Cremation or Burial?

Every so often questions arise in our midst, “Why do we insist on burial after death whereas many people around us have their loved ones cremated?”

Rev Rob Visser in Weerklank [Resonance] of March 2020 provides clear and scriptural arguments for maintaining our current practice. Weerklank is the monthly magazine of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, one of the two relatively small bonds of churches with which our Deputies maintain contact.

Below is a translated and somewhat condensed version of his article.

Cremation is becoming more popular in general society. In the Netherlands more people are cremated than buried. [Similarly, 70% of funerals in Australia in 2015 were cremations.] Within our circles some uncertainty may exist about this, making it a good topic for further examination.

Death Enters God’s Creation
God made man to live and not to die. Our original parents had no expectation of dying one day. If Adam and Eve had continued to live in loving obedience to the LORD, death would never have entered their existence. Death only came after they disobeyed God (Gen 2:17). In that beautiful garden of Eden, God had given them all they could desire while He had a confidential relationship with them. The whole earth was under their governance. Nothing threatened them.
Death only came into their life after they disobeyed the LORD. While not part of creation, it could enter their life as God had predicted. We know what happened. Now we have also sinned, and death has come into our lives. One result of death is that we must deal with the care for corpses.

The Significance of Being Buried
Reading the Bible to see how bodies of loved ones were dealt with, we repeatedly read about burials. The first funeral mentioned is that of Sarah (Gen 23). Abraham had bought the cave of Machpelah to serve as her tomb, and he was also buried there himself later. God’s people in the Old Testament went to great lengths to bury their loved ones. Think of Samson the judge: his family had to search for his body among the thousands of Philistine corpses to place him in the grave of his father Manoah. Or Asahel, an important man in David’s army: when Abner killed him in the battle of Gibeon, we read, “They took Asahel and buried him in his father’s grave, which lay in Bethlehem” (2 Sam 2:32). That’s almost 30 kilometres away.
But we are not only guided by biblical examples of interment. God Himself designated burial as the proper way of care, even for someone who had sinned so badly that he had to be stoned. His body had to hang on a pole for the rest of the day (Deut 21:22-23). But it was not to remain on that pole; he was to be buried that same day. The LORD even buried the body of a man Himself – Moses (Deut 34:5-6).

The Funeral of Jesus
Continued Bible reading makes it clear that burial was the common and honorable way of dealing with dead bodies. If it had been up to Jesus’ antagonists, He would not have received a burial. Under Roman practice, people who died on a cross were burned on a garbage heap outside Jerusalem. And it was the intention of the Jewish leaders that this would also happen to the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit had already pointed out in Isaiah 53 that people would try to treat His dead body in an even more shameful manner, but they would not succeed. Almost 800 years later Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, for the Lord’s body was well cared for and He was with the rich in His death.

Burial is Sowing
In the New Testament we similarly read that believers were buried. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes about Christ’s resurrection and its significance for believers using the image of seed. Seed that is sown germinates so that it will produce new life. He writes: “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 Cor 15:35-38). Paul uses the imagery of burial and not of cremation. Burial is in line with the heavenly Father’s will concerning the care of corpses.
Burial in the Bible is the honorable way of caring for dead bodies. It is shameful to not be buried (1 Sam 17:44-46; 1 Kgs 14:9,13; 2 Kgs 9:10; Ps 79:1-3; Eccl 8:10; Isa 14:18-20). Burial or internment is appropriate for man as God’s fallen image. This is even more evident when we consider what the Bible states about burning corpses.

Cremation in the Bible
The burning of a human body in the Bible is linked to shame or punishment. In Genesis 38:24 Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar was accused of harlotry, and Judah responded by demanding that she be burned. Here we are faced with a death sentence by burning. Never mind that it was not carried out, she was threatened with a shameful death.

In Leviticus 20:14 we read: “If a man takes a woman and her mother also, it is depravity; he and they shall be burned with fire, that there may be no depravity among you.” This sin was so great that nothing should be left on earth of those who conducted themselves in this manner. Their fire was a prelude to what was to follow.

Leviticus 21:9 describes a comparable situation: “The daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” Prostitution was a grave sin in Israel, especially when it also tainted God’s servant and thus God’s sanctuary. To remove this completely, nothing was to be left of the body with which she had sinned so intensely.

In Joshua 7:15,25, the people of Israel had entered the promised land. The first city to be taken was Jericho. The LORD ensured victory by collapsing its walls and stated that nothing should be taken by anyone. Israel had to learn that those they conquered did not provide them with prosperity and wealth. Such things came from God alone and, by obeying, the people could show their gratitude. Nevertheless, Achan took precious things from the city for himself. The LORD was very explicit in prescribing his punishment: “he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.” This punishment was carried out.
In 2 Kings 23:15-18, the faithful King Josiah went to Bethel, and there he destroyed the sanctuary where Israel has long ‘revered’ the Lord through forbidden statues. This act of destruction fulfilled an earlier prophecy in 1 Kings 13. In Bethel Josiah saw the nearby graves of those who had desecrated that sanctuary. So what did he do with their dead bodies? He had them exhumed and burned. Though these people were dead, this was a punishment for their past actions. Nearby was also the tomb of a true prophet of the LORD. He had not joined in idol worship. Josiah ordered that his remains as well as the remains of a prophet from Samaria be left alone.

In Amos 2:1-3, we read that Moabites burned the body of the King of Edom. In God’s eyes that was one of the great sins that caused His punishment to come over Moab. We see here how much the LORD hates the burning of a person’s body when He has not commanded this.
Scripture is clear that burial is consistent with God’s will. Similarly, cremation should not be the ordinary way of dealing with corpses. Cremation can be a form of punishment or can be used in an epidemic to protect the lives of others. Cremation as a generally accepted form of dealing with the dead is unfitting for Christians. It is incompatible with the LORD’s service. Believers look forward to the day when the graves will be opened and believers will rise with a perfect body to be with the LORD forever.

Significant Conclusions?
Why should we consider the relative merits of burial and cremation? Some who profess to be Christian believe that cremation is an acceptable way of dealing with the deceased. One of them, Prof. Johan Heyns, disputed the validity of long-standing arguments against cremation. He wrote: “We must have great appreciation for motivations underpinning such arguments. But, whether they are sufficiently convincing to conclude that burial is the only ethically responsible method, is to be seriously questioned. In our opinion, cremation or conversion to ashes is also permissible, and if it is someone’s personal wish to be cremated, this should be accepted.”

Heyns argues that the pagan origin of corpse-burning is not a good argument for rejecting it. According to him, we should use entirely different and better ethical arguments to evaluate cremation. He continues: “The burial of Jesus is not a model for us to copy. After all, Jesus was embalmed and placed in a cave. We do not replicate those practices either. Allowing a certain part of His funeral to be normative for us does not convince. If we look at cremation, we will fail to find ethical arguments as to why this cannot be accepted.”

It is beneficial to scrupulously consider what Prof. Heyns and others say and write. Our arguments must be valid and robust. Carefully considering Scripture and comparing it with what Prof. Heyns and others have written causes us to reject their arguments. In addition, there is the following consideration:
We should not be limited by the Lord Jesus’ burial as normative for our funerals. Important is the fact that His burial was completely in keeping with God’s requirements in the Old Testament. That did not include embalming or being placed in a cave. Neither did it include placing a body in a coffin or putting a headstone on the grave. The standard is to bury, and how this happens can differ in detail without transgressing God’s norms. We have already seen that the LORD prescribed burial as the regulative form of care for a corpse, whereas cremation in some instances was carried out as a punishment. In fact, one of the reasons God punished Moab was that they burned the King of Edom. We read in Amos 2:1, “For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.”

Prohibition against burning corpses did not stem from opposition against pagan beliefs and practices. Instead it clashed with God’s expressed will. In general, Old Testament standards are normative for us today. Furthermore, Heyns argues from 1 Corinthian 15 that a corpse is equally violated when it is buried or cremated. He sees no real difference between the two. But there is an important difference. Paul uses the image of sown seed in this chapter to show what happens after the death of believers. The verses 42-44 are of particular significance:

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

Sowing presumes a natural process of decomposition. Decay takes place without deliberate or violent human intervention. Besides, 1 Corinthians 15 does not allow us to equate burial with the scattering of ashes which sometimes happens after cremation. This whole chapter shows the image of sowing, with the seed indicating natural decomposition before emerging as something new, something wonderful to believers. This image matches burial far better than cremation.

In Scripture the LORD upholds burial as the accepted method of caring for dead bodies, while cremation is contrary to His will.

Translated and edited by Peter Posthuma
FRC Mundijong

Heyns, J.A. 1982. Teleological Etiek 1, pp 509-510.

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