By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
“Just throw me in a ditch somewhere. I don’t care what you do with my body; I’ll be in heaven.”
I’ve heard statements similar to this for years. Is it true, though? Does the Bible say that our bodies do not matter?
As a pastor, I have also noticed that more and more families are choosing the route of cremation. When I first began as a pastor, cremation was less common.
Now it is less common to have a traditional burial. Statistics prove my anecdotal experience. In 2006, 33% of bodies were cremated. That number has risen to 57.5% in 2021. Does this matter from the perspective of a biblical worldview? Is there a preferred method of burial?
There are many different burial alternatives. One site listed 23 different options. There are incredibly creative ways to deal with a body. (That last sentence sounds like a statement a serial killer might make).
You can even be turned into a firework. But all of these creative or non-creative options can be categorized into four main options.
This is the “traditional” method of burial, at least within the United States. This option would include the traditional casket, burial “six feet under,” and a tombstone. This would also include the practices of other places around the world that might use a cave, vaults, etc.
Anything where a body is stowed away into the ground. Though technically not “in-ground,” some countries will wrap the body up and put it into trees. There are also cliffside burials by Oceanic peoples.
2. Turn to Ashes
The most common form of this is cremation, wherein the body is exposed to extreme heat and turned to ashes. There are other methods being used today, such as resomation — a chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis — where water instead of fire is used.
But the result is basically the same. This category would also include dissolution (breaking down the body through chemicals) and promession (frozen in liquid nitrogen and turned into powder).
All of these processes lead to the breaking down of the body into ash or a powdery substance. What happens to the ashes at this point also opens the door to other creative options.
There is the traditional urn, the spreading of ashes, as well as more eco-friendly options like being turned into fertilizer or replanted with the seed of a tree.
One option has people being turned into a diamond (using the same process of making a diamond), and another has your beloved transformed into a vinyl record.
This is not really a legal option in many countries, but some places in the world will simply expose the body to the elements and let animals and scavengers dispose of the body.
I would also put into this category something like a burial at sea as well as the incredibly expensive option of being attached to a rocket and shot into space.
Lastly, think of a mummy. This was a way in which to preserve a body. Being cryogenically frozen would also fall into this category.
Whereas some might prefer to have their body preserved for religious reasons, this is a way of preserving the body for scientific reasons — in the hopes that science will get to a place where the person could one day be regenerated. I would also put donating the body to science in this category.
Plastination (where the body is basically turned into a plastic mannequin for educational purposes) would also fall into this category.
These are the basic options. Does it matter which ones you choose? Does the Bible speak positively of one over the other?
Is There a Biblical Method of Body Disposition?
When it comes to applying the scriptures today, it is important to note the difference between descriptive and prescriptive events in the Bible. It is one thing to say, “This is how people were buried during the time of the Bible.”
It is quite another to say, “Therefore, we must also be buried the same way.” The Bible can be descriptive (“this happened”) on an event, but that does not necessarily mean it is prescriptive (“you must do this”).
A society’s burial custom is often a reflection of its spiritual views about death and the afterlife. Egyptians had elaborately furnished tombs because they believed in the afterlife, there would be a continuation of physical activities.
Hebrew people believed there was more of a spiritual connection and a fellowship with the generations that had gone before; this is why burial plots were typically tied to familial locations.
The common form of burial during biblical times was to use a tomb, cave, or the ground to dispose of the human body.
The traditional burial of a vault, a casket “six feet” underground, was actually not the traditional way in which bodies were buried during the time of the Bible. Often the dead of the wealthy were placed in above-ground tombs, and the poor were buried in the ground.
It is also worth noting that the most common Jewish burial technique was to put the body away into a type of tomb for the body to decompose.
When that process was completed, the bones were then taken and stored in an ossuary (a type of casket).
Such a practice, which restored the individual identity of the departed, reflects a belief in the resurrection of the dead.
Also, we should consider that the same process might be used for different reasons. As an example, in a Hindu funeral, the role of cremation plays an important spiritual role.
The body is viewed as a prison for the soul, and thus burning the body is a way of severing ties that the soul might have to the body.
This cremation is a way of freeing the soul to move forward. Such a view would not be present if a Christian decides that cremation is a favorable option.
“Cremation became the most common form of burial practiced among the Romans (Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World, 40). This was due to their belief in the disembodied survival of the soul in the afterlife, or their denial of an afterlife altogether. This is contrasted by the Jewish hope in a future, bodily resurrection. Romans often placed the ashes of the cremated person in a chest, jar, or pot. They sometimes placed the container holding the ashes inside another vessel that held the person’s possessions.”
There were a couple of exceptions to this, though. The bodies of Saul and Jonathan were cremated. That is also true of Achan. But typically, the burning of a body was a sign of judgment against that person (though not always the case).
The same is true if a person was not given a proper burial. Exposure to the elements was often used as a picture of the judgment of God upon a person or even an entire nation.
What does all of this mean? It means that there is some divergence in practice of how a body was disposed. There are clear differences in beliefs and practices as well. What we believe about why we are doing something seems to be more important than the action itself.
The Bible seems to indicate that the preferred method of burial is something that preserves the unique identity of the person and that the act of burial/disposition is to be done in the hopes of the resurrection.
Does it Matter What We Do with Our Body after Death?
I think you can likely reject intentional exposure as a biblical practice for disposition of the body. It seems that such an act is a denial of the importance of the body.
There is a sacred aspect to the human body. Exposure, then, is often seen as a sign of judgment. To intentionally do this seems to be a denial of the importance of the body.
Likewise, the preservation of the body (keeping it from the natural process of decomposition) seems to also be a type of denial of the reality of death as well as a denial of the resurrection and transformation of our bodies.
I’m hard-pressed to see how preservation could be done in the hopes of the resurrection. It seems more like clinging to the “old man” than planting in hopes of the new.
Does an in-ground burial de facto accomplish these purposes? Not necessarily. Can you do this with cremation? Possibly. Cremation is, in part, a speeding up of the natural process.
Christians have to decide for themselves if they believe that process is innately wrong. Again, the key thing is why we are doing something.
Often cremation is done because of economic reasons. A funeral with a traditional burial is sometimes five to ten times more expensive than a cremation and a memorial service.
This is why many are choosing this method. Others are choosing this for reasons of creation care. These factors must also be considered.
It does matter what we do with our body after death because what we do is a picture of what we believe about the hope of the resurrection.
That does not necessarily mean that one method of burial is to be preserved over others. But what must be preserved is the Christian belief in the resurrection. Burial is a last act of faith, and we should choose our method wisely.
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