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Cremation or Burial - That Is The Question!

Subtitle: Pagan or Biblical Means of Dealing with the Departed

Pastor David L. Brown, Ph.D.

First Baptist Church of Oak Creek, Wisconsin
www.FirstBaptistChurchOC.org - www.sermonaudio.com/fbcoc


Increasingly, cremation is being used in the United States instead of burial. In 1962 only 5% of Americans were cremated. But, as modern culture moves away from Christianity and toward secularism, cremation is becoming much more popular. In fact, it is being popularized in modern culture and got a big boost in Star Wars I with the cremation scene at the end of that movie. In fact, recent figures say that more than 25% of the people who die are cremated. Many are motivated by the lesser expense. Others do it because they do not believe in the resurrection of the body. Still others do it because they do not know the roots of cremation. Still others have no choice, because that is the instructions that the family member left or what the others in the family decide to do.

My purpose in this study is not to call reproach on anyone, but rather to acquaint you with what the Bible teaches about the care for the dead and why I do not support cremation. Hence the title – Cremation or Burial - That Is The Question!

The Definition of Cremation

Here are the definitions I have found –

CREMATION comes from cremātus which means to burn to ashes.

n. [L., to burn.] A burning; particularly, the burning of the dead, according to the custom of many ancient nations. (Webster, 1828)

Others of modern origin say, To incinerate (a corpse); to reduce (a dead body) to ashes by fire, esp. as a funeral rite.

The Ancient Origin of Cremation

Cremation is a practice of ancient pagan origin. It was one of the ceremonies involved in ancient fire worship. In an article entitled, “Cremation,” the Encyclopedia Americana states: “In primitive cultures [that] have survived into modern times cremation is widely practiced. Burning is not only supposed to destroy the dead body most effectively and thus prevent the possible return of the ghost, but since fire serves also as a purifying [agent], it is often considered a good means of warding off evil spirits…Besides discouraging the ghost from haunting the corpse and its former abode, and serving as a means of purification from evil spirits and the contamination associated with the dead body, cremation has also, in some instances…been associated with a belief in a heavenly abode for the spirit of the deceased. The flames of the funeral pyre, leaping upward, are thought to facilitate the ascent of the soul.”

“Cremation is a heathen custom, meaning a practice of people who do not have the Bible, or else have rejected its authority.” (Cremation – What Does God Think by David Cloud)

In The History of Cremation the author states, “Scholars today quite generally agree that cremation probably began in any real sense…around 3000 B.C. and most likely in Europe and the Near East. By the time of the Roman Empire – 27 B.C. to 395 A.D. – it was widely practiced.” He goes on to say, that though the practice was prevalent among the Romans, “cremation was rare with the early Christians who considered it pagan.” He notes that the Jewish culture buried in sepulchers.

Please note this statement from the same article – “By 400 A.D., as a result of Constantine’s Christianization of the Empire, earth burial had completely replaced cremation except for rare instances of plague or war…as the accepted mode of disposition throughout Europe.”

The Modern Origin of Cremation In America

“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.” (Good Question:Cremation Confusion by Timothy George; Christianity Today Magazine; 5-21-02)

The 1877 Appleton’s Annual Cyclopedia stated that the first crematory erected in the United States was in Washington, Pennsylvania, where the body of Baron de Palm was reduced to ashes and placed in a Hindu urn. The article went on to say, “It [cremation] is opposed by ministers of most religious denominations, a large number of whom believe it to indicate a belief inconsistent with the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.”

The practice of cremation is clearly of heathen origin.

Cremation (burning with fire) Is a Sign of God’s Curse and Judgment

Throughout the Bible the destruction of a human body or of an object by fire is used as a sign of God’s curse and judgment. Consider with me some examples:

Sodom and Gomorrah – “Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven” Genesis 19:24 “And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly” 2 Peter 2:6

Nadab and Abihu – “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” Leviticus 10:1-2

The men who rebelled with Korah – “And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense” Numbers 16:35

The example of idols – “And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it” Exodus 32:20.
“The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God” Deuteronomy 7:25.
“And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them.” 2 Kings 10:26.
“And when they had left their gods there, David gave a commandment, and they were burned with fire” 1 Chronicles 14:12.

The example of magic books – “And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.” Acts 19:18-19.

The example of the unsaved cast into the lake of fire for eternal punishment – “And whatsoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelation. 20:15.

A Case For Burial

The weight of biblical evidence, Jewish and Christian practice, clearly supports burial and opposes cremation.

God Is Not In Favor of Cremation

Amos 2:1 “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:”

“In ancient times much importance was placed on a dead man’s body being peacefully placed in the family burial site, so that he could be ‘gathered to his fathers’ and find rest in the grave. To rob, disturb, or desecrate a grave was an offense of the highest order. Many surviving tomb inscriptions utter violent curses against anyone who would commit such an outrage.” (G.A. Cooke, A Textbook of North-Semitic Inscriptions. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1903, pp. 26-7, 30-2; Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 327).

God Practices Burial

Deuteronomy 34:5-6 “So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.”

God’s People Have Always Practiced Burial

Burial was clearly the practice among the Patriarchs

Sarah was buried by Abraham – “And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying, I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a buryingplace with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” Genesis 23:3-4 “And the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the borders round about, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of his city. 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. And the field, and the cave that is therein, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession of a buryingplace by the sons of Heth.” Genesis:23:17-20

Abraham was buried by his sons, Isaac and Ishmael - “Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre;” Genesis 25:8-9

Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, was buried near Bethel – “But Deborah Rebekah's nurse died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allonbachuth.” Genesis 35:8

Rachel was buried near Bethlehem by Jacob – “And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.” Genesis 35:19-20

Isaac was buried by his sons, Jacob and Esau – “And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, being old and full of days: and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.” Genesis 35:29

Jacob buried Leah in the family tomb – “There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah.” Genesis 49:31

Jacob made Joseph swear to bury him in the same place – “And the time drew nigh that Israel must die: and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him, If now I have found grace in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt: But I will lie with my fathers, and thou shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their buryingplace. And he said, I will do as thou hast said. And he said, Swear unto me. And he sware unto him. And Israel bowed himself upon the bed's head.” Genesis 47:29-31
“And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father: and the physicians embalmed Israel. … For his sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field for a possession of a buryingplace of Ephron the Hittite, before Mamre.” Genesis 50:2, 13

Joseph was embalmed in Egypt, later buried at Shechem – “So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” Genesis 50:26
“And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.” Joshua 24:32
Q Burial was the practice during the Mosaic dispensation

Miriam, sister of Moses, was buried in Kadesh – “Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there.” Numbers 20:1

Moses was buried by God Himself in the land of Moab – “So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.” Dueteronomy 34:5-6

Joshua was buried in his inheritance at Timnath-Serah – “And they buried him in the border of his inheritance in Timnathserah, which is in mount Ephraim, on the north side of the hill of Gaash.” Joshua 24:30

Samuel was honored with a national burial – “And Samuel died; and all the Israelites were gathered together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house at Ramah. And David arose, and went down to the wilderness of Paran.” 1Samuel 25:1

David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and many other kings were buried in the City of David – “So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.”1Kings 2:10; “And Solomon slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David his father: and Rehoboam his son reigned in his stead.” 1 Kings 11:43; “And Abijam slept with his fathers; and they buried him in the city of David: and Asa his son reigned in his stead.” 1 Kings 15:8; “And Jotham slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father: and Ahaz his son reigned in his stead.” 2Kings 15:38; “And Hezekiah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the chiefest of the sepulchres of the sons of David: and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem did him honour at his death. And Manasseh his son reigned in his stead.” 2Chronicles 32:33

Burial continued to be the practice for Jesus and His followers

Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea – “When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus' disciple: He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.
And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” Matthew 27:57-60

John The Baptist was buried – “And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.” Matthew 14:10-12

Lazarus was buried in a cave with a stone covering the opening before Jesus raised him from the dead – “Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God? Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.” John 11:38-44

Ananias and Sapphira were buried – “And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.
And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.” Acts 5:5-10

Stephen was buried after his martyrdom – “And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.” Act 8:2

A Christian's Body Belongs To God: It Is Not Ours To Destroy by Fire or Any Other Means

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (revised) says, “The Christian emphasis upon the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit increased their disinclination toward cremation.”

“What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

“For whether we live, we live unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's.” Romans 14:8

Which practice, burial or cremation, shows a higher value for the body?

Burial Looks Forward To Our Literal, Physical, Bodily Resurrection

Burial symbolizes the hope of the resurrection. Cremation and the funeral pyre speak of annihilation, the end of hope.

David Cloud notes, “The reason God's people have always been careful to practice burial is not difficult to understand. We believe in a bodily resurrection. Yes, the buried body will decompose in time. Yes, there are occasions in which Christians die in ways which render burial impossible – in the sinking of ships, in house fires, etc. But when at all possible we bury. Why the trouble? Because it is our certain hope that the same individual will be raised in the same body, only changed.”

We believe in the resurrection for the dead! – “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” John 5:28, 29

We eagerly await the redemption of our bodies. - “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” Romans 8:22-23.

“For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” 2 Corinthians 5:1

“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 “Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 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. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-57

The physical body is the seed for the resurrection body. When planted, a seed decomposes, and the new plant comes forth. The Bible uses this to illustrate resurrection:

“But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body...So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: 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 15:35-44

David Cloud notes -- “When we bury a Christian loved one, we are planting the seed for the resurrection body! It is a powerful testimony of our unwavering faith in God's Word regarding the promise of the bodily resurrection.

Contrast heathenism. They have no such knowledge or hope. The Hindus and Buddhists, for example, believe in a human soul which is distinct from the body. But they do not believe that the soul, once departed from the body at death, will be resurrected in any relation whatsoever to the first body. Rather they believe the soul will be reincarnated in another entirely unrelated body, or into a non-physical sphere of existence.
God's people, though, have had some knowledge of a bodily resurrection from the earliest days. The book of Job is considered commonly to be the oldest book in the Bible. There is no mention in the book of Job concerning Israel, or Jerusalem, or Palestine, or the temple, or the Jewish state or kingdom, and it is most likely that Job was a God-fearing man who lived in the days prior to Abraham. Yet, consider this ancient man of God's thorough knowledge of the bodily resurrection.

“For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.” Job 19:25-27

God's people have always buried their dead with this magnificent hope burning in their hearts – "We will see that brother or sister again in that same body, only changed, glorified!" Hallelujah! Only through the death and shed blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ can we have this certain hope. He has taken upon Himself on the cross the punishment for our sins, carried our sins into the grave, and rose again in eternal triumph three days later. When an individual thoroughly acknowledges his sinfulness before God, repents (changes his mind about living a sinful, self-willed life), and receives Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Saviour, the sin debt becomes paid, and eternal life and glory is promised from God the Father. Part of our glorious heritage in Christ is the resurrection body.”

What About Those Who Have Been Cremated?

We know that the Lord has the power to raise all the dead, no matter what has happened to their bodies.

“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” Revelation 20:13

My Conclusion

The overwhelming evidence in the Bible reveals burial as the practice, not cremation. Burial clearly reflects a higher regard for the body which is also reflected in Paul’s prayer… “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23

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