There is no sin in cremation, that is for sure. And there is no inability on God’s part to raise a cremated body from the dead. But is cremation, a practice most often seen in Eastern religions, the best for the believer in Christ?
It is clarifying to note that burial was God’s preferred method of disposing of the body of Moses. God had the power to cremate Moses’ body on the spot, but rather, this gentle and loving phrase is found: “[God] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deut. 34:6). This fact alone is enough for me. If God chose this method Himself, then it certainly should be my preference also.
We must add, for a second reason, that burial underground (or in tombs) was the ordained method for the patriarchs, for God’s chosen people, and for New Testament believers. There are numerous references to this, from Abraham’s burial in the cave of Machpelah to Lazarus’ entombment in a crypt. The bodies of these saints were kept, as much as possible, in their original state, awaiting the resurrection of the body.
For a third reason, consider the death of Christ Himself. He is our example in everything. Christ was in charge of His death. As He said, “No one has taken [my life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative” (John 10:18). Certainly His burial was no accident either. The dramatic events God ordained to take place included the tomb as an essential ingredient. It accentuated His resurrection.
A fourth part of the rationale has to do with the place the body plays in our theology. Christianity is the most materialistic of the religions in this respect. That is, it gives an importance to the body and to all things tangible that other religions do not. For Hindus, the body is evil. This is why you find some Hindus practicing religious ritual abuse of their bodies or meditating for long periods in an attempt to escape their bodies. I’ve seen the burning of Indian bodies on a funeral pyre. There is no glory to God in it. But Christianity sees the body as useful, rather than evil. It can do much good, if a believer is controlled by the Spirit. It is so valued by God that the very body we are living in will be raised up one day, made new for eternity. For this reason, we symbolize the importance of the body by burying it with love.
Fifth, the burial of Christians was designed by God as the basis for our understanding of baptism. Though baptism does not save, it does picture our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (cf. Rom. 6:3-4). Such a powerful picture as baptism is dependent for its meaning on the burial of Christ and of believers.
Finally, we should bury because the grave is such a potent reminder of the future resurrection. I recently stood beside the graves of some famous authors in New Hampshire. Staring at their burial site reminded me again of the future bodily resurrection of both believers and non-believers, some to a resurrection of life and the others to a resurrection of judgment (cf. John 5:28-29).
As family and friends look at my grave one day, I am hopeful that it will keep on preaching the gospel. I want my family to spare no expense to put a clear message on that stone. But mostly I want that stone to remind people of a coming new day, which those in Christ should find most exhilarating. I’ve tried to say something in my life; I want to say something in death as well. And I hope that what is said will make clear what is ahead.
Not long ago I stood by the grave of my mother. It is hard to imagine a more selfless and sincere believer. On her stone were these simple words, taken from a hymn she would sing to herself day after day: “Jesus is all the world to me.” It’s a powerful message that reminds me to put Christ first in everything. I rejoiced that she will be “raised imperishable,” body, soul and spirit, at the resurrection of the righteous (1 Corinthians 15:52).
I realize that some will die at sea and others will be blown apart by bombs during war. But if at all possible, I recommend that you honor your dead loved ones by burial, keeping the body unchanged as much as you can. There will be change enough at the resurrection of the dead.
The minimizing of cost through cremation is often a consideration when loved ones die. Read about how believers can reduce the cost of funerals and still bury their loved ones with dignity below:
Reducing the Cost of Funerals
It may seem strange that I chose this subject, but the issue is such a nagging problem with believers and ministers that I felt I should address it, however briefly.
I’ve often stood in the funeral home with believing church members while they selected a casket for their loved one. There is such a real pressure to spend too much money at that moment. The expense is one of the main reasons many choose to be cremated rather than buried. I can understand this dilemma.
But money can be saved if things are done differently. We do not need to let the funeral business determine our practice. As sincere as the funeral director may be, it is still his objective and the objective of those over him to make money during the time when people are the most vulnerable. I would not want to demean this honorable profession, but things have gotten way out of hand.
Let me make these practical suggestions:
First, consider having the graveside service for family and perhaps a few close friends before the memorial service. This will reduce the pressure to buy a casket that is too expensive. In fact, as far as I am concerned the cheapest possible casket is appropriate, if things are done this way. The family understands, especially if this is the stated wish of the one who has died. Also, the long ride out to the cemetery in limousines will not be needed for this intimate gathering. Just arrive in your cars and have the kind of service that is meaningful to you led by a pastor or friend. A funeral home person will need to be there to bring the casket, the flowers (if there are some), and to make the proper arrangements with the cemetery, but you have cut down considerably on costs. Also, you may bury your dead sooner this way. I suggest that seeing your loved one at the funeral home is a good thing for the family, but you do not have to rent the funeral room for extra days.
Second, in certain cases a graveside service may be enough. If the deceased does not have any (or very few) friends still living, or if the rest of the family lives far away, this may be the right thing to do.
Third, you may choose to have the memorial service at a church building or another facility that costs less than a funeral home. There is something rather morose about most funeral homes, frankly. The “coronation” of a believer should be a different affair, and brightness and joy should characterize the time together. Let me add that having the memorial in the evening and on a day when more people can come is also advisable. It is increasingly hard for people to get off work for a memorial service. Make it easy on them. You can wait for four or five days if you wish. The church leaders can provide the obituary and any other handouts, saving even more money.
By using the church facilities or another less-expensive meeting place, and by having already buried the deceased loved one, there will be no need for any funeral people to be involved in the memorial service at all. No limousine rides are necessary, or funeral home ushers, etc.
In some cemeteries it will be necessary to purchase an expensive vault to put the casket into when interred. Cemeteries often require this to keep the body dry and the ground from sinking as time goes on. The cemetery may require this, but our theology does not. The other reason for a vault is more emotional. If the family cannot be comfortable without a vault, of course, for emotional reasons, you will have to have one.
It will be a good idea to check with more than one funeral home about burial costs. The fees vary significantly. In fact, we recently found thousands of dollars difference in pricing for the same service between two funeral homes in our area. There will be someone in the family who will be free enough and business-like enough to handle this sort of thing. It is important. Your loved one would not want your hard-earned money to be thrown away just because you were unwilling to check on pricing.
In my view, it is good to spend extra money on a gravestone that communicates well the believer’s life message. If you cannot afford a large stone, that is reasonable, but do put some writing on the stone for future readers. In this way your loved one can “preach” for years to come. A gravestone may be purchased and placed on the grave later, in most cases.
If you are considering the costs for your own burial, it will be especially important to write out instructions for your family before you die, if at all possible. In this way you will guarantee that your family will not go overboard in their spending when they are most vulnerable. It will ease their minds.
And remember that God has saved you “in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” However humble your funeral, God has great things in store for you.
Copyright Jim Elliff 2006; reposted Oct 12, 2021