul addressed the Corinthian believers concerning their understanding of the future resurrection.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.” 1 Corinthians 15:35–38

The point Paul stressed here, was that when we plant a seed, we do not expect to see the seed growing in size. If we plant a wheat kernel, then we would expect to see a wheat plant. If we plant a bean, we would expect to see a bean plant. In each case we see the replicate growth of the plant that produced the seed which we ultimately planted. But the plant we see is at an earlier stage of growth than when it produces the seed.

So it is with the resurrection. The resurrection body is not the body that was ‘planted’. The resurrection body is equivalent to the ‘old body’ at an earlier stage of development. It has moved beyond the ‘seed’ stage that was ‘planted’ in the grave. It is a replicate body which has been, by God’s grace and miraculous power, modelled at the prime of life.
And what you sow is not the body that is to be.

Do you imagine that the body of a man who had lost a leg in an accident would be raised to immortality encumbered by his physical loss of a limb? Would it be considered fair to raise a person for eternal life in a body that was severely damaged and bent by arthritis?

Fortunately, declared Paul, this would not be the case.

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood14 cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment,15 in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”  1 Corinthians 15:50–53

To accomplish the resurrection there is no need for God to track down every component or particle of the deceased and restore the body particle-by-particle, bit-by-bit or piece-by-piece. Each body will be restored instantaneously to a state of early adulthood, perhaps the range of 18 to 25 years for instance, but never more to age beyond that point. Just as he created both Adam and Eve in an instant, so our perishable body will be re-modelled as an imperishable one in an instant.

There are countless caves and tombs throughout the world where the resurrected bodies shall walk out of their precinct, their bodies having been regenerated, not from the past dust, but from spontaneously created material. Unlike the case of Jesus, no bodies would have escaped decay. Very many would have no residual body material remaining, it having been distributed far and wide and incorporated into other living organisms, plants or animals.

For those in earthen graves, they too would have decayed to the point where no part of the body survives intact. A regenerated body could be formed over the top of the grave as easily as Adam was created—nothing below ground-level need be disturbed.

For those who had been cremated, the resurrection would be carried out as for those that were buried beneath the earth.

Truly, when we consider these things some words of the Psalmist come to mind:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
 what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?” Psalm 8:3–4

God is indeed mindful of His creation, and especially mankind in whom he implanted the image of the angels.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God [elohim] he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27

Burial or cremation?

We have seen that the process of burial fits in with the many Scriptures that view death as ‘sleep’, and that we may ‘wake up and rise’ at his Coming16. However, the fit is not so good when it is related to our form of burial under the ground. The grave of Scripture was a tomb, or cave and one could picture the resurrected person walking out from that confinement—as Jesus did. But this analogy is weakened with our form of burial, but is this of concern?

Cremation was not practiced to a significant extent in Biblical times, and when it was performed, it used firewood as the means of cremation. It fits in with that view in which the sacrifice of life practiced under the Law, associated death with the removal of sinful flesh and which provided a ‘pleasing aroma’ to God. Cremation offers the ultimate expression of one’s commitment to God, and belief in His ability to resurrect one on that great day of the Resurrection.

If a person dies under normal circumstances, there is a choice to be made between Burial and Cremation. A person may have expressed beforehand their preferred method, in which case the option has already been decided. Burial is traditionally the favoured procedure, and probably will continue to be so until our Lord returns.

If one is favoured towards a strong belief in types and sees burial as symbolic of sleep, then one would favour burial. However, burial is still an option following cremation, and though body parts may have assumed a ‘decayed state’ more quickly, the end result is no different. Its form as it resides in the grave cannot retard the transformation on the Day of Resurrection. The ‘call’ cannot be heard by a decomposed body, but it will be instantly heard by the resurrected body.

Cremation can be viewed as a rapid way to accomplish the body’s degradation, rather than ‘leaving it to the worms’ over perhaps a sustained period of time. We can perhaps appreciate that the body remains can be stored (and buried) in an impervious container rather than a corruptible coffin, while awaiting the resurrection.

Is cremation offensive?

To many Christians, the idea of cremation is questionable, for it can conjure up unpleasant thought; yet it is a performed by millions of people in the world today.

So we should try to imagine the thoughts that passed through Abraham’s mind as he prepared a place to sacrifice his son—putting the wood in place, securing his son so that there would be no physical way of escape for him…. And yet as we have already considered, he was prepared to go through it all, because he believed that it would not impair Isaac’s resurrection.

Abraham was a truly remarkable man! Unfortunately we have not his substance. If a cremation would affect the feelings of one’s family members that remain despite their foreknowledge, then one should avoid that procedure. Similarly if the members of one’s spiritual family should be offended then one should take this into account, perhaps by discussing it with them beforehand.

The choice is ultimately yours.

 

1. The IVP Background Commentary, Old Testament; Walton, Matthews & Chavalas, p.54
2. Acts 9:37: “In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room.”
3. Jeremiah 34:5: ”You shall die in peace. And as spices were burned for your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so people shall burn spices for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!”‘ For I have spoken the word, declares the LORD.”
4. There is an extensive burial site at Hierapolis where people from Laodicea, Colossae and Hierapolis were ’buried’ in tombs.
5. There are many dozen burial caves in Petra which catered for that city’s dead.
6. There are burial caves in Jerusalem, with one very near the probable site of the crucifixion.
7. Revelation 14:13; “And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write , Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.
8. 1 Thessalonians 4:16
9. 1 Chronicles 10:12, 2 Samuel 21:14
10. Numbers 11:1-3
11. Leviticus 20:14,21:9
12. 2 Kings 1:10-12
13. Genesis 22:10-13
14. We would probably use the phrase “flesh and bones” in our parlance, meaning the tired old bones of this present fatigued body.
15. Gk: en atomo, in an ‘atom’ [instant] of time.
16. 1 Corinthians 15:18,20,23

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