Burial Vs. Cremation
First, let me say that the answer to the question is not a “hill to die on,” as we might die for the biblical doctrines of the deity of Jesus or the trinity. Nor is it a moral question in the sense that one commits a sin if one chooses cremation over burial. A person’s eternal destiny is not tied to what one chooses to do with the deceased human body.
That said, I believe the overwhelming evidence in Scripture and Jewish/Christian tradition is universally in favor of burial. Let me offer two reasons why.
First, the physical body is regarded as sacred in the Scripture. King David reflected on his own physical body and wrote, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). When Jesus died, his body was anointed (Mark 14:8), wrapped (John 20:7) and delicately placed in a new tomb as a sign of deep respect (Matt 27:57-60). The early disciples showed their love and respect for one of their first martyrs when the “devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2). I can’t think of a single instance when the people of God practiced cremation in either testament in a positive way (see Amos 2:1 and Leviticus 20:14).
Unlike the Greek philosophies of the New Testament era, which regarded physical matter (like the body) as intrinsically inferior or even evil, the Hebrews Scriptures regarded the physical world as good (as reflected in the opening chapters of Genesis). This disregard for the physical existence explains why the pagans burned the bodies of their dead.
As early as the second century AD, the church father Tertullian wrote, “I on my side must deride [the pagan custom] still more, especially when it burns up its dead with the harshest inhumanity, only to pamper them immediately afterwards with gluttonous satiety, using the selfsame fires to honor them and to insult them” (Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.545). In like manner, the church father Origin wrote, “For in harmony with those laws that are based upon the principles of equity, bodies are deemed worthy of burial, with the honors accorded on such occasions. So far as it can be helped, no insult should be offered to the soul that dwelt within, by casting out the body like that of an animal” (Origen (c. 248, E), 4,55). Lactantius, a third century father, expressed it even more vividly writing, “We will not allow the image and workmanship of God [referring to the human body] to lie exposed as a prey to beasts and birds” (Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), 7.177). While these last two comments from early church fathers do not explicitly mention cremation, it is clear that they regarded the human body, along with the burial of the human body, as sacred.
Conversely, failure to bury the physical body was regarded as an act of abject humiliation (1 Samuel 31:10). Worse, public exposure of the human body was regarded as a curse (Deut 21:23, Gal 3:13).
Second, burial is an expression of hope in the resurrection. To this day, the slopes of the Mount of Olives are littered with thousands of tombs, largely in the hope that when the Messiah comes, he will raise the dead to victorious life. In former generations, churches often buried the dead in their own respective court yards for largely the same reason. Jesus exited his burial tomb as did Lazarus and many others (see Matthew 27:52-53). The day will come when the trumpet will sound and the dead in Christ will rise from their graves. Burial expresses our hope of resurrection, when “28…all who are in the tombs will hear his [Jesus’] 29 and come out…” (John 5:28).
I’m mindful of this every time I visit the graves of my grandparents. I stand at their headstones and reflect on the hope of resurrection. Someday, the ground will open, and their souls will be reunited to their bodies in newness of life in a brand new creation. Burial stirs hope for the resurrection!
For these reasons, I’m convinced that burial is preferrable to cremation as a Christian practice of honoring those who have died in the Lord.
Dear Pastor Dan,
Thank you for your clear explanation the difference between burial and cremation. My mother told me I had to bury her. I asked why, she said,”The Bible said so.” I could not find where is it in the Bible. Now I understand the two main reasons. Thank you!