To Bury or to Burn, Part 3: The Decline of Christian Burial and the Rise of the Practice of Cremation
THE BURIAL OF BODIES. As the bodies of the faithful are the temples of the Holy Spirit which we truly believe will rise again at the Last Day, Scriptures command that they be honorably and without superstition committed to the earth, and also that honorable mention be made of those saints who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and that all duties of familial piety be shown to those left behind, their widows and orphans. We do not teach that any other care be taken for the dead. Therefore, we greatly disapprove of the Cynics, who neglected the bodies of the dead or most carelessly and disdainfully cast them into the earth, never saying a good word about the deceased, or caring a bit about those whom they left behind them.
(Chapter 26 of the Second Helvetic Confession, 1566)
In my previous post, I asked whether the Second Helvetic Confession (quoted above) goes too far when it says the “Scriptures command” burial of the Christian deceased rather than cremation. In this third installment of a 3-part series, I hope to indirectly answer that question and in the process urge caution about the practice of cremation. At the very least, I would like to encourage pastors and lay leaders to consider more thoughtfully the practice of cremation. There are two important points to be made regarding this cautionary note though. First, this reflection will likely be a whisper in a whirlwind—projections by the National Funeral Director's Association suggest that by the year 2030, 70.6 percent of America's deceased will be cremated. Second, in terms of the morality of cremation and to give context to my rejection of cremation as a practice, as an act I believe it has no bearing upon one's eternal state. As Russell Moore notes in his Touchstone Magazine article "Grave Signs":
The question is not simply whether cremation is always a personal sin. The question is not whether God can reassemble “cremains.” The question is whether burial is a Christian act and, if so, then what does it communicate?
With that being said, a brief survey of the biblical, historical, and theological considerations of burial and cremation suggest the Second Helvetic Confession's prohibitions of cremation are in keeping with the Judeo-Christian's tradition of burial of the dead.
Cremation in the Bible
The first biblical instance of a cremation is found in 1 Sam 31:8-13 which records the cremation of Saul and his sons. Following a disastrous battle with the Philistines, Saul’s corpse is decapitated by his enemies and hung on the city wall of Beth Shan along with his sons. To redress this affront, the valiant men of Jabesh Gilead undertook a covert night time commando raid of Beth Shan to retrieve the bodies. After returning to Jabesh (about 10 miles distant) with the four corpses, they cremated the bodies there and then buried the bones. These bodies were likely already badly decomposed and had been previously mutilated, so the treatment is understandable. It was probably considered more honorable to cremate the royal retinue than attempt to haul the mutilated, stinking bodies elsewhere for the usual Jewish burial ceremonies. These men were later commended by David for the kindness they showed Saul by doing this, suggesting that the king’s honor may have been involved (2 Sam 2:5). The necessities of war are often different from “ordinary life.”
The second reference to cremation in the Bible is found in connection with God’s judgment of Moab for an otherwise unknown historical event that is recorded in Amos 2:1-3. The Moabites burned the bones of an Edomite king, “as if to lime.” We can only speculate whether this was the result of a military victory (similar to the Philistines’ treatment of Saul) or more likely, a tomb desecration of a recently-buried Edomite ruler. It is particularly significant, however, that God’s judgment is not pronounced on any military action, tomb raiding, political maneuvering, or other forms of oppression. The text is quite clear that God’s judgment “in kind” (i.e., by fire, v. 2) is because of their cremation of the king of Edom. God’s words are, “I will not turn back [my wrath from Moab] because he burned ... the bones...” (Amos 2:1, emphasis added). Moab’s action was considered not only sinful, but of such a magnitude as to prompt God’s drastic judgment. Note, this is as close as the Bible gets to condemning the act of cremation.
The only other reference to an actual cremation comes in Amos 6:8-10. As a result of Israel’s sin (6:1–8), God prophesies judgment by military invasion and conquest of the city of Zion (6:8, “I will deliver up the city”). The devastation will be catastrophic, portrayed by the number of corpses left behind—ten of them in a single house. In the aftermath of this attack when the ruined city is left behind by the attacking forces, the few survivors hiding in the city will attempt to clean up the casualties. A relative is said to carry the bodies out of the house to burn them (6:10). In the carnage of war, normal burial is not always possible, especially when the number of casualties is high.
These three examples—and especially the fact that there are only three—suggest that cremation was not the normal practice of God’s people. It was accepted (apparently, so far as the text indicates, without condemnation from God) in exceptional situations, viz., in war (1 Sam 31; Amos 6). However when it was employed (apparently) as an inhumane act of desecration it was, at least on one occasion, explicitly condemned, and that because a body was burned. It is not any other action or attitude that prompted the cremation which was condemned; the perpetrators were condemned to judgment because they burned the body.
Burial in the Bible
Though biblical evidence for burials is not overly rich, where we do find instances of burial, Scripture clearly reports that biblical characters showed great care and respect to the bodies of their deceased loved ones. Burial was the most common funerary practice of those recorded in the Bible. For example, Abraham went to great lengths to secure a tomb in which to bury his wife Sarah, which was the first formal burial recorded in Scripture (Gen 23:3-18). In fact, for three generations the patriarchs in Abraham’s family, along with their wives, were buried in this same tomb. This cave later became known as the tomb of the patriarchs, as it was the final resting place for Abraham and Sarah (Gen 25:9), Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 35:29; 49:31), as well as Jacob and Leah (Gen 50:13).
A survey of the Bible reveals other notable examples of burial, too. For instance, these include Rachel, whom Jacob buried on the way to Bethlehem (Gen 35:19-20); Joseph, who made his sons promise to bury his bones in the land of Israel (Gen 50:25; Exod 13:19; Josh 24:32); Aaron, the first high priest, who was buried in Moserah (Deut 10:6); Moses, who was buried by God opposite Beth-Peor (Deut 34:5-8); Joshua, whom the Israelites buried in the hill country of Ephraim (Josh 24:30); Samuel, who was buried near his home in Ramah (1 Sam 25:1); David, who was buried with the kings in Zion (1 Kgs 2:10); John the Baptist, who was buried by his disciples (Matt 14:12); Lazarus, who was buried by his family in Bethany (John 11:17-18); and Stephen, the first martyr, whose body was buried by certain “devout men” near Jerusalem (Acts 8:2). Of course, the preeminent example of burial in Scripture is that of Jesus, who was placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John 19:38-42), an event that was ordained by God (Isa 53:9). It seems clear then that, as the apostle John noted in his Gospel, “The custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:40).
Burial in the Christian Tradition
As I mentioned in my second post in this series, in spite of the Greco-Roman milieu of the biblical world, with the coming of Christ, general disdain for the act of cremation was carried over from the Jewish to the Christian faith. Cremation was eschewed by the ancient Israelites. The last of the "non-Christian" emperors Julian the Apostate (AD 332-363), identified “care of the dead” (along with honesty and love of neighbor) as one of the factors that contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world. The church historian Philip Schaff identified Christians’ display of “decency to the human body” in showing care for the dead as one of the main reasons for the church’s rapid conquest of the ancient world.
Many of the early Church Fathers wrote about death, burial, and in particular the Christian hope of a future bodily resurrection—an emphasis that evidently reinforced abstention from the practice of cremation. Tertullian was the first Christian theologian to explicitly denounce cremation in a number of his writings, particularly in his On the Resurrection of the Flesh where he claimed that only the heathen “burn up their dead with harshest inhumanity.” Also noteworthy is his A Treatise on the Soul in which he made reference to cremation, instructing his readers to “avert a cruel custom with regard to the body since, being human, it does not deserve what is inflicted upon criminals.” Other writers followed suit and expressed opposition to cremation. For example, in his Octavius, Minucius Felix declared, “We do not fear loss from cremation even though we adopt the ancient and better custom of burial.”
The unfavorable view of cremation was echoed by the majority of Christian thinkers who followed. Indeed, the morality of cremation was generally not debated within the medieval church; rather, the practice was simply assumed to be a pagan act. For example, with the convergence of church and state under Charlemagne (AD 742-814), in the Paderborn Capitularies cremation was even declared to be a capital offense. Here it was proclaimed, “If anyone follows pagan rites and causes the body of a dead man to be consumed by fire, and reduces his bones to ashes, let him pay with his life.”
Furthermore, in later medieval Christianity, church practice stipulated that heretics were to be burned at the stake—in effect, cremated—while believers were to be buried. Fire was considered a sign of God's judgement and a source of purification. Burning was not for Christian believers. This critical view of cremation then became the default position of most later church thinkers, including the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, who adopted the view of cremation espoused by earlier theologians. Interestingly, even church architecture reflects this emphasis on Christian burial, a fact evidenced by the historical tendency of Protestant churches to have cemeteries (Latin: coemeteria, literally “sleeping places”) located in close proximity to the church building. As noted in my previous post in the series, it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that church practice (and canon law) began to relax its position on cremation. It should at least be noted that nearly 19 centuries of the Christian tradition stand solely for the practice of Christian burial—caveat actor.
Christian Burial as a Theological Consideration
The question is not simply whether cremation is always a personal sin. The question is not whether God can reassemble "cremains." The question is whether burial is a Christian act and, if so, then what does it communicate?
I believe Christian burial as an "act" communicates a theological appreciation for the human body which is rooted in our Christian view of death, burial, resurrection, incarnation, and the body created in the image of God. Here are just a couple of the theological "signposts" which could be profitably developed in a theology of Christian burial:
The future bodily resurrection: A cursory examination of the Christian tradition reveals a singular commitment to the Christian deceased, who are honored in Christian burial. And in many ways, the starting point point for Christian debates on the mode of handling of the body at death is the resurrection. Interestingly, in Scripture, not only is burial the normative practice, but also buried corpses are referred to as persons, often by name, not as things or former persons (Mark 15:45-46; John 11:43). Moreover, the most prevalent word used in the NT to describe the death of a believer is “sleep,” a term that was employed by both Jesus (Matt 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52; John 11:11) and Paul (1 Cor 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 2 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Thess 4:13-16). Therefore, while the resurrection is not contingent upon a particular form of interment, in light of the manner in which death and the deceased are described in Scripture, some forms of handling a corpse may be preferable to others. The Christian tradition seems to have spoken in its adherence to Christian burial. Why? Because resurrection is a given in a Christian theology of death. From Jesus’ promise to raise both those who believe on him as well as those who have done evil (John 5:21-30; 6:39-44), to Paul’s great exposition of the future death-destroying resurrection (1 Cor 15), to the final promise of those who come to life to reign with Christ a thousand years (Rev 20:5-6) and then are given access to the tree of life by Jesus himself (Rev 22:12-14), the resurrection is the bedrock of Christian hope.
A Christian view of the dignity of the human body: Most non-Christian systems have a truncated view of the human—either we are all material or all immaterial. Though the ontology of the human is still a debated topic in Christian thought, most scholars recognize a monism—that humans are ensouled flesh or enfleshed soul. In Genesis we find that God made humanity out of dust of the ground and afterwards breathed his spirit into us. Thus humanity has an inherent dignity, one accentuated by the decision of God to become the incarnate God—Jesus Christ—a decision which forever dignifies human flesh. After the crucifixion of Jesus, the Gospels present us with an example of devotion to Jesus in the way the women—and Joseph of Arimathea—minister to him, anointing him with spices, specifically anointing Mark tells us, him and not just “his remains” (Mark 16:1), wrapping him in a shroud. Why is Mary Magdalene so grieved when she finds the tomb to be empty? It is not that she doubts that a stolen body can be resurrected by God on the last day. It is instead that she sees violence done to the body of Jesus as violence done to him, dishonor done to his body as dishonor to him. Jesus’ incarnation, death, burial, and bodily resurrection made possible the redemption of humankind. Scripture reports that this includes humanity’s physical body (Rom 8:23), which was purchased by Christ (1 Cor 6:20), is now a “member of Christ” (1 Cor 6:15), is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), and will one day be transformed into the glorious likeness of Christ’s risen body (Rom 8:11, 29; 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18; Phil 3:10, 21; Col 3:1-4; 2 Thess 2:14; 1 John 3:2). Though seemingly body and soul are separated for a time in death, there is a still an inherent dignity borne in the body and which is honored in Christian burial. If we treasure, for example, the Bible of a loved one (sentimental though such a value may be), ought not we even more honor the body of a loved one now with the Lord? The Christian has a unique respect for the human body compared with most, if not all, of her competitors on the stage of world religions.
The theological ethics of cremation: Anecdotally, the common reasons cited for cremation are lower cost and convenience (based upon this author's discussion with an NFDA spokesperson in September 2015). Some even cite a lighter environmental impact when one compares cremation vs. burial—though as it turns out, this line of thought is not substantiated by any research studies and often ignores the equally intensive handling of a body for cremation, including the energetic cost of reducing a body to ash in an industrial furnace that is able to generate temperatures of 870-980 °C (1,600-1,800 °F) to ensure disintegration of the corpse. So it seems convenience, lower cost, and perceived improvements in terms of environmental impact are the primary reasons for preferring cremation. When those three factors are considered in distinction to what the Christian tradition has said is symbolically enacted in the practice of Christian burial, these reasons for cremation become problematic—and as a justification for the practice, are likely negligible reasons more driven by economic concerns than theological reasons. Admittedly, this is a complex issue. But just as with any other issue, to assess the morality of a complex action one must break down the object (what the person has decided to do), intentions (why a person has chosen the object they have), and circumstances (the secondary factors surrounding the moral agent or the content of a specific action) and make the best or most morally praiseworthy decision possible. I believe that, if one weighs the object, intentions, and circumstances of this issue, there is a good chance that Christian burial will be (and should be) chosen.
That being said, Scripture tells us that there is a specifically Christian way to grieve, not “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). Christian grief, the way the Christian community deals with its dead, signals what it believes to be true about the dead in Christ. As Russell Moore notes:
Burial is a fitting earthly end to the life of a faithful Christian, a Christian who has been “buried with Christ in baptism” and is waiting to be raised with him in glory (Rom 6:4). A Christian burial does not mean that we are “in denial” about the decomposition of bodies—that is part of the Edenic curse (Gen 3:19). It does mean that this decomposition is not what, in this act of worship, we proclaim as the ultimate truth about the one to whom we’ve said goodbye. Burial conveys the image of sleep, the metaphor Jesus and his apostles used repeatedly for the believing dead (John 11:11; 1 Cor 15:51; 1 Thess 4:13–14). It conveys a message—a message quite different from that of a body already speed-decayed, a body consumed by fire.
There is much more which might be said, though it would need to be "fleshed" out in another more appropriate venue. The point of these three posts on CHARIS was to draw attention to something important that is happening to Christian practices concerning the deceased. I hope I have raised a concern about this issue and that the topic might be discussed in our churches.
That being said, there is one final note. There is one instance in which we might say that God served directly as the “undertaker” for a funeral. When Moses died, God took care of his body—the only instance in all of Scripture in which God did so directly (i.e., not through a human intermediary). Deut 34 records the details:
Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There YHWH showed him the whole land ... Then YHWH said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” And Moses the servant of YHWH died there in Moab, as YHWH had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. (Deut 34:1-6)
The antecedent of the Hebrew verb וַיִּקְבֹּר (wayyiqtōl, “he buried”) can only be YHWH. In the situation with Moses, God could have handled the body in any number of ways. He could have taken it to heaven, caused it to disintegrate into nothing, left it exposed for birds of prey, etc., but God chose burial, not cremation or any other potential form of disposal. If this was God’s preferred method in the only such recorded instance, it ought to be treated as a significant precedent. The fact that we speak so little about what we do with the dead should change. We should think more about the topic of Christian burial and what is represents. Please talk about this matter in your churches and think through it yourself. The world is changing around us and we must think quickly and clearly in order to keep up.