Perhaps this is a strange topic to discuss, but it is a very real one for many people.
I (MH) just had this discussion a short time ago due to a recent death and I appreciated the desire by the grieving party to honor the Lord.
The issue is rather simple to state. Can a Christian rightly consider cremation over a physical burial? Why would anyone decide on cremation?
The reasoning is usually the cost of a burial. Now this is a real issue in America with the average cost of a funeral costing between 7-9K. That is not including a plot of land at a cemetary. Once everything is considered it is often costing a person between 10-15K.
Now compare that to the average cost of a cremation is about 2K, and to put it in a cemetery in a niche, is between 700-3,000, depending if it is for a single or double urn.
However, some respected leaders in the Evangelical church in America have weighed in on this subject and the result is confusion and concern.
John Piper argues that the Christian should normally pursue a burial rather than cremation. He gives four arguments:
-- The first is how the bible views the body and soul. The Greek philosophy saw the spirit as a prisoner in the body. This was thoroughly present in Greek thinking but is not a biblical view.
The bible treats the various aspects of the human being as body and soul/spirit. (we will deal with this shortly in our theology episodes on the nature of man).
The idea is not that the spirit is finally free at death. But rather that the spirit of a Christian at death is seen as not ideal. He takes this from 1 Corinthians 5:4, “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
He points out that the glory of the body is seen in the fact that for all eternity the Son shall have a body. And that at the final resurrection every believer shall be raised and the body and spirit shall be reunited.
-- The second point is that the body was purchased by Christ making it infinitely valuable.
He argues from 1 Corinthians 6 that the body is for the Lord and that as a temple of the Spirit it is to be treated as holy and we are to glorify God in our body. He points out from Philippians 1:20 that Paul desired that he magnify the Lord in his body whether in life or death.
He then says this, “The body will never be discarded. It has been bought by the blood of Jesus!”
-- The third is that death is viewed as symbolically sleeping for the Christian.
In 1 Corinthians 15 the death of the body is seen as functioning like a seed. And when it is buried it pictures that very idea and that the body will then be raised later.
So elsewhere the bible says a believer has fallen asleep and lies in wait for that resurrection.
-- The fourth argument is dreadful symbolism of fire in the bible.
It is seen as judgment and is used to describe the reality of hell.
So for a Christian, the final symbol is their death and the last thing they should desire is it to be symbolized in flames.
He then gives some other less important thoughts regarding cremation, such as how it is a relatively recent act in America. And that cremations have usually been historically found in pagan cultures reflecting their pagan worldviews.
Al Mohler argues also against cremations.
He sees the rise in cremations as indicative of a shift in worldviews by Americans.
Currently, slightly over half of all deaths result in cremation.
By 2025 it is expected to be about 68%.
However his points made in The Briefing that are theological in nature are rather simple to understand: "It’s certainly not a sin to be cremated. That’s not the big issue. It’s a matter of Christian judgment and an understanding of the fact that burial has had very deep theological and biblical roots in the Christian and in the Jewish tradition. And it’s because of a reverence for a respect for the body as well it’s described in the New Testament for Christians as the temple of the Holy Spirit. And furthermore, there’s been a respect for the body that has stood in distinction to the spiritual and theological beliefs of other cultures that have practiced cremation."
It is not a sin.
Burial is a deep theological issue with biblical roots.
Burial models a deep respect for the body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Burial stands apart from many pagan beliefs which involve cremation.
Mohler went on to describe in detail the death and cremation of the King of Thailand. A lot of rather interesting information is given about the way the nation viewed the King. But also the theological thinking of the people.
It is a fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism. Because they view him as divine and that the divine is essentially trapped or confined by the body.
Cremation then frees the spirit from the body. He is correct in noting that for Hinduism and Buddhism the body is something to escape out of and to be absorbed into the great Divine.
Whereas in a Christian view, the body is something that is part of the design of God and there is no real separation between the spirit and the body. The bible views them wholistically.
This is an issue that we see as being made more complex than is necessary. The bible is actually silent on the subject in any direct way and so we can only give observations rather than directives.
We think that it is wise for pastors to be very, very careful when giving their preferences wrapped up in biblical terminology. But also that everything we do reflects some sort of theology.
Because the bible is silent by way of instruction and commands, we simply say that it is not a doctrine taught in the bible and that every Christian is free to do as they deem good and right. It really is that simple.
Nothing in cremation prevents or diminishes the reality of the resurrection. And nothing in a physical burial exalts the reality of the resurrection. Rather it is in the words and thoughts of the people where this reality is seen.
A Christian burial/funeral should be replete with promises of the resurrection.
A reaction by all Christians at a funeral and afterward should be one of hope and a grief that is controlled by that hope of the resurrection. That will far more declare the gospel truth than sticking a body in the ground.
This issue also then creates undue stress for those who lost a believing loved one in a way that prevents a burial of the body.
-- Death by fire as was common in the inquisition and Roman persecutions.
These are just a couple of examples where the body simply is not available.
Add to this the many times a body had to be disposed by fire simply due to disease control.
What do we say to them? How do we comfort them? We comfort them by speaking of the truth that the resurrection is true and one day their loved one will be raised with Christ forevermore.
This argument is also lost in the reality that bodies decompose and return to dust.
God overtly states this in Genesis 3 when He said that from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
There is the well-down story of Roger Williams who founded Rhode Island. An apple tree had grown over his grave and the roots broke into the casket and the roots simply engulfed the body. Think of where that body actually is since how many apples were eaten by countless people and animals over the decades!
Just because you put a person in a box and put it in the ground does not actually do anything is our point. All people shall be raised on that final day, both believer and unbeliever.
We could also argue that cremation models a greater hope in that it simply shows how we know the vastness of God’s power to resurrect.
Like all things there is often multiple issues going on in the decision to bury or cremate.
-- If it is merely so that you can keep more money then we see a possible heart issue.
-- If it is merely convenience then again we would say that the person might think a bit more on their motives.
-- If you are trying to be current with the trends, again, why is that your concern?
-- But also, if you do some elaborate funeral thinking that your loved one is happier in the fancy casket down by the pond then there is really bad thinking going on as well.
It also can be affected by various cultures that we live in.
If it is a Hindu culture that is big on cremation for bad reasons, then perhaps you don’t cremate to show a different hope and perspective.
This is again something that requires a lot of thought.
In conclusion, we would simply say that it is a matter of conscience for each believer.
Romans 14 helps us there as it instructs us not to violate our conscience.
Rather, let us honor the Lord as we seek to handle the body of a loved one in death.
So these are our thoughts, and we hope they give you something to think about.
Let us know what you think about burial and cremation.