Absent from the body, present with the Lord…but what do we do with the body?
Hi, I’m Rex Rogers and this is episode #7 of Discerning What Is Best, a podcast applying unchanging biblical principles in a rapidly changing world, and a Christian worldview to current issues and everyday life.
In Western culture, the traditional answer to the question of what to do with the body was “Bury ‘em,” but the new answer is “Burn ‘em”—no disrespect intended.
Burial versus cremation is not an abstract debate. Since death and taxes are unavoidable, if you haven’t yet faced the bury-or-burn question within your extended family you likely will.
Cremation, the act of turning a corpse to ashes, was once virtually unknown in the United States but not anymore.
The first recorded American cremation, aside from ones long conducted by some Native Americans, took place in 1876. Still, before 1930 cremation was virtually unknown and by 1975, according to the Cremation Association of North America, cremation was chosen for body disposal in only 6% of all deaths in the United States.
Since that time the number of cremations has increased dramatically. By year 2025 the Cremation Association projects 57.27% of American deaths will be administered via cremation, an amazing cultural shift in just fifty years. In 2021, ten states recorded cremation rates higher than 70%. Nevada’s rate was highest at 80.7%.
To put this in global perspective, consider that Japanese families choose cremation in 98% of deaths. For Great Britain, the percentage of deaths handled via cremation stands at 77.5%. Scandinavian countries register about 70%, and the Canadian cremation rate is increasing rapidly, currently over 73%.
Reasons for cremation include:
- Lower cost than traditional burial—no casket, usually no gravesite, no gravestone, less expensive mortuary process,
- Declining available space in crowded cemeteries, while cremated remains require limited to no space if ashes are scattered,
- Convenience in part due to increased family mobility in a transient society less connected to a given area,
- Easier to transport remains,
- Environmental considerationssuggesting cremation is more hygienic, protects land,
- Changing religious views.
Various religions have embraced cremation, for example Hinduism and Buddhism. Others rejected cremation in favor of burial: Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, Christianity, Islam – for these groups, not getting a “proper burial” is a dishonor.
Ancient Israel placed bodies in the ground in a pattern imitating the burials of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Phrases like “gathered to his people” suggest burial in family crypts (Gen. 35:29). This practice continued in the New Testament era with burials of, for example, John the Baptist, Lazarus, Stephen, and the Savior Jesus.
Historically, Christian tradition opposed cremation as a pagan rite that attempted to thwart the promised bodily resurrection, rejected the body, or reinforced the idea of reincarnation. Christians believed that a deceased person’s physical burial best pictures the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection and, in turn, the bodily resurrection of the Saints at the time of Jesus’ Second Coming (1 Corinthians 15:35, 37, 42-44).
Christians preferred to symbolize in burial the promise of the resurrection. The word “cemetery,” for example, has Christian roots in the term dormitory, a place where people “sleep,” implying they will awaken again.
We know from the catacombs that Christians buried their dead for centuries. With the spread of Christianity, internment, whether by land or sea, became so common the term “Christian burial” became synonymous with the practice.
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Some Christians contend that any use of fire in funeral ritual smacks of false religion.
Yet this begs the question of why deaths involving fire should be viewed any differently, e.g., individuals burned or vaporized by explosives, people dying in fiery plane crashes, or individuals perishing in building fires like and including the Twin Towers of 9/11.
Some have argued that a gravesite is an important place for gathering, grieving, and remembering, and it is. But so, too, can an urn be a focus of remembering. And with few exceptions, gravesites are not permanent; most dissipate with the sands of time.
Mostly, arguments for cremation are based upon economics or practicality—less expensive, easier. Arguments for burial are based upon symbolism and tradition—pictures the resurrection, distances Christians from superstition.
But the Bible does not condemn cremation nor mandate burial. In fact, while the Bible says a lot about death, and while bodies are God’s gift and should be respected, what ultimately happens to bodies is a secondary consideration. So “to cremate or to bury” is today a matter of Christian liberty.
Centuries-old practice indicates burial is practical. In days gone by, when people died, they were often buried on the spot. Burial met the need.
Cremation also meets the need, practically if not traditionally. And as long as Christian doctrine isn’t denied, cremation cannot be considered unbiblical.
Besides this, no burial method is a threat to Christian resurrection or to the soul. God can resurrect ashes as well as dust.
Stewardship is an important Christian concept. We’re responsible to God for how we live, handle the world’s resources, use our time, talent, and treasure—and how we pass from the world.
The intent and content of a funeral service is what really matters, not the method of disposition of the body (or whether body parts have been donated). It’s not death and despair but life and hope that should be our focus, looking past the end-of life to the afterlife.
So, burial or cremation?
One thing’s certain, “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).
Well, we’ll see you again soon. For more Christian commentary, be sure to subscribe to this podcast, Discerning What Is Best, or check my website, r-e-x-m as in Martin, that’s rexmrogers.com. And remember, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2022
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