The Real Issue: Treatment Vs Preservation
The issue is not how to best preserve the body; it is how to treat the body in death.
It is common for advocates of cremation to point out that a buried person will undergo decay, and nothing will be left of that body, just as very little is left of the cremated body. They conclude that both modes come out at the same place, therefore neither one is preferable. However, this misses the point. The point of burial is not to preserve the remains of the loved one.
How God will do the miracle of resurrection is beyond our understanding, as are all miracles. We can be certain that Christians who were eaten by lions, burned by Nero, drowned and lost to the sea or died in some other violent or destructive way will be partakers of the resurrection.
Burial does not pretend to help God out when it comes to resurrection. In other words, we miss the point when we say that both burial and cremation end up with the same amount of destruction done to the body. None of us is trying to embalm bodies to perfectly preserve them so as to give God more to work with on the day of resurrection.
Instead, the point is that we are to honour a human being, even in death. A human being is body, soul & spirit (1 Thes 5:23). In fact, we are told that the body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. While it is true that the spirit is absent from the body at the point of death (2 Cor 5:8), this does not mean that the body loses all dignity and honour. Indeed, observe how we dress and beautify the body placed in the casket for viewing. We understand that though the person has gone on to face heaven or hell, his or her body remains and we show respect to them in respecting the body. I suggest that respect for the body has always been understood as giving it a proper burial.
Are funerals simply the way in which we dispose of remains? For Christians, burial is not the disposal of a thing. It is caring for a person. In burial, we’re reminded that the body is not a shell, a husk tossed aside by the “real” person, the soul within. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8; Phil. 1:23), but the body that remains still belongs to someone, someone we love, someone who will reclaim it one day.
The Christian view of Resurrection
When Paul discusses the future resurrection of the body, he uses an analogy.
1 Corinthians 15:35-38 – “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” 36 Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. 37 And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain — perhaps wheat or some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.”
1 Corinthians 15:42-44 – “So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”
When Paul keeps using the term sow, it is because he is comparing the human body to a seed, because that is what one sows. How does one sow seed? You put it into the ground. The act of Christian burial is an act of sowing the now dead human body into the ground, in anticipation of its resurrection as a glorified body. Christian burial is a witness to an onlooking world. We say by our actions that we believe this body will be raised up to new life, as a dead seed sprouts in spring. By contrast, a materialist sees no need to symbolise a future for the body, because he doesn’t believe one exists. In that case, the body can be destroyed totally. Another image frequently used of the death of a Christian is found in verse 51.
1 Corinthians 15:51 – “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” –Sleep. The image of sleeping is one of lying down, waiting to be awakened.
When we think of these two events – burial and cremation, we have to ask, which better pictures the idea of sowing the body, expecting the future harvest of resurrection? Which pictures someone lying down, resting? Christians believe that the afterlife is not some ghostly, transparent and nonmaterial existence. We believe in a final resurrection that will be more real and physical than we are now. If the funeral rites communicate something like: so-and-so is gone, and we will never again know him and see him in the physical form in which we knew him here, then I suggest the message is sub- Christian.
Do symbols matter? We must remember that God cares about how we symbolise matters, particularly at such significant events. We care about the mode of baptism, because we think it is important to demonstrate that identification with Christ is a full immersion into His death and resurrection. God cares about the analogies and messages we make and send. For a funeral act to communicate that we think the body is of little more significance to the deceased person seems to send a message that is not thoroughly biblical and Christian. The mode of funeral is not commanded like the mode of baptism is, but it should give us some thought.
1) Given the meaning of the body, the meaning of resurrection, and the meaning of symbolising this, it is a poor choice to favour cremation purely for simplicity’s sake.
2) Cost may eliminate burial for some people as a viable option. However, the cost is not night and day, if one opts for a modest burial. Also, new laws require that every cremation must be preceded by a full autopsy, which drives up the price. What tends to make burials expensive is the choice of casket, the kind of tombstone, or even the location of the burial ground, and these can be negotiated. I do understand when cost is simply prohibitive, and a family chooses cremation. But if your conscience is persuaded to see the value of burial for a Christian, then I would suggest researching the costs, and seeing if they are really beyond you. Typical funeral policies will cover the cost of either a cremation or a low-cost burial. The prevalence of Jewish and Moslem populations at least means that the authorities cannot make burials prohibitively expensive.
3) When a person has written it into his or her will that he or she desires to be cremated, we must honour that request. However, to all living Christians I say: the desire to bless your families with simplicity and cost-effectiveness by asking for a cremation might be well-intentioned, but consider if you might not bless them even more, by allowing them to honour you once more, in the act of sowing your body to the ground in expectation of resurrection, by laying your body down to rest, to sleep, awaiting the day of your awakening.
Consider if this might not be a far greater blessing than saving some money, and saving some time.
– David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa