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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
In a book recently published on the subject of Christian funerals, a writer gives the following advice regarding cremation: "Personally the minister may or may not approve of such proceedings. Privately, he is free to hold any opinion that he will. But officially he should keep an open mind. In the Christian religion there is nothing that frowns upon cremation or requires burial."
This is wrong and evil counsel. We feel it also a very strange statement, being made as it is by a pastor who professedly studies and believes the Bible. The sad fact is that the practice of cremation is quickly on the rise in the so-called "Christian" nations of the West.
Until recently burial prevailed almost universally as the common method for disposal of the dead in Western nations, and cremation was looked upon as something practiced only by atheists or those totally ignorant of the Bible. The turn back to cremation can be seen in direct connection with the rapidly increasing apostasy from the Word of God in those nations where Christianity is the dominant faith.
In my home state, Florida, in America, a popular retirement area for the elderly due to its tropical climate, ads are taken out in local newspapers inviting people to join "clubs" for quite inexpensive fees, the membership of which allows one the "benefit" of discounts on cremation expenses.
All of this is against the Bible though. Cremation is a heathen custom, meaning a practice of people who do not have the Bible, or else have rejected its authority. And it is frightening to see Americans who in recent years commonly considered cremation wrong, now accept the abominable practice even with the blessing of their church leaders.
By now many are surely thinking, "How can this man be so certain cremation is wrong? Is it really important whether or not a dead body is burned or buried?" If the Bible did not speak clearly on this issue and give such clear example, it would indeed not matter. But when God has spoken, when He has shown the way, we dare not ignore His counsel for the popular thinking of modern man or modern preachers!
As proof of our contention that cremation is unchristian and unbiblical, we offer the following eight reasons. The basic outline for the following is from James Fraser's excellent book, Cremation – Is It Christian?, published by Loizeaux Brothers, Neptune, New Jersey. But let me also say that we had come to see that cremation is wrong, yea evil, long before we read Bro. Fraser's book. Our experiences as missionaries in Nepal and India and a study of God's Word had taught us this.
Cremation Has A Heathen Origin & Purpose, Whereas God's People Have Always Practiced Burial
At the outset let me answer an objection sometimes made at this point. The objection is, "Yes, God's people in the Bible practiced burial. The example is clearly there. But are we bound to follow these examples, as they are not direct commands?"
The answer is given in no uncertain terms in Rom. 15:4, "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning..." And again in I Cor. 10:11 we read, "Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come." God is saying in these passages, Yes, you are to follow the Bible's examples as well as its direct instructions."
A Heathen Origin
Cremation as practiced today in the more technically advanced nations no longer has the physical ghastliness associated with cremations performed in the poorer parts of the world. The modern method incorporates the use of an exceedingly hot incinerator which reduces the body to ashes in a matter of minutes completely out of the view of loved ones and the public.
Not so in India, Nepal, and other parts of South Asia, the area of our missionary ministry. I am convinced that if Christians in America and Europe could stand with me beside the "holy" River Bagmati in Kathmandu, Nepal, and observe the burning of the body of a Hindu following the performance of the Hindu death rituals, they would cast aside in repulsion every thought of cremation being an acceptable Christian practice.
Just five days ago I stood three or so feet from a burning corpse with a missionary pastor from Singapore and his wife who were visiting us. The head was already burnt beyond recognition and the skull split open due to internal expansion from the heat of the fire. The lower legs and feet were unscorched, as they were protruding from the pile of burning wood and stubble upon which the man's body lay. The professional Hindu burners were poking the body from time to time to keep the members in the fire and adding stubble and wood as needed. The bones were contracting and popping; the bodily organs were frying and the juices sizzling in the intense heat.
My wife, a nurse with experience in a leprosy hospital and also in an intensive care ward, stood with another friend observing the ghastly sight from a distance, unwilling to come closer. The air for a hundred yards or more was filled with the unmistakable stench of burning flesh. When the fire had burnt most of the body, the ashes and remaining members were shoved into the river. This is cremation as has been practiced by heathen religions for untold centuries, but without the sanitized, "instant fry" method adopted in technically advanced nations and sanctified by apostate Christians as an "acceptable Christian practice."
Would you treat your loved ones so? Is this an acceptable Christian practice indeed? No sir, cremation is a heathen practice. It is of heathen origin and serves heathen purposes. There is nothing Christian about cremation. We were standing that day, as I have at other times, observing cremation in the surroundings from which the practice arose – idolatrous, Christ-less heathenism.
God's People Have Always Practiced Burial
Following are just a few examples. I challenge you to read the Bible from cover to cover and find one occasion in which one of God's people was cremated or given anything other than a decent and proper burial (except in a few cases involving God's anger, as we shall shortly see).
Abraham was buried – "Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ismael buried him in the cave of Machpelah..." (Gen. 25:8-10).
Sarah was buried – "And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old...And Sarah died in Kirjatharba...And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying, I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight" (Gen. 23:1-4).
Rachel was buried – "And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath...And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day" (Gen. 35:19-20).
Isaac was buried – "And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, being old and full of days: and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him" (Gen. 35:29).
Jacob was buried – "And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people...And when the days of his mourning were past...his sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah..." (Gen. 49:33; 50:4-13).
Joseph was buried – "So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt" (Gen. 50:26).
Joshua was buried – "And it came to pass after these things, that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him..." (Josh. 24:29-30).
Eleazar was buried – "And Eleazar the son of Aaron died; and they buried him in a hill that pertained to Phinehas his son, which was given him in mount Ephraim." (Josh. 24:33).
Samuel was buried – "And Samuel died; and all the Israelites were gathered together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house at Ramah." (I Sam. 25:1).
David was buried – "So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David." (I Kings 2:10).
John the Baptist was buried – "And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison...and his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus." (Matt. 14:10-12).
Ananias and Sapphira were buried – "And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him...then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband." (Acts 5:5-10).
Stephen was buried – "And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him." (Acts 8:2).
Even When Burial Was Difficult
Even in difficult circumstances God's people in olden days practiced burial. For example, Joseph's body was kept for over 400 years in Egypt and then carried through the 40 years of wilderness wanderings before being buried in Palestine, the promised land.
"And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence." (Gen. 50:24-25).
"And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you." (Ex. 13:19).
"And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver..." (Josh. 24:32).
How much simpler it would have been for the Israelites to have cremated Joseph, then carried his ashes with them in a tiny container! But this they refused to do. Joseph, a follower of the one true God, a man who looked forward to the bodily resurrection, was given an honorable burial, as was every man of God in the Bible.
Burial Looks Forward To Resurrection
"For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." (Rom. 8:22-23).
"For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." (II Cor. 5:1).
"But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming." (I Cor.15:20-23).
"Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Cor.15:51-57).
The reason God's people have always been careful to practice burial is not difficult to understand. We believe in a bodily resurrection. Yes, the buried body will decompose in time. Yes, there are occasions in which Christians die in ways which render burial impossible – in the sinking of ships, in house fires, etc. But when at all possible we bury. Why the trouble? Because it is our certain hope that the same individual will be raised in the same body, only changed.
The physical body is called the seed for the resurrection body. When planted, a seed decomposed, and the new plant comes forth. The Bible uses this to illustrate resurrection:
"But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body...So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body." (I Cor.15:35-44).
When we bury a Christian loved one, we are planting the seed for the resurrection body! It is a powerful testimony of our unwavering faith in God's Word regarding the promise of the bodily resurrection.
Contrast heathenism. They have no such knowledge or hope. The Hindus and Buddhists, for example, believe in a human soul which is distinct from the body. But they do not believe that the soul, once departed from the body at death, will be resurrected in any relation whatsoever to the first body. Rather they believe the soul will be reincarnated in another entirely unrelated body, or into a non-physical sphere of existence.
God's people, though, have had some knowledge of a bodily resurrection from the earliest days. The book of Job is considered commonly to be the oldest book in the Bible. There is no mention in the book of Job concerning Israel, or Jerusalem, or Palestine, or the temple, or the Jewish state or kingdom, and it is most likely that Job was a God-fearing man who lived in the days prior to Abraham. Yet, consider this ancient man of God's thorough knowledge of the bodily resurrection.
"For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me." (Job 19:25-27).
God's people have always buried their dead with this magnificent hope burning in their hearts – "We will see that brother or sister again in that same body, only changed, glorified!" Hallelujah! Only through the death and shed blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ can we have this certain hope. He has taken upon Himself on the cross the punishment for our sins, carried our sins into the grave, and rose again in eternal triumph three days later.
When an individual thoroughly acknowledges his sinfulness before God, repents (changes his mind about living a sinful, self-willed life), and receives Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and saviour, the sin debt becomes paid, and eternal life and glory is promised from God the Father. Part of our glorious heritage in Christ is the resurrection body.
God Practices Burial
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day" (Deut. 34:5-6).
Cremation Is A Sign Of God's Curse
Throughout the Bible the destruction of a human body or of an object by fire is used as a sign of divine wrath. Consider with me some examples:
The example of Sodom and Gomorrah – "Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven" (Gen. 19:24). "And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly" (II Pet. 2:6).
The example of Nadab and Abihu – "And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD" (Lev. 10:1-2).
The example of the men who rebelled with Korah – "And there came out a fire from the LORD, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense" (Num. 16:35).
The example of idols – "And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it" (Ex. 32:20). "The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God" (Deut. 7:25). "And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them" (II Kings 10:26). "And when they had left their gods there, David gave a commandment, and they were burned with fire" (I Cron. 14:12).
The example of magic books – "And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver" (Acts 19:18-19).
The example of the unsaved cast into the lake of fire for eternal punishment – "And whatsoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:15).
For A Person Not To Have A Proper Burial Was Considered Dishonor
Example of Jezebel – "And of Jezebel also spake the LORD, saying, The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel. Him that dieth of Ahab in the city the dogs shall eat; and him that dieth in the field shall the fowls of the air eat" (I Kings 21:23-24).
Example of the Midianites – "Do unto them as unto the Midianites; as to Sisera, as to Jabin, at the brook of Kison: Which perished at Endor: they became as dung for the earth" (Ps. 83:9-10).
The Christian's Body Belongs To God: It Is Not Ours To Destroy By Fire or Any Other Means
"What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's" (I Cor. 6:19-20). "For whether we live, we live unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's" (Rom. 14:8).
God Has Plainly Called Cremation Wickedness
"Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime" (Amos 2:1).
The Lord Jesus Was Buried, And He Is Our Great Example In All Things
"And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand" (John 19:38-42).
In light of the above Bible teaching, the statement, "In the Christian religion there is nothing that frowns upon cremation or requires burial," proves to be untrue. Of course we cannot force people either to bury or not to bury. But the pastor or missionary must patiently share these truths with his people and with those who seek his assistance in the burial of loved ones. In these days of widespread apostasy and doctrinal confusion among professing Christian leaders, a clear voice in this matter is urgently needed.