Cremation is certainly a convenient alternative to burial today; it’s generally cheaper and provides more flexibility in scheduling the funeral. Yet it may be inappropriate, especially for followers of Christ.
While there’s no direct command forbidding cremation, it is interesting to note that even the dead bodies of the cursed are to be respected by burial (De 21:23), that burning is not given in Torah as a way to either punish or dispose of a human body, and that there’s no indication anywhere in scripture that cremation might be an acceptable alternative to burial.
In fact, Abraham went to great effort and expense to obtain property just so he could have a place to bury Sarah properly (Ge 23:4); Isaac and Rebecca were interred there with similar concern; Jacob went out of his way to bury Leah there, and his last act was to insist that his children go to great expense and trouble to bury his own body there. (Ge 49:29-31) Joseph even insisted that his body be preserved and his bones brought out of Egypt along with Israel when they were delivered from slavery several centuries later. (Ge 50:25) If cremation were arbitrarily equivalent to burial, it’s difficult to explain the preoccupation of the godly with where and how their bodies should be kept in death.
The burial of Moses is perhaps the most significant and unusual example in this regard; as far as we know, it’s the only body God Himself buried, and (not coincidently) also the only body the devil sought to exploit. (Jud 9) Since God Himself chose to bury Moses’ body in a secret location (De 34:5-6), evidently even stationing a high-ranking angel at the tomb to resist Satan’s attempt to take it, when cremation would have solved the problem more conveniently, we have compelling evidence that burial is the only godly choice, and that cremation is problematic.
It’s clear that cremation doesn’t prevent God from resurrecting anyone (He 11:19), so this cannot be the concern. It’s also clear in scripture that the bodies of animals were routinely burned (He 13:11); this method of disposal was commonly used for sanitation but never recommended for humans.
Perhaps it’s related to the fact that we’re all made in the image of God (Ge 1:27), and that this bodily image is to be respected. It’s clear from scripture that our physical body is of interest to God; He tells us to treat it with dignity (De 14:1) and respect (Le 19:28), chooses to dwell within it (1Co 6:19) and intends to redeem it. (Ro 8:23)
In fact, God has identified so intimately with our physicality that He treats our earthly bodies as members of Christ Himself (1Co 6:15), and the physical body of Christ might just be the holiest object in existence anywhere, holier than the holiest of all within the temple itself. So, if our bodies are part of Him, as they evidently are (Ep 5:30), it’s very important how we treat them while we live, as well as when we die.
If our thought is that our bodes don’t really matter, we’re missing a significant part of God’s precious design in us (Php 3:21), part of what He values in and about us. Yet, if in the end we’re blown to bits in an accident, burned at the stake or beheaded as martyrs, dismembered and cast into smoldering trash heaps (He 11:37), God certainly won’t be set back by this. (Ps 116:15) As in so many other things, this is about our hearts and motives (1Co 4:5), not God’s ability to redeem. (Mk 10:27)
We’re stewards of our bodies; how we handle them in both life and death is a matter of stewardship, respect and dignity, treating something precious made in the image of God, the very temple of God, with the honor it deserves. (1Pe 2:17)
3 thoughts on “Bury Him”
Exodus 21:25 lists burning as an example of how justice is to be carried out when this is the type of harm inflicted by an offender, but not as a general means of punishment.
Stoning to death was evidently the most severe type of punishment prescribed in Torah, and it is hard to think of a more painful or brutal way to kill someone, so the fact that cremation is not listed as an option for capital punishment is significant.
In Ge 28:24 Judah commands Tamar his daughter-in-law to be burned alive for whoredom, But this does not imply that the form of punishment was appropriate. It could be that Judah was being overly cruel and his reaction because he was the one at fault.
In 1Sa 31:12-13 it is recorded that valiant men took the bodies of Saul and his sons down from the wall of Beth-shan and burned them under a tree. This may have been a way to erase the mutilation and desecration of their bodies so that this dishonor would never again be displayed. Even here, they did not burn the bodies so completely that the bones were destroyed, but they buried the bones.