Some Christians get worried about cremation. When their time comes they don’t want to end up at the local crem, they say, ‘because the biblical way is to be buried’.
For the record, I myself don’t give two hoots about the manner of my eventual disposal. I’ll advise my family to go with whatever is quickest and cheapest—to get the funeral over, and at the most economical price, so that they can get on with their lives. And that will doubtless mean a crem job, with atoms of my remains roaring up the chimney and out onto the breeze.
But should I be thinking differently? Is to be buried, rather than cremated, indeed ‘the biblical way’? Quite frankly, I don’t think there is a ‘biblical way’, as any Bible dictionary will confirm. It does seem that in Israelite society burial was the norm (John 19:40). But not in a hole dug in the earth. Most commonly, bodies were placed in a cave, or in a tomb carved out to be like a cave, the entrance sealed with a large stone. So if you want to be really ‘biblical’, try proposing that to the funeral director! And maybe you should throw in your preference for it to be near a tree (e.g. Genesis 35:8). Or insist that the burial be at the spot where you died (Number 20:1; Deuteronomy 10:6)—difficult if you die on a plane.
Cremation in Bible times was not unknown, either. King Saul and his sons were cremated, then their bones interred (1 Samuel 31:12-13). Generally, though, to be burned meant that you had died in disgrace (Leviticus 21:9; Joshua 7:25). But all this varied biblical material, I’m convinced, is merely descriptive, not prescriptive.
Some Christians worry that, if they aren’t buried, their body won’t be there to be resurrected when Jesus returns (1 Thessalonians 4:16). But think about it for a moment. Given time, a buried body decomposes completely. All cremation does is speed up the process, reducing the body to dust in hours rather than decades. It’s ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ either way.
True, with burial the dust remains in one spot, whereas the ashes from the crem end up goodness knows where, but I don’t think that will be a problem for God. He is omnipotent. For him, regathering your particles of dust from wherever they are—in one spot, floating in the ocean depths following burial at sea (Revelation 20:13), or distributed by the winds to the four corners of the globe—is a walk in the park.
Paul assures us that the Lord Jesus, whose coming we await with relish, has ‘power that enables him to bring everything under his control’, and that this very power will ‘transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body’ (Philippians 3:20-21). So you have nothing to worry about. He’ll put you back together in a trice, while the strains of the last trumpet-call are still hanging on the air.
Christians shouldn’t be sentimental about dead bodies. The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) only as long as the person is alive. Once a person has died, disposal of the body is required, and the manner of it matters not.
One downside of burial, I’ve observed, is the pressure it puts on relatives to visit the grave. I met a man—not a Christian—whose wife died fifteen years ago. He has walked the mile and a half to the cemetery to ‘see her’ every single day since then. That’s desperately sad, and utterly pointless.
We Christians, by contrast, are to be future-orientated. Give the beloved one a good send-off, yes, but then get on with life. While there’s a proper place for a bit of reflection and some tearful memories on anniversaries—even a cemetery visit—we then need to turn round and crack on, because the best is yet to be!