Friday, September 23, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Bury or Burn?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance have a piece up on the subject of cremation vs. burial in which they list all the verses from scripture they can find which they think may be on point, though many of these are merely historical observations and not terribly relevant to the argument either way.

Understandably, they come to no clear conclusion.

Greek Orthodoxy Weighs In

On the other hand, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America strongly prefers what they call a “Christian burial”:

“Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place.”

Tom: Immanuel Can, surely you agree with anything as august as an archdiocese?

Immanuel Can: Are you being inflammatory, Tom? You want to start some sort of heated discussion this week? Or are you trying to blacken my name? I shall be forced to respond in crisp tones …”

Tom: Okay, that last one hurt. We’re going to have to institute a Friday pun ban.

Did you notice that every single verse cited by the religious tolerance folks was an Old Testament verse?

IC: Yes, I see that. Any thoughts about why?

Tom: Well, it seems to set up a “burning is bad” motif pretty effectively, if all that matters to the Christian is Old Testament pattern. Although they do stretch it a bit, noting that the golden calf in the desert was burned by Moses. I’m not sure that’s entirely on point.

IC: Granted.

Respecting the Body

Let me ask you this, then. What, if any, respect is due to the physical form we have inhabited once we have departed that habitation?

Tom: That really depends on the kind of God we have, doesn’t it? Maybe you can think of some New Testament church-related restrictions on body disposal. I’m stumped, but that doesn’t always mean a whole lot.

But suppose you have a God who created light by speaking a word. Or a God who can destroy all Satan’s might with the breath of his mouth and the appearance of his coming. I happen to have one of those, and I don’t imagine it’s a huge task for him to reassemble atoms into a new body like that of the Lord Jesus when he can do all that with just a word.

Putting God to the Test

Are people perhaps put off because by burning a body, one might seem to be putting God to the test?

IC: Well, I do remember reading somewhere a story about a proponent of cremation who was adamant it was a good way to prevent resurrection to judgment … but I think it may well have been some Sunday School teacher’s urban legend. After all, cremation is a very ancient practice, and some people who practiced it did not see it as irreverent at all, but as a way of hastening the process of the body’s return to their god or gods.

It seems to me that Lazarus was probably well on the way to being worm chow — Martha thought so, anyway — and if she was right, then a little destruction of the flesh doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Lord of glory when he decides it’s time for someone to get up again. And if even the sea gives up the dead that are in it on the last day, I’m quite confident the recovered bodies will have been found in very poor shape indeed. But it’s still no problem.

The Body is a Temple

Tom: This is my thought. With all due respect to the Greek Orthodox folks, do you think there’s anything in this notion that the body being a “temple” and an “integral part of the human person” precludes cremation?

IC: I wouldn’t think so. A temple is only as good as the thing in it. It may be that because Orthodox folks revere cathedrals, they think of the body as similarly an object of reverence. But I think that’s not any more biblical than their reverence for a building … if that is indeed how they think about it.

Body and Soul

Tom: The other big opponent of cremation among quasi-Christian sects is Mormonism, and we don’t have to guess what they think because one of their own is happy to tell us

“Since the organization of the Church in 1830, Latter-day Saints have been encouraged by their leaders to avoid cremation … To understand the LDS feeling about cremation, it is essential to understand the doctrine of the Church regarding the body. In a General Conference Elder James E. Talmage, an apostle, stated, ‘It is peculiar to the theology of the Latter-day Saints that we regard the body as an essential part of the soul.’ ”

I’m going to assume that somebody with the titles “Elder” and “apostle” is up to speaking for Mormons generally. But what do you think of this notion that the “body is an essential part of the soul”?

IC: Well, the body is a vehicle through which the soul enacts its obedience to God. “If you know these things,” said the Lord, “blessed are you if you do them.” That means that the body is importantly involved in the faith that results in action, which is, as James reminds us, the only kind of faith that saves. All that makes the body pretty important, at least instrumentally.

But is it sacred as an entity? The Word says it’s “sown in corruption” but “raised in incorruption”. It is sown an earthly body, but raised a heavenly one. As such, it is not the same body. So it would be hard to make any case for what the Mormons are saying being true; that it is intrinsically necessary to retain your physical body for the afterlife.

Tom: I see body, soul and spirit as distinct. We are spirit beings that inhabit bodies, and we have our own specific souls (or personalities) as well. Spirit and soul, we’re told, are hard enough to tell apart that it takes the acuity of the word of God to do it. But the body would seem to be unique in that it can perish, at least temporarily. Apart from the spirit it is dead.

Now, while I can imagine that the state of the body (age, mental illness and so on) affects the personality (if that is what the Mormons are worried about), this is not a permanent condition. So I cannot imagine the body being an “essential part of the soul”. The Lord, when first raised from the dead, was not recognized by his disciples even though he remains the same person. Since his is the prototypical resurrection, it leads me to conclude that our own resurrection bodies may be dissimilar to our present ones, and my guess would be that they’ll be Ferraris compared to this beat-up Buick I’m currently inhabiting.

So I’d say improving the body through resurrection will no more change your personality or mine than the Lord’s own personality was changed in resurrection.

But what do I know? I’m not an apostle.

IC: The main thing here, I guess, is that if one is worried about the physical body being destroyed, one does not have a case from scripture. God, who created the body in the first place, is more than sufficient to deal with the ravages of time, decay, oceans or firestorms upon the physical body. I think I’d only worry about someone if they were considering destroying their physical body in some sort of deliberate attempt to insult or evade the One who created it. But then, it would be the condition of the soul I’d worry about, not the body.

Treatment of the Dead

Yet do you think that biblically we “owe” anything to the corpse of a deceased person? Or can we treat the bodies of the departed in any way we wish?

Tom: We can’t owe anything to a body, per se, but we do have an ongoing obligation as believers to treat all with love as our governing motive. Dead bodies are almost invariably accompanied by grieving relatives, with whom we ought to weep both because Christ did and, through the apostles, instructed us to do so also. So to choose to treat the bodies of the dead in a way that would offend others … well, I can’t see a good reason for a Christian to do that, even if he has no concern about such things himself.

IC: Yes, I think that’s fair.

I’m reminded that this earth and all its works will one day be burned up, just as Peter says. A new heaven and earth will follow. So apparently, cremation does not prevent God from achieving his purposes, even when the cremation is … well, a rather big one.

The Origins of Cremation

Tom: Definitely. Last thought here: there is a certain subset of Christians who are troubled by the idea of participating in, say, Halloween, and a smaller subset that are a bit anti-Christmas because of the pagan associations with the origin of these holidays.

Now we’re told that burning in ancient Israel was mostly reserved for idols, criminals or enemies. So what about cremation’s somewhat negative history? Does the historical background of a ritual or practice impact your view of it?

IC: That’s never been a thing that much worried me. Of course, in ancient Israel burning was sometimes a way of expressing absolute rejection of a thing … removal of it from the face of the earth, and a symbolic association with the final judgment. I don’t think that is what people who consider cremation today are attempting to indicate, just as today Christmas is not any kind of endorsement of sacred groves, Roman revelry and worship of the sun. At some point, these associations are dead.

I think intention is a very important part of this question. The mere presence of fire as a means is not the issue.

Hey, for that matter, people have been giving up their bodies to be burned for the sake of Christ for two thousand years now. Take John Lambert. He perished in the fires of Smithfield, and with his dying breath, he cried out, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”

This I know: the fire will not be the last of John Lambert.

The Lord knows those who are his.


  1. This was a useful topic for me personally just so you know. I consider myself a fairly "with it" Christian concerning the Word of God generally but this topic has come to mind a number of times over the years and I have not really delved into it -- for whatever reason (embarrassment perhaps in not knowing the answer? Likely). I was considering, practically, what the "cheapest" funeral might be. I can't say I want to spend 10,000.00 of the Lord's money on casket and my end when I am not there anyway. Some dignity to that day for the sake of others and the gospel proclaimed, if needed for others attending, but no extra finery in my opinion is needed. I was always going to do a closed casket anyway -- I'm a bit shy at the best of times lol.

  2. I have a dear Christian friend (well, the Lord has him now) who made what I considered to be a quite gracious exit for (if my information is correct) a little over $3000. He was cremated right away, and the cremation followed with a small memorial at his local church that, while there were tears, was delightfully in character with his life. It was one of the better goodbyes from this world that I've attended, and probably the cheapest. He too wanted the money in his will to go to the Lord's work, not a big flashy funeral.

    I'm leaning toward the same thing myself, but one has to recognize that there may be family members with strong feelings about it to consider. Not necessarily defer to, but certainly consider ...

  3. Also, real estate is precious and so what happens when cemeteries get recycled? You
    could possibly end up in a landfill?