What does the Bible say about burial and cremation? By Jack Kettler
What does the Bible say regarding putting to rest the dead? In this study, both the Old and New Testaments will be surveyed to answer this question.
Old Testament texts that mention burial:
“And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 23:19)
“The field which Abraham purchased of the sons of Heth: there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.” (Genesis 25:10)
“But I will lie with my fathers, and thou shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying place. And he said I will do as thou hast said.” (Genesis 47:30)
“And he charged them, and said unto them, I am to be gathered unto my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite.” (Genesis 49:29)
“There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.” (Genesis 49:31)
“His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:23)
“So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And He [God] buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)
“Let thy servant, I pray thee, turn back again, that I may die in mine own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and of my mother. But behold thy servant Chimham; let him go over with my lord the king; and do to him what shall seem good unto thee.” (2 Samuel 19:37)
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2)
New Testament Texts that mention burial:
“But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” (Matthew 8:22)
“Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.” (John 11:38)
“But Mary stood without at the sepulchre [tomb μνημεῖον (mnēmeion)] weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” (John 20:11-12)
“Men and brethren let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” (Acts 2:29)
The doctrine of the resurrection taught with the example of burial:
“Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in resurrection.” (Romans 6:4-5)
“Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:12)
In the Romans and Colossians texts, a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is taught using the example of Christ’s death and burial, namely, the resurrection. In and of itself, this a compelling argument for traditional Christian burial.
The Bible and cremation:
The Bible is silent about cremation as an alternative burial choice. It would seem therefore, that cremation is not forbidden. If the Bible in the Old and New Testaments do not specifically condemn practice, the church should be careful to outlaw a practice.
There are cases of burning the dead; it should be noticed that these cases are not burials.
“If a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you.” (Leviticus 20:14)
“And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” (Leviticus 21:9)
“And it shall be, that he that is taken with the accursed thing shall be burnt with fire, he and all that he hath: because he hath transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he hath wrought folly in Israel.” (Joshua 7:15) In the Old Testament, Achan and his family were stoned and then burned.
Another example of burning and judgment is “Thus saith the LORD; for three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime.” (Amos 2:1)
These examples of burnings were a judgment, and therefore cannot be considered an alternative to burials.
To Bury or Cremate? (Updated) by R. Scott Clark:
“Update: Diarmaid MacCulloch agrees (HT: Russell Moore via Aquila Report). “As hellfire receded, there advanced the literal fires of the crematorium.”
First published in 2006. Republished Aug 13, 2009.
Warning: If You’re Eating, You Might Want to Wait to Read This.
The question not infrequently comes to me: “What about cremation?”
This is an inherently difficult question because it touches a very personal and private decision: what to do with the remains of a loved one or what should be done with one’s own remains (it doesn’t get much more personal).
It’s also difficult because these are difficult decisions often made in a very emotional time.
Nevertheless, there are biblical patterns and doctrines from which we can learn and apply to this situation.
There is a consistent biblical pattern of burial of human remains. Perhaps the most outstanding OT example is Abraham’s quest to bury Sarah (Gen. 23) as a sojourner in a foreign land. Other significant examples could be cited (e.g., Jacob, Joseph and others). This is clearly the biblical pattern, carrying right through the care given to the deceased body of our Lord himself.
According to the Apostle Paul, the biblical pattern was not grounded in sentiment but in a conviction: the resurrection. In 1 Cor. 15 the Apostle Paul used an agrarian metaphor to explain the hope of the resurrection. According to Paul, our bodies are like seeds planted in hope, in the expectation of a glorious (if unusual!) harvest: the resurrection body, i.e., a glorified human body.
As my dear friend and colleague Steve Baugh graciously pointed out to me in 1985 or so, the act of cremation is at odds with the act of planting a body in the soil. For one thing, the imagery is not the same at all. Burial is done with regard to the body’s status as part of the image of God. We don’t just have a body. We are body and soul. That is who we are as image-bearers.
In modernity we’ve been taught to regard the body as a machine and in our disposable age we know what to do with broken down machines: we bin them. But the body isn’t just a machine. The materialists are wrong. However much we may think we know about the body, it is not just a machine. We are persons made in the divine image. Our bodies are part of our personhood. That is why it is wrong, a violation of creational law, to murder (Gen. 9:1-6). To attack the body is to attack the image of God.
Thus, burial is not just a cultural custom. It’s an act of faith. When there is a choice between burial and cremation, the latter isn’t just a convenience or an economy, it’s a message about the body and the nature of our humanity and our status as image-bearers.
To be sure, there may be times when burial is simply impossible. In those cases, we must act like sojourners and make do, but just because some are forced by circumstances to a difficult and unhappy choice doesn’t make that choice desirable or preferable.
As to expense, at least some of this difficulty can be faced by planning and wise stewardship. We’re Calvinists. We should expect to die (if the Lord doesn’t come first). Who believes in sin and death more than we? In that case, knowing that the funeral business is just that, a business in search of profits, if we investigate, we can probably discover less expensive modes of burial. Don’t expect the funeral home to tell you how to be buried inexpensively.
As we contemplate the last thing that will likely happen to our bodies, let us at least give some serious thought to the message we are sending about the body and its relation to the image and to human dignity rooted in the image of God. If cremation is unavoidable, we can at least arrange some clear testimony to the hope of the resurrection. If, however, cremation is just one option among many, then we must ask, are we, as much as lies within us, testifying to our hope of the bodily resurrection or are we unintentionally sending another message? There’s no question whether God can and shall reconstitute bodies at the resurrection, the question is what message are we sending by our acts? UPDATE 21 August 2009” (1)
Robert Scott Clark is an American Reformed pastor and seminary professor at Westminster Seminary, in California. He is the author of several books, including his most recent work, Recovering the Reformed Confession.
From the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) Directory of Worship?
“Article 196 of the Constitution says, “Members of the Church, having died in the faith and hope of the Gospel, shall receive a Christian burial; the burial service may be conducted according to the order prescribed by the Church.” While this sentence does not explicitly forbid cremation, it explicitly requires “Christian burial,” a term, which implicitly requires bodily interment, for “Christian burial” has been historically defined in that way. Thus, a straightforward reading of the Constitution does not conceive of the burial of cremains as a rite of the church, since no body can be present.” (2)
See the link for the whole RCUS report in the for more study section.
Biblically, there is no direct command for a burial. However, in Scripture, burial is the only method seen along with biblical analogies.
The Christian tradition of burial has additional aspects to consider. For example, in the First Century, bodies before burial or entombment were washed and anointed with spices. In other words, care and respect are shown. Additionally, during the present time, prior to burial bodies are prepared and clothed and placed in caskets to slow the process of decay and protect the remains. In some cases, personal effects are entombed with the buried saint. It is common at funeral services to hear the phrase regarding the burial being described as a sendoff.
In cremation, none of the care emphasized in the above paragraph happens. Cremation has been objectionable to many Christians as it reminds them of the lost who will be burning in Hell. Historically, cremation was practiced throughout the pagan world and later vanquished with the spread of Christianity.
One example of interest, the Hindu religion in India has practiced burning their dead and then sprinkling the ashes if possible into the Ganges River. The practice of burning the dead in India is rejected by Christians in India who see burial as a witness to the Hindus of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Also noteworthy, in Eastern Orthodoxy, the practice of cremation is rejected:
Question: Can you tell me if the Orthodox Church allows cremation?
“According to Byzantine Canon Law, cremation is not permitted. Sources state that the original ban arose out of consideration for the fact that within pagan and possibly gnostic circles cremation was commonly practiced. There was also the implication that through cremation the value of physical creation, and specifically the human body, was denied.”
According to Orthodoxy, cremation is associated with paganism.
This writer takes the position of the RCUS as best reflecting the biblical standard. Christian burial signifies Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Because of this, Christians are buried in the hope of the resurrection.
Those that choose cremation should not be condemned. Many today, choose a cremation because of finances. Churches should consider in their mercy ministry funds to assist those financially to have a burial. In addition, those making the choice of cremation should be encouraged to place the remains in a cemetery with a grave marker or headstone. Why? The gravesite or internment service can be a powerful place to testify or bear witness to the truth of the gospel.
Burial and Scriptural analogies:
As seen in Daniel 12:2, Scripture depicts death as sleep and why bodies are preserved in burials. The grave connects sleep with a bed. In cremation, there are no Scriptural analogies, which correspond with this method and the hope of the resurrection, only judgment.
The apostle Paul speaking of the human body, “It is sown in dishonour; 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. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:43-44
Paul teaches that burial is a sowing or planting of the body in 1 Corinthians 15:43-44. Some modern translations instead of “sown” use “buried” or “planted.” The sowing of seeds involves planting them. In these texts, the apostle highlights the body being “sown in corruption” and “raised in incorruption.” Christian burial where the body is laid at rest is analogous biblically to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:43-44. Cremation does not correspond to rest or sleep, which is a temporal state awaiting the glorious resurrection.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. R. Scott Clark, To Bury or Cremate? The Heidelblog First published in 2006. Republished Aug 13, 2009.
2. Report of the Study Committee of The Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States February 23, 2019.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
Magnifying Christ in My Body: Is Cremation a Legitimate Alternative to Christian Burial?
A Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Analysis. Report of the Study Committee of The Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States February 23, 2019 http://www.rescuetheperishing.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/RCUS-Synod-Study-Report-on-Cremation-with-updated-recommendations-adopted-by-the-273rd-Synod.pdf
Why Cremation Is Pagan, Burial Is Christian by Eric Metaxas https://www.christianpost.com/news/why-cremation-is-pagan-burial-is-christian.html
THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church book of order Pages 189-206 https://opc.org/BCO/BCO_2015.pdf