I’d Rather be Buried Than Burned
Preference for cremation among Americans has skyrocketed over the past few decades. In 1960, only 3.5% opted for cremation over burial. By 1999, it was one in four (25%). And in 2016, U.S. cremations outnumbered burials.
For Christians, this raises the question: Is it really a neutral choice between whether to be buried or burned? If so, it’s easy to opt for convenience. But there’s a long tradition among Christians that a burial is much better. Before going there, though, let’s get clear on why many are attracted to cremation.
A burial costs about three times as much as cremation. Cremations are also more flexible. They don’t need to occur right after the person dies. A service can be held at the most convenient time for those who attend. And ashes can be scattered in many places. (My wife’s grandfather had his scattered in the San Francisco bay.) Others might keep the ashes in their home.
There are also worldview reasons to prefer cremation. Wikipedia notes that “almost everyone adhering to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism cremate their dead.” Why? Because these faith systems do not attach any lasting significance to the human body. Similarly, in ancient Greek religion, the human body was considered to be a prison for the soul. Death liberated a person’s soul from their body.
A Brief History of Cremation
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, cremation showed up the western world by the Greeks as early as 1000 B.C. The Greeks adopted it from northern tribes who would incinerate corpses on the battlefield, then gather the ashes for entombment back home. Cremation became associated with valor and patriotism. The bigger the military hero, the bigger the pyre.
We see references to cremation in Homer’s Iliad. Royal cremation ceremonies appear Greek mythology and in the practices of pagan Scandinavians. In Lord of the Rings, Denethor tries to burn Faramir and himself “like the heathen kings of old.” In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the corpse of Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) is burned.
Roman practice of cremation was widespread at the time of Christ, especially among the upper class and members of imperial families. But as Christianity rose in influence, cremation quickly declined. Wikipedia reports that “anthropologists have been able to track the advance of Christianity throughout Europe with the appearance of cemeteries. By the 5th century, with the spread of Christianity, the practice of burning bodies gradually disappeared from Europe.”
The central idea in cremation is the denigration of the body. As Yoda said to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Our bodies are “crude matter” — to be burned like garbage upon our death. This is what Christians must reject.
Burial: A Witness to the Resurrection
As Christians, we affirm the goodness of our physical bodies. Our bodies were made by God. We’re called to glorify God in our bodies because the Holy Spirit resides within us (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). That happened because the Son of God took on human flesh to die bodily on the cross to purchase us for Himself (1 Peter 3:18). Like Paul, we seek to honor God in our bodies, both in our life and in our death (Philippians 1:20).
Because of sin, our bodies — like the rest of creation — experience corruption (Romans 8:20-22). We all experience dysfunction in our bodies. Death doesn’t visit us all at once. It visits us one day at a time. In nearsightedness, and then farsightedness. In the loss of hearing. In stiffness and back pain. In arthritis — or worse, dementia and Alzheimer’s. For many Christians death comes at the tail end of protracted agony. We’re ready to be done with our bodies! To die for Christians is to be free from bodily anguish and immediately in paradise (Luke 23:43).
Christianity affirms that we will live forever not as disembodied ghosts but as embodied souls.
But that’s not the full story. Christianity affirms that we will live forever not as disembodied ghosts but as embodied souls (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). We don’t wish to be free from a physical body per se. We want to trade up. We want to exchange our falling-apart body for one that can never fall apart. We want an immortal body, one that is free from pain and decay (2 Corinthians 5:4). And thanks be to God that’s just what awaits us (Romans 8:23-25).
The Bible compares death to sleeping. “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). In fact, the word “cemetery” literary means “sleeping place.”
Of course, God can resurrect ashes that (like bodies) have long since decomposed. The question is: Which funeral method is a better witness to the resurrection? I’d rather be buried than burned.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).