Europeans and Americans have long placed great importance on burying the bodies of their dead. Even in times of war or great poverty the energy was invested to inter the body. Rich and poor alike sought to give their loved ones a proper burial. America’s west in the late 1800’s illustrates the importance that was placed on interring the body. A man could be gunned down in the streets of a western town, unknown to any one, but someone would dig him a grave. Boot Hill may have been filled with anonymous cowboys, but even the most despised were given a “decent burial”.
Over the last several decades America has seen a steady increase of the number of cremations. Some statistics show that nearly half of all deceased are cremated. For Christians considering what to do with the body of their loved ones this can be a difficult decision at a very difficult time. To make this matter even more challlenging the Bible does not give any commands for or against burning the bodies of the dead.
This does not mean the Bible is silent on death and burial. The Bible consistently shows burial as the standard practice of the people of God. Multiple examples of this could be given, starting with Abraham and ending with Jesus. Clearly burial was the normal practice of all those in the Bible. Burning of bodies is only mentioned a few times in the Old Testament and is always associated with judgment. Achan was burned after being stoned to death for his disobedience to God’s command to not take anything from the city of Jericho. The book of Leviticus prescribed two cases when a person’s body was to be burned and both were commanded as part of punishment for specific sins.
The example of the Old Testament must be considered by the Christian. Burial was the normal practice of the Old and New Testaments saints but that does not necessarily mean the Bible teaches burial is the only permissible treatment of a dead body. Generally those who oppose cremation offer theological reasons as the basis for burying the dead. Two of those theological reasons are the resurrection of the body and the dignity of the person.
Often funeral practices are a reflection of the beliefs of the culture. Much unconscious symbolism can be found in the modern tendency to have no funeral or to replace the funeral with a party. Burial points to the future resurrection of the believers. A Christian burial reflects the teachings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that the body is sown in the ground and will spring up again as something greater. The sown seed will spring up into a full, greater existence and the Christian, like that seed, looks forward to springing up again with a glorified body into eternal life. (This does not at all imply that the resurrection of the body is in any way dependent on a proper burial.) Burial points to the Christian’s expectation of resurrection.
Burial respects the dignity of the person who is created in the image of God. While Christian burial does not attempt to keep the body in a pristine a condition for as long as possible (though modern embalming and entombing practice seem to have that effect) it does seek to treat with respect the person who has died. Genesis 1:26-27 states that God created mankind in His own image. Though sin has marred this image Genesis 9:6 and 1 Corinthians 11:7 indicate that man still bears the image of God. That which is a reflection of the image and glory of God is worthy of respect. Cremation intentionally destroys the body and has been seen by many cultures as a sign of contempt. The apparent disrespect in burning a body is not in keeping with the respect due one who is the image of God.
The Christian should give careful thought to the Biblical teachings regarding death, resurrection and the dignity of the person. However, when all things are considered the Bible gives no direct instructions regarding the disposal of dead bodies. The Bible nowhere forbids burning a body after death, nor does it command burial. Crematiòn is a matter of liberty in which each Christian and each family must seek to reach a Biblical conclusion as best as they are able. Each Christian must be careful to not bring an extra measure of suffering on those mourning the loss of a loved one.