I’d Rather be Buried Than Burned

By Alex Chediak Published on July 24, 2017

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.

Why 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).

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  • Cremation is cheaper and takes up far less space. But whatever.

    • Dean Bruckner

      That leaves you more money to sue Christians who won’t bow to the sexual anarchists, I guess. It all depends on what a person values.

  • Dean Bruckner

    I agree with you in principle. However, how much money should we be willing to pay? Opting for a simple funeral (the caskets in back, very in back) is a good start.

    My own father died of sepsis and other infections. My mother wag going to move the next month to live with us a couple of states away. If we buried him where he lived me died, she would never see his grave again, and neither would we, most likely. If we transported his body, given what he died of, it would have cost thousands more. We elected cremation for these reasons.

    She honors his earthly remains by having them with her. She knows we are body, soul and spirit, and one day will be again. If we had lived in one place, we would have opted for burial most likely. But many thousands of dollars wasn’t a good expenditure in this case. We had a celebration of life and the family had a viewing, and that was expensive enough.

    Thank you for raising this question, and for providing the historical background.

    We do say with the Psalmist, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his holy ones,” and with Job, “and in my flesh shall I see God.”

  • davidk

    “Which funeral method is a better witness to the resurrection?”

    Which method is a better witness to God’s creative power: Recreating life from ashes or a embalmed corpse?

    Your argument is a fail.

    • Bryan

      “Of course, God can resurrect ashes that (like bodies) have long since decomposed.” The argument does not fail. You can disagree for a stated or implied reason or reasons, but the argument here is sound.

      • Nobody Specific

        You are misunderstanding Davidk’s comment or the article or both. The question is do you show greater faith in resurrection by carefully preserving your body in faith it will one day be restored, or by having it burned to ash knowing full well our omnipotent Lord created us from dust in the first place and can do so again.

        If I understand correct David favors the latter, I am not sure I agree but I can’t really dispute it effectively either.

  • meamsane

    In my view, Burial would be better, but most people I know simply could not afford such, so they take cremation rather than “choose” it. If a person can afford only a KIA rather than a Rolls Royce, it means his “choices” are strictly limited!

  • Dan Plato

    cremation is on the rise because American middle class has been completely screwed over and pillaged by a predatory bipartisan ruling elite. This issue of economic deception and devastation is one that the modern church scene is unable or unwilling to speak on. Healthcare is too expensive, the failed public school system is institutionally antichristian, and 50 to 80% of the country is underwater financially.

    • Dan Plato

      unable or unwilling to speak on this issue because the modern 501c3 government church corporation is by its very nature a creature of the state.

  • Michael Kilburg

    The Catholic Church’s Order of Christian Funerals/Rite of Christian Burial allows cremation, but forbids the scattering of ashes or the keeping of cremated remains in the home.

  • Paul

    Must say I’m quite confused as to why this article is here at Stream.

    • Jay W. Richards

      Because the value of the human body is central to Christian theology, and we’re a Christian publication. The Christian view of the body is why, until recently, cremation was almost unheard of in the Christian West.

  • Tom Rath

    “Country clubs and cemeteries are the biggest wasters of prime real estate!” – Al Czervik

  • Matthew Wade

    The religious perspective aside, as an amateur genealogist I must ask the question: why is it so expensive to bury someone? As the writer states, for Americans anyway, burial has been the preferred method of laying a body to rest. Certainly people are better off now, as a whole, financially than they were 100 years and 200 years ago. And yet, walking through old cemeteries you find that most people appeared to be able to afford burial…and many tombstones were more ornate and detailed than the common tombstones you see today. I guess I’m asking a question to which I may already know the answer. Is the current day costs of burial due to government regulation? I would not argue that there are certainly health issues related to the handling and procurement of dead bodies, but are there costs (perhaps unnecessary) that have been added to the burial process due to government regulation (caskets made of certain materials, specific embalming procedures, burial/cemetery fees, etc.)? I don’t know the answer. I’ve never worked in a funeral home and, fortunately, I’ve not yet had to deal with the death of someone for whom I am directly financially responsible. But I would be interested in knowing if there is anyone reading this that has worked in a funeral home and could comment intelligently on my question. Thank you.

    • john appleseed

      I have always told my wife, “When I get promoted to Heaven, chop up my body into little pieces & flush it down the toilet.”
      Sure, pagans cremated. Pagans also practiced circumcision before God told Abraham to do it.
      This body is only a “tent” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).
      When burial becomes cheaper, fine, do that to my tent.
      But as things are, burn it.
      Why burden my family over such inconsequential & weak arguments such as are presented in this article?

  • A J MacDonald Jr

    Green burial is the way to go.

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