The biblical doctrine of Christian burial

The biblical doctrine of Christian burial

We all have loved ones who have chosen to be cremated and there will be many more. It came on us suddenly: wham-bam and the whole country turned against Christian burial.

People said their abandonment of burial had no religious significance. They said their choice of cremation had nothing to do with their faith. It was just a practical thing. It was no muss-no fuss. It was just a money thing. “Cremation is less expensive,” they said, despite the National Funeral Directors Association estimating average costs of funerals with burial at $8,500 and funerals with cremation pretty comparable at $6,250.

People said cremation was more environmentally responsible. “We’re running out of land for cemeteries. Shouldn’t Christians be earthkeepers?” As with cremation saving money, cremation being green is more fiction than fact.

Crematories with ominous chimneys have now sprung up at the center of our community life, often adjoining residential neighborhoods (as here in Bloomington). I ask neighbors what the smoke coming out of the chimney across their backyard smells like?

Interestingly, I’ve seen no indication of the NIMBY syndrome attending the permitting of these industrial furnace facilities with their very large carbon footprints.

It’s estimated in a little over a decade we will be cremating eighty percent of our loved ones’ bodies.

Myself, I doubt it. I think green burials will win out in the long run.

But right now, we are faced with a growing plague of Christian loved ones paying funeral directors to burn their flesh, then grind and smash their teeth and bones.

So now, with the faithful having abandoned Christian burial, pastors (at least) have to decide whether to go along to get along or work to call their flock back to the universal practice of burial God’s people have observed across the ages.

After several years of silence, I came to the decision that I could not continue to be silent about my flock and loved ones’ rejections of Christian burial. I knew it would anger some to be called back to Scripture on this issue. Families view their weddings and funerals in an intensely proprietary way and the officiating pastor (let alone relative) is not to get in the way of the family’s entirely personal choices.

Still, I began to teach and preach against cremation and I have no regrets. The more I’ve read on pagan cremation and Christian burial, the more clear it’s become that cremation is, in fact, pagan and burial is Christian. Despite some irritation and anger, most of our flock has now decided against pagan cremation and plan to have Christian burial, instead.

As a service to readers still wondering whether burial is, in fact, Christian, here is a brief presentation of what Scripture teaches about burial. Most of Scripture’s teaching on this subject is not didactic, but by way of example. Yet when those examples consist of, for instance, God’s burial of Moses and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus’s burial of our Lord Jesus, such examples quickly rise to the level of command.

Scripture’s Doctrine of Burial

God’s people have always buried their dead. The growth of the Christian church in the midst of the Ancient Roman Empire can be charted, geographically, by those who believed on Jesus turning from Roman cremation to Christian burial.

Early in Scripture, we see specific accounts of the great care taken in the burial of the patriarchs.1 When Moses died, Scripture records it was God Himself who buried Moses’ body.2 The deaths of the kings of Judah and Israel are spoken of as “sleeping with their fathers,” “gathered to their fathers,” and “buried with their fathers.”3 Repeatedly the Old Testament speaks of the dead being exposed or burned as a curse and the dead being buried as a blessing.4

This theme continues in the New Testament. Herod murdered John the Baptist, but Scripture records how John’s disciples took his body and buried him.5 One of the signs of our Lord’s Divinity was that, upon His death, tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised [and they came] out of the tombs.”6 Following His crucifixion, we read that Joseph of Arimathea buried our Lord’s body in his own tomb.7

The Christian sacrament of Baptism is spoken of as the believer’s own “burial” in solidarity with His Lord’s death and burial.8 The Apostle Paul declared the burial of our Lord as a matter of first importance in the Christian faith: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”.9

In the fifteenth chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, there is an extended teaching on the resurrection of the body in which burial is spoken of as the sowing of a seed in faith that God will raise that “seed,” the body of the Christian, to eternal life:

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else…. 

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, 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. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.10

Thus the burial of Jesus is one of those essential statements of faith contained in the Apostles’ Creed through which Christians have confessed our faith across two millennia, now: “He was crucified, dead, and buried.”

Burial has always been the practice of Christians testifying to God our Creator Who made us one with our bodies. Thus the bodies of the dead are precious. Our bodies are ourselves.

Christians bury their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers, confessing through those burials their sure and certain hope in the Ressurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ, and thus all those who die in Him.

   [ + ]

1. Eg. Genesis 23:19; 25:9-10; 35:19; 49:31.
2. Deuteronomy 34:5-6.
3. Eg. 2Kings 22:20; 2Chronicles 34:28; 2Chronicles 28:27.
4. Eg. Judges 15:6; Deuteronomy 21:22-23; 2Chronicles 34:5; 1Chronicles 14:12; Exodus 39:12-13; Genesis 15:5.
5. Matthew 14:6-12.
6. Matthew 27:52-53.
7. Matthew 27:57-60.
8. Romans 6:4.
9. 1Corinthians 15:3-4.
10. 1Corinthians 15:35-37, 42-44.

Know someone who would be helped by reading this?

About The Author

7

Tim has been senior pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Bloomington, Indiana since 1996. Married to Mary Lee, the Baylys have five children and twenty-something grandchildren. Tim's book on fatherhood is "Daddy Tried." Co-author of a book on homosexuality, "The Grace of Shame," his latest book on the Church is "Church Reformed."

Support Out of Our Minds…

Love our content? Help keep it going!

ebook just $7.99 (for a limited time)

Join our newsletter