I often harken to St. Augustine’s wise saying about nonessential issues that tend to divide us, “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” which translated from the Latin means, in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things, charity. Great quote if we could only live by it.
 
So far we have looked at three controversial topics: versions of the Bible, divorce and remarriage, and tattoos. These issues are among many areas of question that often create opposing opinions in the church. To varying degrees these issues are either essential or non-essential considerations.

Squabbles! All we have to do is to remind ourselves of Philippians 4:2 and the quibbling girls in the church at Philippi whom Paul gently reprimands with these words, “I entreat Euodias and Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.” (I would like to know what the girls were fighting about, don’t you . . . probably who made the best falafels?) I know God will erase all sense of improper curiosity from our minds when we arrive in heaven but imagine being called out in the Bible for a spirit of division and being stuck with that legacy for 2,000 years!

My father, who was not known for joking much in the pulpit, never could resist calling these gals “Odious and Stinky Cheese.” After pastoring now for over 25 years, I do wonder if the majority of our battles have been dispositional and not positional. Odious personalities have burnt down more churches than dogma. Paul reminds the Galatians, “Take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” (Galatians 5:15) As it regards the foibles of the faithful, we do need to bury our bitter bones in the sea of God’s forgetfulness.

Did I say bury our bones . . .?

As we continue our series of topics that tend to create more “heat than light,” this issue is at the heart of those debates – cremation vs. burial! As Christians, should we burn or bury our dead? Of course, we do know that God will resurrect all the dead, both small and great, for the final judgements of man (Rev 20:12-13). So whether eaten by sharks, or by worms, or vaporized by explosives, God will find a way to reconstitute the dead for a final appearance in his court.

So some say, “Does it really even matter? Dead is dead and the important thing is what happens while you live! Who cares?”

As a pastor, I want to be transparent from the start. I have and will continue to perform funerals for those that choose to use cremation as their means of final disposal. To me, though there is enough biblical consideration to prefer burial over incineration, I do not see this as matter of conviction but of conscience. Due to the scarcity of space, some countries simply do not allow the option of bodily internment. Japan is nearly totally given to the practice of cremation (99% are cremated in Japan). In our country the rate of those that bury their dead versus those that incinerate the deceased is now nearly equally divided but will, by the year 2030, approach projected rates of 80% in favor of cremation.

When a person dies in the United States, there are three legal options for putting the body to rest: burial, cremation, or medical donation. Burial in the US has long been the method of choice for those contemplating their inevitable end, but things are quickly changing. Cremations are now more popular than they have ever been in America, surpassing the rate of burials for the fourth year in a row.

What is driving this cultural shift in how we care for our dead?

1. ECONOMICS Traditional burials (which include the cost of preparation and embalmment of the body, caskets, vaults, grave sites, funeral home fees, transports, police escorts, and religious services) are currently estimated to range between $6,500 to $10,500 compared to the typical cremation cost of $500 to $1,500. These costs are rising as the demand for cremation increases, however there is a significant variance in end of life costs when burial and cremation are considered.

2. CONVENIENCE With burial there is always the need for a timely embalmment and interment of the body, not to mention, of course, the space needed to bury the dead. The question is, how long can the world afford sprawling graveyards to display and house the dead? Such matters are not a concern when cremation is used. Typical crematoriums incinerate bodies at temperatures reaching 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving only 4-6 lbs. of bone and fragments which are then pulverized and placed in a box or urn for families to keep, bury, scatter, or store as they choose.

3. TRADITION We are becoming less of a people of deeply rooted in stable family connections. Where, exactly, we choose to be buried after a life of multiple jobs, multiple locations, and in some cases, a divorce or two, is not as much an issue now as it was in the past. Our mobile culture has created a growing disconnect to the family graveyard by Grandma’s church. We are now less tied to a single place, person, community, church, or city. “Bury me at home, where I grew up” is less and less a definable quantity when compared to the more stable and agricultural lives of previous generations. Cremation rates also increase in states with relatively large transient populations, where many people lack connections and the means to consider burial options. Roots are not as deeply connected to the soil of the past. In my case, “my people” (i.e., my branch of the Regier clan) are mainly buried in Oklahoma but I feel no inner compulsion to join them there. At least not any time soon! (I’m more concerned that I meet them in heaven.) Cremation rates also increase in states with relatively large transient populations, where many people lack connections and the means to consider burial options.

4. APATHY “Who cares,” some would posit, “about where they deposit me?” Not to sound too cavalier here, but once dead, does it really matter if one winds up in a pine box or a copper urn? Do the dead really care about their remains, and for that matter, do our survivors really care that much about the remains of the dead? “Absent from the body is present with the Lord.”  (2 Corinthians 5:8) In a sense, as believers, we know the leftover shell of our earthly body is just that – a shell that soon returns to its kindred elements. So then, in a “now is all that matters” world, the dismissal of the dead soon becomes a license to quickly move on and forget the past. 

When we look at God’s Word, that is not what we find.

In Deuteronomy 34:8, we are told that the children of Israel observed a customary mourning period at the departure of the dead. “The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.” The normal period for mourning the dead in Jewish culture was seven days and the method of disposing the body was nearly always entombment or burial.

Sadly, our culture today does not abide such a long view of death nor of mourning over the departed. We turn our face much too soon from its great realities. I am reminded of one boy who visited a museum and then asked his father, “Can’t we go somewhere where the animals and people are alive?” Who can long abide a prolonged view of the dead? Yet death is an integral part of life and in the mind of Solomon it is the most vital moment as it represents the threshold to our eternal home (Ecclesiastes 7:1). No one is prepared to live who has not prepared to die. Funerals force us to look at dead bodies.That is good for us. We need sobering moments. Sacred realities like death must not be marginalized from life.

In a real sense, a funeral ceremony should be our best moment. It is a tribute to our purpose and a harvest of good memories. It is our life reviewed, our legacy respected, our hope remembered, and our vision recast. As believers, death represents the final reality of victory over the constraints of a sinful body. A former pastor of mine used to remind us that as we leave our bodies in death it will be as a spring calf leaping and running from the stall in April! Our last enemy is death; but death is also the golden doorway to a life free from the body of death. Newness awaits! We sorrow not as others. Such a mixture of sorrow and joy are more difficult while looking at a vase of human remains. It takes away our last look at loved ones departed and fades our lasting hope of a coming reunion.

The religion rebellion is one of the most contributing factors in the trend towards cremation. People are less religious, and therefore less concerned about preserving old traditions. The Catholics were convinced that the burning of the body after death was a desecration or dishonor. While a 2016 document released by the Vatican referred to cremation as a “brutal destruction” of the body, it also confirmed that Catholics can still opt to be cremated if their ashes are not scattered afterward. Baptists have typically buried their dead, too, but more and more I am seeing the trend toward cremation take hold in fundamental and evangelistic circles. Again, this is not a sinful trend but in my view a sad trend away from biblical patterns.

  1. Bryant Hightower Jr., the secretary of the National Funeral Directors Association says, “Most funeral directors have seen a lot of families move away from burial traditions, and those that do tend to move away from religious ceremony, as well. In their minds, since religious ceremony and tradition are tied to burial they are saying, ‘I want it [my final disposition] to be simple and I don’t want it in a church or a synagogue and I don’t want a rabbi or a minister, so I want cremation.’” Faith and burial in America have long been seen as normative in the end of life narrative. Not so much anymore.

Biblical Considerations – As believers, what should direct our end of life considerations about this matter? What does the Bible say?

  • Death is a picture. In I Corinthians 15 and Romans 6, we see the burial of the believer as a picture of a future harvest. Just as the farmer plants a seed by faith expecting a harvest, the body of the believer is planted in prospect of the future resurrection . . . God will return, his shout will wake the dead, the trumpet of God will sound, and then with the voice of the archangel the graves shall burst forth with life and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and glorified! ( I Thessalonians 4:16) Believers will be caught up together with the Lord from the grave, and the picture will be completed when we are forever with the Lord! Jesus in his resurrection from the tomb was a type of first fruits of all that sleep or die in Christ. First fruits is a clear indication of more harvest to come. As Christ came to life again bodily in glorified form so shall we who believe. He will come for his harvest unto eternal life.
  • Burial was a biblical practice. Jesus was slain and buried in an earthen tomb. Such was the Biblical pattern. Old Testament saints like Joseph, Jacob, Elisha, Rachel, Abraham, Sarah, and countless others were placed in tombs, caves, or burial grounds. The New Testament continues the practice of bodily burial with Lazarus, Stephen, John the Baptist, and many others. The angels at the tomb of the Lord told the disciples, “He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come see the place (not vase) where the Lord lay.” (Matthew 28:6)
  • Cremation’s connection is paganastic, burial is biblical. Greeks and Romans cremated their dead to avoid the desecration of their dead from their enemies. Greeks especially practiced cremation to free the “pure spirit” from “evil bodies” (Gnosticism). Hindus burn the dead and scatter the ashes along the Ganges River in hopes of expediting their reincarnation. These are pagan rituals laced to hopeless beliefs in dead gods.
  • Cremation, biblically, carries a negative connotation. In the Bible, God in a very real sense, connected fire to judgement. He cremated Sodom and Gomorrah. Fiery judgement was cast upon Jericho, Achan, Ai, King Saul, and Nadab and Abihu. Fire will be the final judgement upon the earth at the end of time. The eternal home of all those who do not believe God will be a place where the flames are not quenched. It is best to argue not that the Bible is silent about cremation, but rather that it does not cast such a disposal of the body in a generous or positive light.

This pastor’s conclusion: In some instances, we do not get to choose how our bodies are removed from the rolls of the living, nor how our remains are laid to rest (shipwrecks, explosives, abductions, Holocaust, martyrdom, natural disasters, and the like). In cases where we do, I believe the Bible strongly presents a case that Christians, in the same manner as the saints in the Bible, should be laid to rest bodily in the grave awaiting the bodily resurrection of the glorified saints at the return of Christ for his church. I do not believe the choice to cremate a believer results in the loss of one’s fellowship or salvation, but I do think it’s a missed opportunity to testify to a future resurrection.

“So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory.” I Corinthians 15:54