A message given at my mother-in-law’s funeral on 16 September 2021
Grannie was brought up on farms where they grew their own food and prepared their own meals. It was hard work. There were no takeaway meals or supermarkets in those days! Then she married and spent 31 years in country towns bringing up her five children. After this she used her cooking and hospitality skills and experience to cater at Winmalee Christian Conference Center for 11 years before she retired. (more…)
With the rising cost of funeral expenses today, many people are choosing cremation instead of burial. Let’s look at what the Bible says about this topic.
According to the Bible, the Israelites in the Old Testament and the early Christians in the New Testament practiced burial, not cremation. Jesus attacked many Jewish traditions, but not burial of the dead. In fact, an Israelite was dishonored if they didn’t receive a proper burial (1 Ki. 13:21-22; 21:23-24; Jer. 16:4, 6; 22:19). One of the sins of Moab is said to be “he burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king” (Amos 2:1). In this instance it seems as though cremation denied the king a proper burial.
Is this Biblical practice of burial a command, a model to follow or just a report of events?
Is burial a command?
It doesn’t seem to be a command, because any commands seem to relate to specific circumstances. For example, Joseph issued a command regarding the burial of his body (Heb. 11:22) and the bodies of hanged criminals were to be buried on the same day (Dt. 21:23). Also, there are no curses or judgments in the Bible on someone who was cremated. The examples that are usually quoted for curses are instances when people are burned when they are alive, not after their death (Gen. 19:24; Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 16:35; 2 Pt. 2:6). There are two exceptions, Achan was stoned and then cremated for plundering Jericho (Josh. 7:25-26) and King Josiah executed pagan priests and cremated their bodies (2 Ki. 23:19-20).
Although there is no general command for burial, cremation is said to be a sin in Old Testament times (Amos 2:1). This is the only clear reference to cremation in the Bible and no reason or explanation is given in this brief statement.
The bodies of King Saul and his sons were “burned” by the Israelites (1 Sam. 31:11-13). However, there is no mention of cremation in the parallel account of this event and its retelling to David (2 Sam. 2:4-5; 1 Ch. 10:12). As a result of this, some think this is burning incense, not a cremation (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19).
Today traditional Jews are prohibited under their law from practicing cremation because they believe that cremation rules out the possibility of resurrection. But it’s not more difficult for God to resurrect a body that has been cremated. All believers will one day receive a new body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Th. 4:13-18), regardless of what remains of their old body. All human bodies eventually decay and become like ashes or dust. Cremation mainly speeds up this process (Gen. 3:19).
Whether cremation was a sin in New Testament times is debatable because cremation isn’t mentioned in the New Testament.
Because burial was common, Paul used it as a metaphor for baptism and the fact that a Christian has “buried” their old sinful self and is no longer a slave to sin (Rom. 6:4-7; Col. 2:12).
Is burial a model or a report?
If burial isn’t commanded in the Bible, then it is either a model to follow or a report of events that are not necessarily right or wrong. I find it hard to decide between these alternatives.
Some say that because Christ was buried after He died, He is an example to follow (1 Cor. 15:4). But this seems like “cherry picking” to me. Christ was also crucified; is that an example to follow? Only in the sense of being a metaphor for self-denial (Lk. 9:23). Also, if it is a model to follow, what is the principle behind the practice? Is burial essential for resurrection? Surely not!
Biblical burial practices included funeral fires or burning incense (2 Ch. 16:14; 21:19; Jer. 34:5), anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices (2 Ch. 16:14; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 23:56–24:1; Jn. 19:39-40), burial in caves (Genesis 49:29-32; Jn. 11:38), and family tombs (2 Ch. 16:14). “Spices were likely used in each of the three phases of burial: corpse preparation (Mt. 26:12), funeral procession and interment” (Brink and Green Eds., “Commemorating the dead – Texts and artifacts in context”, 2008).
If you think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then I don’t think you need to adopt the Jewish practices of funeral fires, burning incense, and anointing the corpse with perfumes and spices. For example the body doesn’t need to be anointed with about 34 kg (75 pounds) of perfumes and spices as was the case for Jesus (Jn. 19:39)!
Some believe that the symbolism of destroying a body (cremation) that God created and that God will resurrect is the wrong message to send at a funeral.
But if you don’t think that burial is a Biblical model to follow, then you can ask the following questions about cremation: Will it bring the most glory to God? Are we acting in love? Will it reflect the dignity of the human body? Will the future bodily resurrection be paramount? Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on this topic? What do other family members think? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers and of families? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church? Will it help or hinder the gospel witness of the church?
We also need to consider local associations. For example, cremation is mandated by the Hindu religion because of their belief in reincarnation. They think that the fire helps the spirit detach from the body on its way to a new body. Because of this link, Christians who converted from Hinduism may be hindered by cremation. Also in Hindu areas, some may assume that cremation signals approval of idolatrous practices. So it would be better to favor burial above cremation in areas with a large Hindu population.
By the way, cremated remains can still be buried, interred in someone else’s grave or placed in a cremation plot.
Although burial was used instead of cremation in Biblical times, the Bible seems to be written to allow some people to think it is a model to follow today and others to think it is just a report of what happened and so cremation is also acceptable today. If you are considering cremation, then it would be good to consider the matters raised above.
Finally, the Bible focuses on our life when our bodies are alive. It is less concerned about what happens to our corpses.
Written, January 2015
Based on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013
A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Help from God the Creator
The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.
Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.
So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!
Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.
A different world
You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.
Help from God the Lifesaver
Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.
Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.
What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.
But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).
This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!
The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.
The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?
The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.
The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?
Written, April 2013
Also see: Where is grannie?