Burned or Buried

Burned or Buried

Henry Palmieri

When one Bible teacher was asked, “Is there anything in the Scriptures against cremation for the believer?” he replied, “I do not know any Scriptures touching this point.” Others have said, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Writing to a very able Bible teacher of broadcasting fame years ago, I asked him what the Christian attitude should be toward cremation. While his reply was quite informative I did not agree with him. Here is his reply:

“Ethnologists have listed about thirty methods of disposing of the human body, such as interment in graves which may or may not be in consecrated ground; interment in huts, tombs, vaults, caves and catacombs; in canoes, boats, ships, on rafts, in rivers; or in trees as practised by some American Indians. The Parsees expose the bodies in “towers of silence” where birds pick the bones which are later cast into a central well. Burial in urns and under cairns of stones has also been practised.

“False notions have arisen about the disposal of the bodies of Christians, through a mistaken idea of the resurrection. People think that the corpse must be preserved as long as possible so as to be in better condition for resurrection. But the Bible tells us that at the coming of Jesus Christ He will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power which enables Him even to subject all things to Himself (Phil. 3:21). The Lord God announced that the dissolution of the body was part of the curse upon the race because of sin. ‘You will return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (Gen. 3:18, M.T. 19,). It does not make any difference whether the body returns to dust by gradual disintegration, or by the swift violence of an atomic blast. The Lord will be able to resurrect the body, no matter what its condition may be.

“There is an interesting paragraph in the official Roman Catholic Dictionary of Hallett, Addis and Arnold. While deprecating strongly, as we do, the teaching of cremation as anti-Christian propaganda, these authorities state, ‘There is nothing intrinsically wrong in burning the bodies of the dead. The practice might become necessary at times of excess mortality or of danger to the living; e.g., after a battle or during a plague. But ordinary times cremation disturbs the pious sentiments of the faithful; it is not in keeping with the beautiful rites of Christian burial.’ Then the noted Bible teacher closed his reply with the following statement.

“With the last sentence we disagree, because every Christian funeral can be conducted in all sacredness, no matter what the method of disposal of the body. Those who know the Lord Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection will not be overly concerned with pious sentiments about it.”

In view of the recurrence on the part of some in these last days to the Pagan custom of burning the bodies of the dead, it may be well to recall the custom followed by the people of God. That great man of faith, Abraham, “buried his dead out of his sight.” Of Isaac we read that “His sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Gen. 35:29); also in the same chapter (verse 19), that “Rachel died and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.”

When Jacob died, there was no question as to the manner in which the body was to be disposed of. Joseph said to Pharaoh, “My father made me swear, saying, Lo I die: in my grave which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me” (Gen. 50:5).

Tacitus mentions this way of disposing of the dead as characteristic of the Jews. In the Mishna burning is declared to be idolatry. The attempts to prove that burning was ever practised among the Jews, as an honorable way of disposing of the bodies of the dead, have failed. Urquhart points out, “In this the Jews were following the early practice of the human race, as is shown in the customs of the Babylonians and of the Egyptians. It may be that flee idea of consecrating the dead by offering the body as a sacrifice led to burning instead of burial. This may explain the decision of the Mishna which denounces the practice as idolatry.”

The prediction in Isaiah 53:9: “They made His grave with the wicked” (R.V.), is explained by another Jewish custom. Lightfoot, referring to the burial of Stephen, makes the following quotation from the Talmud, “They do not bury (any one condemned by the Sanhedrin) in the sepulchres of their fathers. But there are two places of burial belonging to the Sanhedrin; one for those who are beheaded and strangled, the other for those that are stoned and burnt.” In other words, the bodies of criminals were not given up to their relations or friends. Their lot was a shameful burial as well as a shameful death. It is probable that the crucified were buried at or near the place of crucifixion.

“The reason,” continues Lightfoot, “why such are not to be buried with their fathers, is this: because they do not bury the guilty with the innocent… The stone wherewith any one is stoned, the wood on which he is hanged, the sword by which he is beheaded, or the halter wherewith he is strangled — is still buried in the same place with him, or, at least, very near him.”

To get back to the Scriptures, which is always our final authority, one notes that there are three terms used to describe the disposal of a dead body. (1) Burning: This is always used of the ungodly (Josh. 7:25, Lev. 10:2, Amos 2:1) and is a mark of God’s judgment on grievous sin. (2) Burying: This is always used of the godly (Note the sixth paragraph of this paper). We might also add that the New Testament uses the term Sowing in connection with the Christian. Burning is out of bounds for the Christian, for he is not to be confused with the world (1 Cor. 11:32). Since Burying is always used for the godly, we conclude that scriptural burial is the proper mode. Note too, that our blessed Lord was buried. This should clinch the matter for every believer. It is interesting to note also that His burial is the last mentioned in the Word of God (1 Cor. 15:4).

Mr. P. Parsons pointed out years ago that “Sowing is an advance on both burning and burial. It introduces an expectation and a hope. The gardener does not say that he has buried the seeds, although that is what he actually has done. No! He says that he has sown the seeds. So the Christian’s body is said to be sown, and sown in the hope of participation in a wonderful harvest of which Christ is the firstfruits, to which the harvest will be conformable (1 Cor. 15:23, 42-44): By burning the body of a Christian, we give absolutely no testimony to the world of this wonderful hope, and lose sight of a God-given picture provided so that we ‘sorrow not even as others, which have no hope’ (1 Thess. 4:13).”

We wholeheartedly concur with J. A. Fraser in his delightfully instructive booklet, Cremation, Is it Christian?, when he says, “I am not concerned about the resurrection of bodies that have been cremated, for God can, and He will, raise from the dead all bodies of believers and unbelievers who have been burned, buried, or eaten, and all who lie in the depths of the seas, or who have been blown to atoms, or destroyed in any way; for His power and ability are infinite.

When we lay away the body in the grave, according to the sentence of God, it returns to earth in the natural way or by an act of God; whereas cremation is an act of man. God said, ‘Out of it (the ground) wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ (Gen. 3:19). According to divine precept and example there is but one Christian way to dispose of our dead, and that is to bury them.”