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Why Christians Bury Their Dead

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A subject about which I have been asked on a number of occasions as a pastor is if it is okay for Christians to be cremated, and I thought this would be worthy of a post. While the Pope has spoken about the subject in the Roman Catholic tradition (he even issued a revised statement this Fall), very few denominations or groups have made a statement on it (that I can find), especially in the Reformed tradition. This is not a definitive statement of our church or denomination, but the thoughts and reflections of one particular pastor (me!) on the subject.

While cremation is now fairly common, only recently have Christians started to consider cremation, at least in the West (people weren’t cremated in America before 1876). Jewish tradition rejected cremation and stressed the need for burial of the dead (you read about many burials in the Old Testament and New Testament), with burial of people being seen as an act of justice by giving dignity to those who have died; later Jewish tradition (the Mishnah) even forbids cremation. This choice of burial over cremation continued in the early church, as many early church leaders spoke against cremation. In fact, burial replaced cremation as the most common practice in Europe as the Christian faith swept through the land. That the Christian faith challenged and changed the predominant practices of a culture about what happens to the dead points to burial not just being tradition; there are theological reasons for the traditional Christian practice of burial.

The practice of burial stems from our beliefs in the value of the human body and the reality of the resurrection of the dead (with the Apostles’ Creed speaking about our belief in the “resurrection of the dead” as one of the core Christian beliefs). Christians believe our bodies are part of who we are, that we are separated from them at death but look forward to being reunited with them at the resurrection (as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:4, our goal is not to be without our body but to be reunited with our body so that we are not “unclothed”). Jesus himself shows the human body is not bad, as he takes on a human body; God comes in human flesh! This belief in the dignity of the human body differs from what was found in Greek thought (and groups called Gnostics), who believed that we should try to shed our bodies because the soul was good and the body was bad — therefore, you would burn then when you die so the soul could be released. In sum, burial has happened in Christian history because Christians view the body as being sacred, part of a person who is made in the image of God.

In addition, the Bible pictures “death” as sleep from which we will awaken, and that image is made more clear in the practice of burial rather than cremation. We speak about what is sown in dishonor being raised in power (1 Cor. 15:43), so the burial of our bodies is a picture of this sowing and being raised again. A person is buried — not just their remains (for example, see the burial of Jesus in Mark 16:1, when the women are going to anoint “him,” not his remains). In fact, a key element in the discussion of burial is the burial Jesus, as Jesus himself was buried, with his resurrection the first resurrection; Christians believe we will be raised like him. To be made like him would point to us being buried as we look forward to being raised (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-22)! Therefore, burial testifies to the mystery of the Christian faith and Christ’s resurrection.

 That reflects some of the meaning of burial, but what is the meaning of cremation — does it reflect Christian values? It can seem to devalue and dehumanize the human body by destroying it. At times, people want to have their ashes spread into various places — but that overlooks the fact that your hope and final destination is not a place on earth but the new earth, living on it in your resurrected body. While some would point out that there are pagan origins to cremation, the reasons most people choose it today are more economic (cheaper) or environmental (taking up less space). Those are things we should be thinking about, but we also need to think about the wider implications and reasons for our actions — there can be symbolic value in what we do that can transcend monetary considerations. In addition, the presence of cemeteries is not wasted space but a reminder of the fact that death awaits us all, as Russell Moore discusses here (Is the practice of cremation a way to avoid being confronted by this ever present reality and enemy?).

Does all this mean that cremation is inherently wrong, that those who are cremated put their body and soul in jeopardy? Not necessarily. The fact there are deaths that involve burning and mutilation does not mean God cannot resurrect ashes (nor does it seem to point to people who have been mutilated missing limbs, etc.), so they will not miss out on the resurrection. In fact, most of us will decompose before Jesus returns! Just because God can do that doesn’t mean we should actively cause it to happen; the nature of these deaths should be not an argument for cremation. In addition, what happens during our life, and whether we believe in Jesus, is what makes the difference in terms of whether our resurrection is to life or to death; therefore, we don’t need to worry about friends or family who might be cremated missing the resurrection. In addition, we don’t need to feel guilty if a loved one was cremated if we sought to honor them, especially if we were not aware of the background and rationale for burial.

Does this mean burial is the only option for Christians? The Bible does not give firm instructions on one way or another, and the Reformed tradition believes it is important not to bind someone’s conscience or make extra rules, so this is not a command, but an encouragement (in many ways, echoing what Pope Francis said in the recent statement by the Catholic Church, so this is a point of agreement). I would propose the theological meaning and image of burial is something that should not be overlooked (especially in America where we can bury and where burial is common; if Christians live in a country in which the majority practices cremation, we might have to think differently); if we can choose burial, we should. If one does choose cremation (perhaps for economic or logistical reasons), one should still seek to affirm the dignity of the human body, and it would seem wise to bury the ashes as a way to testifying to hope of resurrection (this is what the Pope discusses in his document).

Hopefully, this discussion of burial and cremation does more than make you think about what you wish to have happen to your body (knowing you can’t actually control it, can you!), but reminds us of the way Christians view the human body and the reality of the resurrection of the dead. With the rise of cremation in our culture, burial could actually be a way to testify to the world around us about our belief in the flesh and the resurrection. In fact, burial could be a way of showing we are grieving not as those who have not hope but who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), with this hope the resurrection of the body.

 

Questions about Bible or theology, e-mail them to Pastor Brian at Theology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe by filling out the info on the right side.

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