Cremation or Burial
| Leader’s GuideCremation or Burial: What Does the |
Bible Say?Is it unscriptural for a Christian to be cremated?
|One of Christianity Today’s executive editors, Timothy George, considers grave matters in the Good Question column. Whether motivated by economics, a concern for land use, or the loss of community ties, those who chose cremation over burial made up 25.5 percent of all deceased in 2000. And with the number of cremations expected to rise to 40 percent of all deaths by 2010, it’s likely that you know a friend or family member with plans to be cremated after death. Scriptural guidelines regarding burial and cremation, which we’ll consider in this study, may soon come in handy.|
“Cremation Confusion,” Christianity Today, May 21, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 6, Page 66
Identify the Current Issue
Note to leader: Prior to this class, provide for each student the article “Cremation Confusion” from Christianity Today magazine.
[Q] The modern Roman Catholic Church permits cremation, and evangelist Billy Graham says that cremation “cannot prevent a sovereign God from calling forth the dead at the end of time.” What is the position (or tradition) of your church on cremation?
Note to leader: Find out about it from your church leaders prior to group time.
[Q] Ask your group members to think of someone they know (or knew) who wants to be (or was) cremated. Ask: What do you think about this person’s decision?
[Q] Timothy George says Christian tradition favors burial. He points out that “the early Christians insisted on burying their dead…in cemeteries, which literally means, ‘sleeping places,’ reflecting belief in a future resurrection.” This practice clearly separated them from Greeks and Romans who routinely cremated bodily remains. Other ancient societies, Egypt and China, carefully preserved and/or buried their dead.
[Q] Divide the group in two groups, with one looking for statements in the article that support cremation, and the other finding those that support burial. After each group studies the article for a few minutes, tell each side to elect a spokesperson who will summarize its findings.
Discover the Eternal Principles
Note to leader: If your time is limited, skip some paragraphs under each teaching point.
Teaching point one: Christian tradition favors burial, but the Bible does not condemn cremation.
The early Christians insisted on burying their dead, clearly separating themselves from their neighbors who practiced cremation.
We can turn to Christian tradition and the biblical and historic records for guiding principles.
To cremate literally means to burn with fire. Fire has been used by people and God to destroy people and things. For example, the Philistines (Judges 15:6) and Babylonians (Jeremiah 29:22) used fire to eradicate their enemies.
From a glance at the Scriptures, it appears that God reserves destruction by fire for times of judgment.
Idols of pagan gods (Deut. 7:25), the golden calf (Ex. 32:20), and a temple dedicated to Baal (2 Kings 10:26) were all consumed by fire as God commanded. In Acts 19:19, sorcerers who were converted to Christianity brought their magic scrolls to be burned.
[Q] Read Joshua 7:25 and Leviticus 20:14 and 21:9 aloud. Should they inform our views on cremation at all? Why or why not?
In Revelation 20:15, those whose names were not written in the Book of Life are to be thrown into the lake of fire.
Read Amos 2:1-2 aloud: a man is judged by God for burning the bones of another person.
[Q] Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit cremation, the above passages may be the reason why the early church rejected cremation. Are they enough to make you uncomfortable with the idea of cremation?
Teaching point two: Christian funerals affirm God’s promise of bodily resurrection.
The Christian practice of burying believers grew out of deeply held convictions based on several important sources—the Old Testament Scriptures, the teaching of the apostles, and the example of the incarnate Jesus.
[Q] Have a group member read Deuteronomy 34:1-6 in the NIV. Ask: What do you think about this passage?
The NIV translates the Hebrew text accurately when it makes the striking contention that God buried Moses. Some other versions translate the text with the passive “he was buried.” We don’t know what the funeral looked like. We don’t know if God buried Moses to set a pattern or if he did it because such was the custom of the Hebrew people in the wilderness. This passage doesn’t say if burial is God’s preferred treatment for dead believers, but it does offer one more picture of a believer being buried and not cremated.
This is not to say that cremation or, generally speaking, destruction by fire can stop a believer from a full participation in eternal life. Timothy George writes, “Of course, many martyrs were burned to death. Christians believed God would bring them forth unimpaired at the resurrection.” But he notes that in light of the pagan association with cremation, “burial seemed to be a more loving and reverent way to bear witness to God’s ultimate victory over death.” This, George says, brings the Christian to “the real question, not whether to be buried or cremated, but the meaning given to these acts.”
[Q] Ask volunteers to share a memory of a meaningful act at a funeral they have observed. Ask them what made the act meaningful to them. Is there a difference in meaning that can be assigned to a funeral with a body and a funeral with ashes in an urn?
Point out that Christian funerals are to focus on the reality of physical death and the promise of a bodily resurrection. Whether we follow an ancient liturgy of Scripture readings and prayer, as the early church did, or simply sing a favorite hymn and celebrate the life of the one who has died, a Christian funeral holds great significance for us who remain.
[Q] Many argue that Jesus’ resurrection provides a proof that there is continuity between an earthly body and a resurrected body. (When he rose from the dead, his earthly body disappeared from the tomb.) Do you agree?
Ask someone to read 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 aloud.
[Q] God the Holy Spirit indwells the bodies of believers. This truth makes a difference in how we treat our bodies before death. Should it make a difference in how we treat them after death?
Ask someone to read 1 Corinthians 15:12-28.
[Q] Why did the early Christians refer to their gravesites as “sleeping places”?
Ask someone to read 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 aloud.
[Q] The Apostle Paul refers to a future event when Christians who are alive will be caught up with those who have died, their bodies changed instantly to be like Christ’s resurrected body. Does this passage inform your thinking about cremation?
Apply Your Findings
George concludes by saying, “More than any other single teaching, the Incarnation makes Christianity unique. The promises of God come to believers in the earthiest of ways: the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, the sacred union of man and woman in holy matrimony. Likewise, we solemnize the departure of our loved ones by reminding ourselves that we brought nothing into this world, and that we can carry nothing out. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He also adds that, “Our modern funeral customs tend to anesthetize us from the ugly reality of death by soft music, plush carpets, and expensive caskets.”
[Q] What can a Christian do to make sure that a funeral is more than a brief social benediction followed by a large meal?
[Q] What directions will you leave for the disposal of your body, and why?
[Q] What elements would you want present at your funeral to comfort your family and witness to your friends of your hope of resurrection?
Study prepared by Carol McLean Wilde, author of many issue-based Bible studies for teens and adults.
|A Handout for Further StudyCremation or Burial: What Does the Bible Say?Is it unscriptural for a Christian to be cremated?Meditate on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and answer the following questions:[Q] In what ways is “sleep” a good analogy for death, whether one is buried or cremated? Where does the analogy break down?[Q] Paul writes that “the dead in Christ will rise first” (v.16). What does this mean? Does this statement affect whether you will be buried or cremated?[Q] Think about the command in verse 18. What is most encouraging about this passage? In what ways could you encourage and support the grieving, without giving them pat answers?|
Is it unscriptural for a Christian to be cremated?
By Timothy George, for the study, “Cremation or Burial: What Does the Bible Say?”
The ancient world knew four methods of disposing of the bodies of the dead. Cremation was the normal practice of Greeks and Romans. Many of them believed in the immortality of the soul and saw no reason to give special attention to the body. Hindus, with their doctrine of reincarnation, still practice cremation. At the other extreme were the Egyptians, who mummified their dead, preserving the corpse indefinitely.
As the catacombs in Rome attest, the early Christians insisted on burying their dead. Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means “sleeping places,” reflecting belief in a future resurrection. Early liturgies for the dead included the reading of Scriptures, prayers, hymns, and almsgiving for the poor.
Why were Christians so concerned about proper disposal of the body? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human was created by God, bore his image, and deserved to be treated with respect because of this. (2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever. (3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor. (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come.
Of course, many martyrs were burned to death, but Christians believed God would bring them forth unimpaired at the resurrection. “We do not fear any loss from any mode of sepulture,” declared Minucius Felix, “but we adhere to the old and better custom of burial.” In the context of the early church, when cremation was associated with pagan rituals and unbiblical beliefs, burial seemed to be a more loving and reverent way to bear witness to God’s ultimate victory over death.
But what about today? 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. But that has changed dramatically. Only 5 percent of Americans were cremated in 1962; by 2000 it was 25.5 percent. In Japan, where burial is sometimes illegal, the cremation rate is 98 percent. The rise in cremations reflects many factors: concern for land use; the expense of traditional funerals; the loss of community and a sense of “place” in modern transient society; and New Age-type spiritualities.
While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation. Since 1963 the Roman Catholic Church has permitted cremation while “earnestly recommending” burial as the preferred mode of disposal. Billy Graham has noted (what Christians have always believed) that cremation cannot prevent a sovereign God from calling forth the dead at the end of time.
The Bible should not be used as a proof text either for the necessity of burial or for “cremation on demand.” True, there are several examples of cremation in the Old Testament (Achan, Josh. 7:25; Saul, 1 Sam. 31:12; the King of Edom, Amos 2:1), but they involved God’s judgment and curse. When Paul offered his body to be burned (1 Cor. 13:3), he was speaking of martyrdom, not cremation.
When Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead,” he was describing the cost of discipleship, not the cost or method of funerals.
The real question for Christians is not whether one is buried or cremated but the meaning given to these acts. Our modern funeral customs tend to anesthetize us from the ugly reality of death with soft music, plush carpets, and expensive caskets.
The Presbyterian preacher George Buttrick once said, “There is nothing more incongruous than dressing up a corpse in a tuxedo!” Cremation, too, can be done in ways that desecrate rather than respect the dead. For example, one can now order designer urns in which elements of a loved one’s “cremains” are mixed with clay and glazed to create a piece of lovely pottery!
Whether final disposition is by burial or cremation, the Christian church should offer a funeral liturgy in which the reality of death is not camouflaged, and the resurrection of the body is affirmed. We solemnize the departure of our loved ones by reminding ourselves that we brought nothing into this world, and that we can carry nothing out. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Timothy George is an executive editor of Christianity Today and dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University.
Christianity Today, May 21, 2002, Vol. 46, No. 6, Page 66