Significance of burial

April 19, 2019

Christian Burial, Easter Resurrection and the Image of God

Good Friday commemorates the death and burial of Jesus Christ, as Christians during the Paschal Triduum look ahead to his Resurrection on Easter and a promise of impermanence of death.

As noted in my most recent article, the gravest danger to Christian survival in America is assimilation to a post-Christian culture. The great concern of that and other articles I’ve written has been forced assimilation. This is attempted where enemies of the faith aren’t satisfied with de-Christianization so far. But unconsidered or half-considered assimilation is also a threat, making coercive measures seem more reasonable.

One area where traditional believers are adopting practices of the wider culture is in the way the dead are disposed of. Here there is a clear distinction between historic Christian and pagan practices, although not an explicit Biblical command. Burial was historic Christian practice signaling belief in the resurrection of the dead. Cremation has become common with secularization of the West – especially since the social revolution of the 1960s. Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death (1963) criticized the expense of American funerals. Cremation is far cheaper by contrast, allows any amount of time to pass between death and a ceremony commemorating the deceased, and doesn’t require a plot of ground for interment.

With these marked advantages, Americans are increasingly turning to cremation as a funeral alternative. In 2016 it exceeded burial as the most common method of disposing of the dead. Traditional Christians are part of this. But we need to take a closer look at what so many have turned to in a time of changing standards.

Indeed, there is no Biblical command that the dead be buried rather than cremated. The mutilated remains of Achan (who had been stoned) and Saul (whose corpse was beheaded by the Philistines) were burned. Yet the only Biblical comment about the burning of human remains is negative. It is Amos 2:1, in which the prophet condemns the king of Moab for burning to powder the bones of the king of Edom. Throughout the Bible, the people of God are shown burying their dead. Archaeologists trace the growth of Christianity in the ancient world by the spread of cemeteries, as Greco-Roman practice was cremation. Burial became dominant with the Christianization of Europe. Cremation did not return until the modern period, and then was still relatively uncommon until the 1960s. Since then it has become common, becoming the most common method in 2016.

The reason for the contrast between Biblical and pagan practices is respect for the human body, and the Biblical belief in the resurrection of the dead. Respect for the human body has always been a hallmark of Christianity. Indeed, dissection of corpses was commonly prohibited in the Middle Ages, as it involved defacing the image of God. References such as that in Dan. 12:2 to those resting in the “dust of the earth” awaking from “sleep” indicate that a resurrection of those who now “sleep” in the earth will occur, followed by judgment. What exactly the difference is between the “natural” body that dies and the “spiritual” body that Paul says in chapter 15 of I Corinthians will be raised is unclear. But it is clear that the body will be “changed,” that the spiritual body will be immortal, and that it is the same body (else the same pronoun would not be used).

Burial also impresses on us a key element in Christian doctrine, the reality of death. By viewing the deceased and burying the body we know in a very direct and visible way that that he or she is not somewhere else in the world, and can be expected to return. They are gone from this world, and only faith can tell us that we will ever see them alive again.

The advantages of cremation, that it is inexpensive, efficient, needs no body disposal, and can allow any amount of time before a memorial service, also reinforce other ideas that the modern, secular West holds that are not Christian ideas. These include the belief that our only true life is in this world, that the body really doesn’t matter, that we may properly think of the deceased’s true self separate from their body, and indeed that the individual human life is cheap. What makes human life of greater or lesser value is its quality, not its very nature as human. Christians can reject these ideas at a doctrinal level, and yet be affected by them through the practice of cremation. And as in so many areas of modern life, our assimilation to this modern, really post-Christian, practice signals Christian assimilation to the post-Christian world. Without Biblical orientation themselves, people then naturally wonder why we steadfastly refuse assimilation in areas of life about which there are explicit Biblical commands.

For many Christians, the lack of Biblical command, lower cost, and convenience in arranging a memorial service are decisive in deciding for cremation. But a cheaper alternative to the traditional funeral process is available in immediate burial, specifically authorized by the Funeral Rule, promulgated in 1984. Immediate burial (burial shortly after death, with no ceremony) gives the same convenience of postponing a memorial service, although it may not have the closure of viewing the body. But it necessarily involves the intact body being secured and interred in the earth, and the comfort of visiting the burial site.

In recent years Pastor and Author John Piper has written persuasively that even without a specific Biblical command, Christians have strong reasons to choose burial over cremation. These include first the great worth of a human body, clear from God’s incarnation in a human body, to last all eternity, and God’s settled intention to give eternal life to our identical though changed bodies. Secondly there is the significance of destruction by fire as a sign of contempt. God shows this to the damned by casting them, with their bodies, into hell. It might be added that in ordinary life, people show contempt for flags and books by burning them, and for people by burning them in effigy.

This writer can certainly agree with Piper’s points. I believe they are persuasive, and should move us to bury rather than burn our dead, unless there might be a truly compelling reason in a particular case. And I would add, that while I know that I will not experience the burning of my body after death, the thought of the flesh I cherish being burned is quite sufficient to move me to arrange for burial. I think with some sorrow of the bodies of deceased loved ones who chose cremation, although I know they trusted Christ for eternal life. Neither embalming nor decay are pretty processes, but death itself is a great evil. We know that it is an evil that God will overcome.

In the coming years and decades, our claims to liberty of conscience, and our sacrifices where we are penalized or suffer disadvantage, will be better understood if the wider world knows that we are, as God prescribed, a “peculiar” (or “chosen”) people different from the world in a wide range of areas beyond sexual ethics, with those differences rooted in Scripture.

The sanctity of the image of God, love and respect for the deceased, and Christian testimony to the world should direct Christians to bury their dead, understanding that the arrangements and expense involved is to the glory of God and the honor with which we hold the bodies of our loved ones.

Unlike the secular societies we live among, Christians have hope in bodily resurrection. As we move through Good Friday and consider the entombment of Christ — relayed by St. John as being in accordance to Jewish custom — Christians can consider the care shown to the Lord’s body and what it represents.


8 Responses to Christian Burial, Easter Resurrection and the Image of God

  1. Diane says:

    The body has to be transported from the place of death and ultimately to the place of burial, generally a cemetery. Unless one is a veteran or has a family plot where no-cost graves are still available, the cost of dying is still astronomical for those who have little in savings. Graves are real estate, they come with a deed. Cemeteries charge for the opening of a grave, a required liner for the not-so-cheap coffin (the demand for a simple pine box has casket prices for them running around $10K in some metro areas) and the funeral home or mortuary costs of body pick up and delivery to the cemetery are not cheap either. A newspaper obit in large metro areas runs about $350. A memorial or graveside service doesn’t have to cost a thing, however. While I understand your comments (I did not have my parents’ bodies cremated), there is a certain amount of economic injustice for those who might feel they must choose cremation over a casket with a loved one’s body (closed caskets require no embalming) because cremation is less expensive. . Neither option is affordable when families and loved ones are living paycheck to paycheck. There’s also a cost to inter the deceased’s cremains in a cemetery plot, should the family wish to do so.

  2. David says:

    Burning a body was considered a way to denying someone an afterlife. Pope Martin V had the bones of bible translator John Wycliffe dug up and burned with the ashes cast into a river. Depending on local geology, acidic soils can dissolve even bone within a few centuries. The idea that the body can be preserved is generally misled.

    As far as the image of God is concerned, which hominid is God thought to resemble? He might look more ape-like than you might care to imagine.

    • Diane says:

      Thanks for the info, David! Excellent points! I enjoy learning something new. As a small child, I learned in Sunday School of the physical resurrection of the body upon Jesus’ return. One of my first memories of early-on development of critical/analytical thinking skills as a kid was re the news of a Navy plane crash over the Atlantic. My friend’s father died in that accident and I began to wonder how those bodies would ever be preserved an “rise up”. Made no sense in my young brain. Even so, decades laterI just couldn’t have my parents’ bodies cremated & since they were buried in a Vets cemetery where the cost was lower, they both had closed caskets (their wish). I will be cremated because it’s too costly to ship a casket hundreds of miles to our family plot. I prefer to leave greater financial support to the next generation rather than spend an extra several thousands of dollars on my burial.

  3. Byrom says:

    I agree that this is a difficult topic. Cost is a definite concern for burial of the empty earthly remains, assuming that one believes in the imperfection of this world and believes that the spirit of the person is separated from the corruptible physical body at the time of death. That is my belief, and I don’t have a problem with cremation. A physical body decomposes after death, absent some form of embalming. Consider these cases: 1) a person dies, and is not immediately discovered until after decomposition; 2) a person is burned to death in a fire, with little of the remains left; 3) a person’s body, for whatever reason, is buried directly on the ground with no coffin or say in a plain pine box. Where is there sin or anti-Christian teaching in any of that? I can find no New Testament Scripture that supports that. And Old Testament Scripture says that man was made from dust and to dust will return.

    My late wife had no problem with cremation, but her wish was that her empty earthly remains be buried after her death, rather than being cremated. I honored that wish. Even with an already-available burial plot and a simple casket and memorial service and no embalming of the body, the cost was close to $13,000. Fortunately, that was not a problem for my family and we were able to easily cover the cost.

    I still believe that burial or cremation is a personal choice of the family, and that neither practice is condoned or prohibited by Scripture.

    • Byrom,

      I should have responded to comments to this article sooner, but I do feel that I should respond now. Your comment and others refer to the cost of burial, which I addressed, but which John Piper also addressed in the article I linked to. His article is excellent, it acknowledged, as does my article, that there is no Biblical command not to cremate, but explains why the Bible points away from cremation and toward burial.

      Piper suggests that a church maintain a special fund for believers who want to bury but find it financially difficult. When I buried my mother in 2001, which was a full service funeral and burial, the cost was between $7,000 and $8,000, as I remember. But times may have changed. Before 1963, almost everyone was buried, and it somehow worked. Piper’s suggestion it seems to me should make burial possible for anyone in a church taking his suggestion to follow Biblical practice and bury their loved one.

      Rick

  4. William Koon says:

    Interesting. I just can’t image on judgment day, a person will be treated differently on the way they are buried. Could be, but I seriously doubt it. Let us not forget that God can do ANYTHING. Uniting our soul with the new body would be piece of cake to Him.

  5. Rev. Jean Dee says:

    I agree that God has the recipe. Also, I believe that we are, each of us, cells of God’s eternal body. At the final Resurrection we will have our bodies, but Paul said they would be changed. We are not wise enough to know what that may mean or when it will happen. Our concept of time is very limited. God exists in all of time and is present with us always through the Holy Spirit, “closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.” Jesus came as God present in the flesh to reveal God’s love and God gave us brains to help us use that love in the best way. Burial expenses could be better spent in showing love to needy persons. I am 86, a retired Methodist minister, a teacher, a mother and a grandmother. I believe God teaches me through experience, reason, Scripture, and tradition as John Wesley said.

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