From biblical times until the middle of the 19th century, believers were typically buried after death. It was not until 1876 that the first American crematory was built in Washington, Pennsylvania1 and 1901 that the first Canadian crematorium was built in Montreal, Quebec.2
Today believers’ opinions vary. Those that choose cremation often cite the high cost of burials, arguing that the body will eventually decay to dust (Gen. 3:19). Those that choose burial often counter that cremation is a sanitized word for burning one’s body, which historically has been a pagan practice.
While the Bible is silent on cremation, it was both God’s expectation (Gen. 15:15; Deut. 34:5-8) and His people’s practice in both the Old and New Testaments to bury their loved ones (Gen. 23:1-20; 35:8, 19-20; 1 Sam. 25:1, 1 Ki. 2:10; Mt. 14:12; Lk. 9:59-60; Jn. 11:17; Acts 8:2). In one example, Israel carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, eventually bringing them to the Promised Land and burying them at Shechem, more than four hundred years after his request (Gen. 50:25; Ex. 13:19; Josh. 24:30, 32).
Normally, the burning of individuals and cities was a sign of God’s punishment (Gen. 19:24; 38:24; Num. 31:10; Josh. 6:24; 7:25; 8:28; 11:11; Rev 20:15). An exception is found when Jabesh Gilead burned King Saul and his son’s bodies to prevent further indignity to them. The Philistines had beheaded Saul and hung his body along with his three sons to the wall of Beth Shan. In response, courageous men from Jabesh Gilead recovered them, burned their bodies, and respectfully buried their bones at Jabesh (1 Sam. 31:8-13).
In the New Testament, the word “sleep” is used to describe those who have died in Christ and always refers to their bodies, never their spirits (1 Cor. 11:30; 15:51; 1 Th. 4:14). Their spirits are consciously with the Lord but their bodies “sleep” in the ground until resurrection (2 Cor. 5:8). Just as we go to bed at night, expecting to rise in the morning, similarly after our lifeless bodies are placed in the ground, there is a confidence that our bodies will rise again.
Let me suggest three reasons why I personally choose burial over cremation. First, we are the work of God’s hands, accountable to the One who created us. God made us spirit, soul, and body, and the value of our tripartite person is highly appraised by the One who formed us and called His work good (Gen. 1:31). In reality, we are merely stewards of our bodies and should treat them with dignity. It is God who owns them with full Creator rights (Ps. 24:1; 100:3; 1 Cor. 10:26).
Second, at Calvary Christ purchased our entire being (spirit, soul, and body) with His blood (1 Th. 5:23). Though our body’s ultimate redemption is still future, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee that Christ’s “purchased possession” includes our bodies’ glorification (Rom. 8:30; Eph. 1:13-14). The temple of the Holy Spirit, our bodies have been bought at a price and now belong to the Lord, with full Redeemer rights (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Third, we have the symbolism of nature. In the same way a seed is planted in the ground and dies, bringing forth vegetation; in burial our bodies are planted in the ground and by Christ’s power will someday be resurrected, transformed to be like His glorious body (1 Cor. 15:35-54; Phil. 3:20-21). Though cremation does not affect one’s future resurrection, it is a powerful testimony watching a deceased believer lowered into ground, while proclaiming their future resurrection in a body that will never experience disease, suffering, or death.
Ultimately, after weighing all the facts, we must decide for ourselves secondary issues like this, being fully convinced in our own minds (Rom. 14:5, 23). At the same time, we must also respect others who choose differently, those who also have the liberty to make their own decision according to their convictions.
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