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Burying vs. burning

A preference and a proposal for Christians to choose burial instead of cremation


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Burying vs. burning

In the latest issue of WORLD Magazine, four graduates of our 2017 World Journalism Institute college class report on a growing trend in the U.S. funeral business: cremations outnumbering burials. But is cremation Biblical? What follows, courtesy of desiringGod.org, is the best article I’ve read on the topic. In it, pastor and author John Piper emphasizes “the preciousness of the human body as God’s purchase and possession, now and forever, and the dreadfulness of fire as it relates to the human body, espe­cially after death.” As for the financial hardship families face when burying a loved one, Piper proposes that “Christian churches be willing to help families financially with simple, Christ-exalting funerals and burials, so that no Christian is drawn to cremation because it’s cheaper.” —Marvin Olasky

Should Christians cremate their loved ones?

My proposal in this article is that Christian churches be willing to help families financially with simple, Christ-exalting funerals and burials, so that no Christian is drawn to cremation because it’s cheaper. I’m not thinking mainly of a line item in the budget, but of a segregated compassion-fund that church members may give to regularly or as the need arises. Grieving families could quietly approach the overseer of that fund and make it known that they have a need, and all could be handled quietly and carefully between the family and the funeral home.

At the same time, I do believe that pastors should discourage expensive funerals. In a Bible-saturated, counter-cultural church, made up of kingdom-minded sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), no one should be pressured into the mindset that the more expensive the coffin, the more loved the deceased. Pastors should lead the way in cultivating a church ethos where expensive funerals (and weddings!) are not the norm. God-centered, gospel-rooted, Christ-exalting simplicity should be the norm.

How many evangelicals would choose cremation if it cost as much or more than a simple, traditional service of burial? Very few. There has been a skyrocketing preference for cremation over the past decades in the United States (1960—3.5 percent, 1999—24.8 percent, 2014—46.7 percent, in some states it is over 75 percent). There are various causes, but the greatest, by far, is the combination of secularization and economics. Fewer people test the practice with Biblical criteria, and more people want the cheapest solution.

So my aim here is to touch on both of those causes. First, I am proposing that churches cultivate a Christian counter-culture where people expect simple, less expensive funerals, and where we all pitch in so that every church member can afford such a funeral. Second, I want to give Biblical pointers for why burial is preferable to cremation. I say preferable, not commanded, in the hope that the culture created would not condemn or ostracize a person who chose differently. I encourage those who choose cremation not to equate our disapproval with ostracism. Otherwise, real disagreements are not possible among friends.

God-centered, gospel-rooted, Christ-exalting simplicity should be the norm.

The dignity of the human body

Two focuses of Scripture lead away from burning toward burying. One is the focus on the meaning and importance of the human body, now and in the life to come. The other is the meaning of fire as it relates to the human body, now and in the life to come.

First, Biblical faith, unlike Greek religion, does not view the body as the prison of the soul. So the afterlife has never been viewed as the “immortality of the soul” finally liberated from its physical prison. Rather, Christianity has always viewed the body as essential to full humanity so that the life to come has primarily been seen as the resurrection of the body in glorious eternal life. Paul did not consider the intermediate bodiless state, between death and resurrection, as ideal (2 Corinthians 5:4).

The greatest thing that can be said about the human body is that the eternal Son of God was incarnate in a human body and will have one forever. He “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). Today in heaven, Jesus has the body He had on earth, glorified. When He comes He will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). This was an immeasurable elevation in history of the dignity and glory of the human body.

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Blood-bought worth

In this life, Paul says, “The body is … for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13). He goes on to say even more amazing things about the body:

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).

Note four stunning facts: 1) Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. 2) Christ died to purchase us, including the purchase of our bodies, for Himself. 3) Therefore our bodies do not belong to us to use as we please, but rather as He pleases. 4) Therefore, we should use our bodies to put the glory of God on display.

Our body, God’s dwelling. Our body, God’s purchase. Our body, God’s possession. Our body, God’s glory.

Paul said he hoped to magnify Christ “in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). Glorifying God is what the body is for—in life and in death.

This blood-bought, God-owned temple of the Spirit is not destined for final destruction, but for resurrection glory. It is precisely the continuity between the Spirit-indwelt body now and the Spirit work at the last day, which guarantees our resurrection:

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

The body will never be discarded. It has been bought by the blood of Jesus!

The body will never be discarded. It has been bought by the blood of Jesus!

A symbol for sowing and sleeping

All of this leads to a view of burial controlled by symbols that are true to the glory of the human body. Paul’s understanding of burial is that this was a picture of being “sown” in the ground like a seed that will sprout with wildly superior beauty at the resurrection, when the graves are opened at the coming of Christ:

“What you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. … So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; 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” (1 Corinthians 15:37, 42–44).

Burial—sowing the seed of the body—is the Biblical picture of belief in the resurrection of the body.

Christians also have seen burial as the laying to rest of the body as though it is sleeping, waiting for the waking of the resurrection:

“We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). Early “Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means ‘sleeping places,’ reflecting belief in a future resurrection” (Timothy George).

One of the reasons putting the body in the ground, as if in sleep, was important was that no one knew when the Lord Jesus would come back. Therefore, it was possible that the trumpet could sound not long after the burial, and the dead would be raised very much as if he had only taken a nap.

But the main issue was the message of the symbolism about the preciousness of the body now, and the glory of the body at the resurrection. The double symbolism of sowing seed, as though ready to sprout, and laying to rest, as though ready to waken, was the main reason Christians have buried their dead and provided burial for those who could not afford it.

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The dreadfulness of fire

The other focus of Scripture that leads away from burning toward burying (besides the importance of the human body) is the meaning of fire as it relates to the human body now and in the life to come.

The use of fire to consume the human body on earth was seen as a sign of contempt. It was not a glorious treatment of the body but a contemptuous one. This is the meaning of Achan’s cremation. He had betrayed Israel and so was not only stoned with his family, but deprived of an ordinary burial by being burned:

“Joshua said, ‘Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today.’ And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones” (Joshua 7:25).

To be sure, fire is a great gift from God. It warms, and brightens, and guides, and cooks, and refines. But in relation to the human body, it is a dreadful thing. It wounds and tortures and kills and destroys.

This is most prominent in relation to the body after death. As a Christian who believes in the judgment of God after death (Hebrews 9:27), the last symbol we want to use, in connection with death, is fire! Hell (gehenna) is a place of fire (Matthew 5:22; James 3:6). This fire is meant to be felt by the body.

“It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:30). “Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:24).

In summary, then, the two Biblical focuses that point away from burning to burying are 1) the preciousness of the human body as God’s purchase and possession, now and forever, and 2) the dreadfulness of fire as it relates to the human body, especially after death.

In relation to the human body, fire is a dreadful thing.

Other reasons to bury

There are other reasons, besides these Biblical pointers, that should give us pause before we decide to burn our loved ones. (Using the word “burn” instead of “cremate” is like using the phrase “dismember babies” instead of “abort fetuses”—it prevents us from hiding reality.) For example:

Where Christians are a small minority, cremation is high. And where Christian influence is giving way to rapid secularization, cremation is rapidly increasing. “Almost everyone adhering to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism cremate their dead. … Japan has one of the highest cremation rates in the world with the country reporting a cremation rate of 99.97% in 2014. … The cremation rate in the United Kingdom has been increasing steadily with the national average rate rising from 34.70% in 1960 to 75.44% in 2015. … [In Canada the cremation rate rose] from 5.89% in 1970 to 68.4% in 2009” (Wikipedia). (Note: The Japanese cities of Tokyo and Osaka have ordinances requiring cremation “due to lack of cemetery space or for sanitary reasons.” I doubt that those two arguments would be decisive if there were not other worldview issues at stake. God will give wisdom to Christians living under this added legal constraint.) “The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few persons (mostly liberals and freethinkers) chose cremation” (George). The nature of the procedure of cremation makes dishonesty difficult to prevent and honesty hard to enforce. For example, how would you know if the crematorium actually cremates your loved one, rather than just disposing of the body? There have been scandals over this very issue.

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A modest proposal

I am encouraging churches to cultivate a Christian counter-culture where people expect simple, less expensive funerals and burials, and where we all pitch in so that a Christian burial is not a financial hardship on anyone. And because of the Biblical pointers and the additional reasons above, I am arguing that God-centered, gospel-rooted burial is preferable to cremation. Preferable. Not commanded, but rich with Christian truth that will become a clearer and clearer witness as our society becomes less and less Christian.

This article originally appeared at desiringGod.org. Used with permission.


John Piper

John contributes commentary and other pastoral reflections to WORLD. He is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. John has authored more than 50 books, including Don't Waste Your Life. John resides in Minneapolis, Minn.

@JohnPiper

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GP

On most other issues I stand behind Piper, but on this one I'm surprised he weighed in on what seems to be nothing more than his debatable opinion. I wish he'd be more emphatic that this is just his opinion and not come across that cremation is sinful.  

And the images in the article attempt to bias against cremation by showing scenes of fire or a cremation in progress. How about a few images of somone in their crypt for the past 35 years? Or someone in their coffin after a horribly disfiguring accident? Cremation or not is fine. If not, please cite direct chapter and verse. 

Trivial issue, not worth getting worked up over. Why am I writing this comment? Lol.

GP

I agree whole-heartedly. I believe Piper's opinion on cremation is akin to churches prohibiting dancing or drinking, etc. Actually, I think there is a verse in Galatians somewhere, about unnecessary rules. 

Jeff Grubbs

Both of my parents - former Southern Presbyterian missionaries to Korea  - donated their bodies to scientific research (cancer and alzheimer's).  They have a memorial stone marker in a local cemetary.  I too will donate my body to scientific research.  My wife will most likely have a conventional burial.  Both of us are strong Christians and have total faith that GOD can raise our "NEW BODIES" on the LAST DAY to join our Souls in Heaven.

Brendan Bossard

AlanE, I believe that you and I fundamentally agree.  I was making a broad generalization.  We, the Church, must absolutely help our brethren--and others--in need.

I believe that discerning who is truly needy is very difficult.  I prefer to err on the side of generosity.  I believe that the loss of a loved one is too individually meaningful to put a price tag on remembering the dead.  I believe that the congregation should judge each case on its own merits.

On the other hand, St. Paul wrote that anyone who does not provide for members of his household "has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8).  While this is written in the context of caring for widows, the principle generally applies.  Therefore the congregation of brethren should hold each other accountable for providing financially for their own families to the greatest extent possible.

Regarding the savings in particular, a wise man told me that he who does not save 10% when he cannot afford it will never save 10% when he can.  As with all rules, this has exceptions.  But in general, the average person should be able to save plenty to cover burial expenses, and then some, over time.  But we need to teach our children this habit by example.  We also need to teach our children that creating a nice nest egg for retirement is wise, not greedy; and that we must not covet what our neighbor has worked hard and sacrificed to attain.

P.S.:  49% of people are below average, so that still leaves a pretty big chunk for the Church to cover! :)

YAC1513

Three thousand dollars to open and close a grave. Just went through this with a loved one's burial. Many parameters- state laws, family dynamics, our own grief, and the stated wishes of the deceased. Frankly, I find these articles to be annoying and tone deaf , perhaps deliberately so. There are rarely this many comments.

AlanE

I'm open to being convinced that burial is a good thing, but this article doesn't do it for me. A few things this article doesn't discuss:

1. The expense of burying someone isn't just the casket and the mortuary. Have you priced cemetery lots lately and the cost of burying someone in a cemetery? And the days of churches having cemeteries beside them for deceased members are long gone, whether we think that's a great idea or not.

2. It is true that, in biblical times, burial (of a sort, but not exactly as we practice it today) was the norm. So was burying people the very day they died. Here's (one) thing, though: that was the easy way back then and the cultural norm (when Abraham bought a burial site for Sarah, he wasn't exactly introducing something new for the culture of the day). It helps that available real estate was plentiful in that day. Let's be honest; sometimes economic considerations have a lot to do with cultural norms. 

3. I can see how a public burning can be deemed shameful toward the person whose body is being burned (much as leaving a body exposed to the vultures would be disdainful), but I don't think burning in a crematorium carries the same implication of shame. As much as I like John Piper, I don't think he's comparing apples to apples in this article when he cites Achan's situation as a proof text against cremation. Honestly, now, the crematorium is the easier and faster way, and it does not involve leaving bodies exposed for some kind of object lesson. 

4. The view that cremation somehow presents insurmountable problems for the resurrection body stumbles over too many objections. Someone has already asked the question of what about people who die in fires? What about people blown to bits by explosions? What about people torn apart, eaten, and passed through the digestive tracts of wild animals? If God is able to reunite each of these souls with a body somehow connected to the body we now inhabit, God is able also to reunite our souls with a resurrection body somehow connected to the one cremated after the departure of the soul. If it was all that important not to burn the soulless body, God would have told us. I think I understand why Christians at certain points in history chose burial in contrast to the practices of their culture, but I don't see anything that rises to the level of an inviolable norm for people of faith.

5. I wish we could still take the body of a departed love one to a lot on the backside of a property, dig a hole a few feet deep, say a few prayers while loved ones are gathered together, drop the body in, throw dirt back on top, and let the microorganisms of the soil do their work. Clearly, though, that's not going to pass here in the 21st century western world. And, even if it did work, it wouldn't be an option for everyone. If you don't have that back forty to bury your relatives on, you're kinda out of luck here.

6. I agree with the person above who objected that the reference to casting a seed on the ground should not be taken as an argument for burial. At best, casting a seed is a picture of a very shallow burial. And the process of sewing seed is an inherently random procedure. I don't think that's what Piper is after here.

Hans

On the contrary, the argument about insignificance of the mode of burial holds a great deal more weight than "murder isn't wrong becasue the victim would have died anyway." Scripture is silent about the former and explicitly clear about the latter.

 

Note that no one here said that there is anything wrong with burial. There are many fruitful symbolic elements in burial that help to convey the hope that we have in the resurrection, some of which Piper covered in his article. But the absence of some of those symbols in cremation (along with the inclusion of other biblical symbols--the powerful portrayal of the mortal's return to dust, as well as the visual portrayal of refinement by fire, marking the shedding of the imperfect in anticipation of the resurrection) does not mean a lack of right theology. I can believe in the reality of the resurrection without being obligated to display Christian orthodoxy through ritual symbolic actions.

Varenikje

Yes, I can believe that.  God can handle that...

Varenikje

Sorry, but this article doesn't wash with me.  There are a few cultures that cremate all or nearly all of their people at death.  The reasons have to do with not spreading disease and having somewhere to put all of the dead bodies.  Like if you were raised in a ... oh, Chinese culture, you wouldn't even consider burial of your body in a coffin.  Yes, some fairly elaborate things have been done when burying people, but that is not why I would consider cremation as a "cheap burial." It simply makes sense.  

Amber

Interesting article.

Wally Opyd

In Luke 23:42,43 (NAS) we read of a criminal on a cross with Jesus,

And he was saying , "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!"  And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

In reading 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 one must consider what it means to be "absent from the body" as we read ,

Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord - for we walk by faith, not by sight - we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.

 

Dga3386

As a born again Christian and a forensic pathologist for some 30 years, I have had the dubious honor of examining exhumated bodies buried for as much as 20 years. Believe me when I say that the process of decomposition goes on till completion regardless of whether they were buried in a air tight coffin, a sealed crypt with the best embalming possible. The visual, tactile, and olfactory assult from these bodies bears witness to the fallen state of all of our Earthly shells.

To be honest I have no problem with cremation rather than intermint. The funeral home industry has, in many ways, taken advantage of our Christian burial traditions by making an interment type burial outrageously expensive. They have basically taken a service and made it into a lucrative business.

But the real reason cremation doesn't bother me as a Christian is because my God, who made everything out of nothing, is more than capable of finding those molecules that make me ,me and converting them into a body that allows me access to His Holy Presence.

In respone to the previous commenter who felt that he should feel shame over cremating his parents, let me say that both of my parents were interred in a traditional Christian burial. When I visit their grave sites, instead of rejoicing in their presence with God in heaven, I have to fight the images of their bodies as they currently appear in their graves. I think looking at a urn on the mantle would be less distressing.

KHAY2011

I agree that it would be kind to financially help those who cannot afford a burial if they prefer it. It is traditional. But it seems that the body turns to dust whether it is buried or cremated. One is just quicker. My husband's ashes are in an urn in a memorial bench in a garden at the cemetery. I find it just as respectful. God is all powerful and able to raise us no matter how decomposed our bodies might be.

Kathy H

Nmc8923

So many misconceptions, where to start?  Hell is the Germanic, Hades the Greek for the netherworld, the place of the dead.  By definition, the intermediate state between death and resurrection is Hell.  Gehenna is after the resurrection to judgement and is an entirely different concept, the place of eternal punishment, not temporal imprisonment. The body feels the fire of Gehenna, because it has been raised from the dead.  Any fire in Hades would only be felt by the soul, and only by those on the left hand side, as in the case of the Rich Man.  English translations do a disservice by confusing the two.  Jerome translated Sheol and Hades with Infernus, of course, but transliterated Gehenna.  No one else had the concept of resurrection to judgement, and did not have a word for it.  The OT didn't use Gehenna in this sense, just literally.  Jesus' use of the term is the first one historically that I have seen any reference to.  The Historical Christian Church teaches the Harrowing of Hell, that is, that Christ freed the blessed from death's prison, following his own defeat of Death and Hades, and now controls the keys to Death and Hell himself.  In other words, Christ really did defeat Death, Hades, and Satan in real time and it had a real effect.  Piper has become heretic by denying the descent into Hell, so denying, with the Gnostics, that Christ really died as a man dies.  But, then he doesn't know what the word means.  And as Athanasius said, men do not die as they did formerly, because Christ did defeat Death.  So Protestant tell the imaginative and innovative story that by Hades biblical authors meant the grave, which if true would mean that the Biblical authors were deliberately deceiving the people they were writing to, since the proper usage was universal.  In fact, there is no 'the grave' where everyone is buried, that is part of the same imaginative lie.  This may explain why he puts so much emphasis on what happens to the body.  Moses sings our Lord's promise, " I will kindle a fire in my wrath which will burn to the lowest Sheol,"  a promise of punishment in death which coincides with the imputation of sin with the giving of the law, something which was not previously imagined, in fact, Job saw death as an escape from God's wrath.  Perhaps Piper thinks that the damned are buried deeper and thus the bodies are exposed to volcanic activity?  People have cremated in order to deny or avoid the resurrection, which is rebellious and stupid, those reasons for cremation should be condemned.   However some people cremate in order to prevent the spread of disease, in case of grave robbers or other disturbance of the grave.  The intent of the heart is important here, as elsewhere.  Don't worry about the destruction of the soulish body, the natural body with an animal nature.  The spiritual body springs up from the germ of life inside the moldering old husk: "and you he hath quickened."  The NT is consistent in teaching that Christ's body is the temple of the spirit, His natural body between his baptism and death, and his mystical body, the church, from Pentecost on.  We are living members of that body and so living stones in that temple.  It seems a little arrogant for the individual to claim to be the whole thing.  Going back to 1Co 6:15, we read "...your(pl) bodies (pl) are the members(pl) of Christ?"  And so in v 19, "...your(pl) body(si) is the temple(si) of the Holy Ghost..." so there is no contradiction here; the implication is that our common body, the church, is the temple.  I am protestant, with orthodox leanings, by the way.

John McGrew

scienceguy567

I'm told that the early church chose burial simply as a testimony to the heathen culture of their belief in a bodily resurrection. In this post-Christian and increasingly cremation-practicing,world that's an opportunity to glorify God even in death and that's good enough reason for me. 

JennyBeth

Thank you so much for this wonderful article. Discussing burial vs. cremation has stunned me as to how widespread belief that "Christ died to save our souls, not our bodies" is touted among Evangelical circles even though that is antithetical to the biblical Gospel. I also try to use the story of Joseph commanding that his bones be taken from Egypt as a point that treating our deceased bodies in view of what God has promised is biblically important

And as to expensive funerals, I really appreciated an article I read once (and sadly now can't find) about a casketless burial. This particular man ordered it because of environmental concerns, but it is very applicable for Christians who want to bury and are pained by the price. It pointed out that embalming is not legally required if the body is kept on ice (and the grocery store supplied the family with dry ice for free). So his family just put him on the dry ice and wrapped him in a shroud for the memorial. The main trouble was finding a nearby cemetery that would accept a casketless body. I think we should be pushing for more cemeteries to do so, or at least accept bodies in simple boxes that the average handyman can make, rather than the elaborate expensive ones. That would greatly help financially struggling families.