The Choice: Burial or Cremation?

In 2016, more people were cremated than buried in the United States. It is a trend that continues to grow, with as much as 78 percent of the population estimated to choose cremation within 20 years, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Theological questions and differing viewpoints revolve around the cremation versus burial debate.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote a blog addressing this issue. He counsels Christians to choose “burial over cremation not on a verse of Scripture, but on biblical reasoning.” He pointed out that the more secularized society has become, the more cremations have increased.

John Piper believes burial should be the norm. “Does it matter? Not ultimately, but I don’t ever counsel toward cremation,” he said. “My proposal is that Christian churches be willing to help families financially with simple, Christ-exalting funerals and burials, so that no Christian is drawn to cremation because it is cheaper.”

Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, noted, “The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few persons (mostly liberals and freethinkers) chose cremation.” 

Many theologians who embrace burial instead of cremation believe it is not what happens to the body itself as much as the way the body is treated in death. Burning, for many, is associated with paganism, hell, destruction, judgment, etc., while burial relates to the resurrection of Jesus. Placing the body in the ground has double symbolism for them: like seed that is sown with the expectation of new life to grow, and as sleeping (laying to rest) with an anticipated awakening. Historian Bill Leonard said, “Church burial practices reflected the strong belief in the resurrection of the body.” Early burial grounds were called cemeteries, from the Greek word koimeterion, which literally means “a sleeping place.” 

Billy Graham, who was buried earlier this year, had previously written, “At the resurrection, it will not make any difference if the person has been buried or cremated.”

John MacArthur noted, “Cremation is not a strange or wrong practice — it merely accelerates the natural process of oxidation.” Genesis 3:19 says, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The ancient Egyptians embalmed dead bodies, but the Israelites did not. Instead, they wrapped the bodies in cloth with various types of spices and perfumes (to cover the stench) and then placed the bodies in a stone sepulcher or cave. Cremation was not the regular practice of either the Egyptians or the Israelites.

In 2016, 50.2 percent of Americans were cremated. Cremation is cheaper and, according to Leonard, “Funerals have become prohibitively expensive. The funeral industry may have become, in a sense, its own worst enemy.” Today, many funeral homes also provide cremation as an option for their clients.

There is no verse in the Bible that forbids cremation. However, Jews and Christians throughout history have chosen to bury their dead.

The grief process is important when a loved one has died. It takes time, and having a tangible reminder present like a cemetery plot or an urn can be helpful for grieving families. James Heflin, professor at Hardin Simms Logsdon Seminary, stated, “There is something about the body — or even the urn, if the body has been cremated — being present. It is about escorting the loved one as far as possible — to go as far as one can go and do as much as one can do.”

Mohler and Piper both observed that, unlike the Greeks or Gnostics, Christians do not believe we are a soul trapped in a body waiting to be freed when we die. Instead, they point out that when God created Adam and breathed into him life, it included his body. The result is that the body should be handled with respect, reverence and dignity when death occurs.

Can dignity be demonstrated through either burial or cremation? In this country, the highest rates of cremation (all over 72 percent) are Washington, Nevada, Oregon, Hawaii and Maine. The lowest are Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee. According to the Cremation Association of North America, 40 to 50 percent of South Carolinians who died in 2016 were cremated. 

Death is appointed by God (Hebrews 9:27). It leaves in its wake a sense of loss, pain and sorrow. When a loved one dies, we grieve, but when a Christian brother or sister dies, we who remain have grief with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The question of cremation or burial is a highly personal decision that a number of theologians say is outside the moral law. It is a personal choice. The greater issue is how we honor the memory of a believer who dies as we trust in God and His Word through our time of sorrow.