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Christian Burial Versus Barbaric Cremation

(As Seen in the Faith of the Patriarchs)

By Gary F. Zeolla

 

      “These barbarous tribes practised polygamy, infanticide, burned the bodies of their dead, had their sacred springs, graves, and idols.”

 

      The above comment is by Church historian Philip Schaff, writing in the late 1800s, about “Wends and Germans” prior to them being Christianized in the late 1000s (Bolding added for emphasis). Notice that along with some practices we would agree are barbaric or pagan, he mentions burning the bodies of their dead. In other words, cremation.

      However, many Christians today do not consider cremation to be barbaric or pagan. They are even planning on having their own bodies cremated when they die. But is this a Biblical position? Does the Bible encourage believers to be buried, or does it allow for cremation? This article will explore these questions.

 

Reasons for Cremation

 

      The reasoning of many Christians today who are planning on being cremated is that come the resurrection, God can reconstitute their bodies from the ashes, even if they have been scattered to the wind. However, the closest the Bible comes to supporting this idea is when it mentions about bodies that were lost at sea being raised in Revelation 20:13a, “And the sea gave up the dead, the [ones] in it.”

      A second major reason many Christians support cremation is practical. Cremated remains do not take up near as much space as a buried body, and lots of land is being used for cemeteries. In fact, in some places, like New York City, bodies are being buried up to six deep, one on top of the other. I know that as my aunt/ godmother died recently, and she was buried in NYC.

      A similar situation exists throughout Europe. Since most of Europe had been Christian for at least the past millennia, bodies have been piling up, so they have been burying people several deep and/ or removing old coffins to make room for new ones.

      But the very fact that so much space has been devoted to cemeteries in Christianize Europe throughout all of those centuries shows that the Christian practice has traditionally been burial, not cremation. The reason this is the case is that burial is in more conjunction with the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead than cremation is.

      Yes, God can reconstitute a body no matter what happened to it at or after death. In fact, many Christians back during the Roman persecutions were burned at the stake or eaten alive by wild animals in the Roman arenas. But even then, the remaining Christians, when possible, would gather whatever remains were left and carefully bury them in the catacombs.

      Again, this burial of their dead is in demonstration of the Christian belief in the resurrection and in contradiction to the then prevailing practice of cremation. Simply put, at no time in Church history has it been the standard practice for Christians to cremate their dead.

 

The Faith of the Patriarchs

 

      But what does the Bible have to say on this matter? That is the important question to which we now turn. But since the Bible as so much to say on this subject, we will narrow the focus by just looking at faith of the patriarchs, the founders of the Israelite people and Jewish faith, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. All Scripture verses from my Analytical-Literal Translation of the Bible (ALT). Copyright 1999-2018 by Gary F. Zeolla (www.Zeolla.org). Bolding added for emphasis.

 

Abraham:

      The first mention in the Bible as to what is to be done with a dead body is when the LORD speaks to Abraham (then known as Abram) in a vision:

 

      12But about [the] setting of [the] sun [fig., sunset], a trance fell upon Abram. And look! A great gloomy terror falls upon him. 13And it was said to Abram, “Knowing, you will know [fig., You will surely know] that your seed will be a stranger in a land not their own, and they shall enslave them and afflict them and humble them four hundred years. [Acts 7:6] 14But the nation which they shall serve as slaves I will judge; but after this, they will come out here with much baggage [fig., many possessions]. [Acts 7:7] 15But you will depart to your fathers with peace, having been buried in a good old age. 16But in the fourth generation they will return here, for the sins of the Amorites are not yet filled up, [even] until now” (Gen 15:12-16).

 

      It should be noted that the LORD just assumes Abraham will be buried when he dies, not cremated. By that I mean, the LORD did have to issue a specific command to Abraham to have his body buried, as He knew it would be. The next mention is by way of Abraham’s actions when his wife Sarah dies:

 

      1Now became the life of Sarah a hundred, twenty-seven years. 2And Sarah died in the city of Arboc, which is in the valley, this is Hebron in [the] land of Canaan; so Abraham came to lament for Sarah and to mourn. 3And Abraham stood up from his dead; and he spoke to the sons of Chet, saying, 4I am a sojourner and a stranger among you. Give me therefore possession of a burial-place among you*, and I will bury my dead away from me.” 5But the sons of Chet answered to Abraham, saying, 6“No lord [Or, sir], but hear us; you are among us a king from God; bury your dead in our choice sepulchers, for not one of us will by any means withhold his sepulcher from you, so that you should not bury your dead there” (Gen 23:1-6).

 

      After this is extended bartering between Abraham and the sons of Chet over payment for the burial-place. Throughout the passage, the word “bury” is used seven times. At no point is it even hinted at that Abraham could have saved himself all of this hassle and need for a field if he burned Sarah’s body. In the end, Abraham buys the field (vv.7-18). Then we are told:

 

      19After this Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the Double Cave of the field, which is in front of Mambre, this is Hebron in the land of Canaan. 20So the field and the cave which was in it were confirmed to Abraham for possession of a burial place, by the sons of Chet (Gen 23:19-20).

 

      Later, Abraham himself dies. We are told in regard to his body:

 

      7Now these [were] the years of [the] days of [the] life of Abraham as many as he lived, one hundred, seventy-five years. 8And Abraham failing, died in a good old age, an elderly man and full of days, and he was added to his people. 9And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the double cave, in the field of Ephron the [son] of Saar the Hittite, which is in front of Mambre, 10the field and the cave which Abraham acquired from the sons of Chet. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. 11Now it happened after Abraham died, [that] God blessed Isaac his son, and Isaac dwelt by the well of the vision (Gen 25:7-10).

 

      Thus, Abraham was carefully buried by his wife Sarah. By why does hits matter? Couldn’t God have brought the two of them together at the resurrection no matter how far apart they were buried or if they had been cremated? Yes, He could have, but by burying them together, Abraham and his sons were demonstrating to the pagans of the land their belief in the future resurrection and that God would fulfill His promises to Abraham.

 

Isaac:

      Meanwhile, Abraham’s son Isaac had married Rebecca, then later the following happens:

 

      5And Israel departed from Secima, and [the] fear of God became upon the cities round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Israel. 6So Jacob came to Luz [LXX, Louza], which is in [the] land of Canaan, which is Bethel, he and all the people who were with him. 7And he built there an altar, and he called the name of the place Bethel; for there God appeared to him, in his fleeing from [the] face of his brother Esau. 8And Deborah [LXX, Debborha], the nurse of Rebecca, died, and [was buried] below Bethel under the oak; and Jacob called its name, Oak of Mourning (Gen 35:5-8).

 

      For some reason, the Greek Septuagint my translation of the Bible is based upon omits the words “was buried,” but the words are clearly implied by the next phrase (hence the words being placed in brackets in the ALT), and they appear in the Hebrew text. But the point is, it was not just Abraham’s family members that were buried but even their bondservants were buried.

      The narrative in Genesis later turns to Abraham’s grandson Jacob (later renamed Israel). He marries Rachel and her sister Leah then their bondservants, and he has twelve sons and one daughter through the four of them. As Jacob and his now large family are traveling from Bethel back to Canaan, we are told about Rachel:

     

      Then it happened when he came near to Chabratha to enter into [the] land of Ephratha, Rachel gave birth, and she was in travail in the delivery. 17Now it happened in her difficulty giving birth, the midwife said to her, “Be being of good courage, for also this son is to you” [fig., you will also have this son”].

      18Now it happened in her giving up her soul {for she was dying}, [that] she called his name, The Son of my Pain [Heb., Ben-Oni], but his father called his name Benjamin [“son of my right hand”]. 19So Rachel died and was buried in the way to Ephratha, this is Bethlehem [LXX, Bethleem]. 20And Jacob set up a pillar on her tomb; this is [the] pillar on [the] tomb of Rachel, until today day [fig., this day] (Gen 35:1b-20).

 

      Given they were in the midst of a long trek, this had to be a makeshift burial, so Rachel was not able to be buried in the family burial-place. And given the situation, it would have been far easier for Jacob to have burned his beloved wife and scattered her ashes to the wind, as many Christians today say they want done with their remains. But even with being in such a difficult situation, Jacob still makes sure that Rachel’s body is carefully buried with a memorial stone to mark her grave.

 

      27Then Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mambre, to a city of the plain; this is Hebron [LXX, Chebron] in [the] land of Canaan, where Abraham and Isaac lived as strangers. 28Now became the days of Isaac which he lived were one hundred, eighty years. 29And he having come to an end, died, and was added to his family, old and full of days. And Esau and Jacob his sons buried him (Gen 35:27-29).

     

      Abraham’s son Isaac now dies, and his sons bury him though the location is not stated.

 

      28All these [are the] twelve sons of Jacob; and their father spoke these [words] to them, and he blessed them; he blessed each of them according to his blessing. 29And he said to them, “I am being added to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave, which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30in the double cave in front of Mambre, in the land of Canaan, the cave which Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite, for a possession of a sepulcher. 31There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife; there I buried Leah; 32in [the] acquisition of the field, and of the cave, the one being in it, [purchased] of the sons of Chet.” 33And Jacob ceased commanding his sons; and having lifted up his feet on the bed, he died and was added to his people (Gen 49:28-33).

 

      10And they came to [the] threshing-floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan [River]; and they lamented him with a great and exceedingly severe lamentation; and he made the mourning for his father seven days. 11And the settlers of the land of Canaan saw the mourning at the threshing-floor of Atad, and said, “This is a great mourning to the Egyptians. Because of this he called its name, Mourning of Egypt, which is beyond Jordan. 12And thus his sons did to him, and they buried him there. 13And his sons carried him up into [the] land of Canaan, and buried him in the Double Cave, which cave Abraham bought for possession of a burying place, from Ephrom the Hittite, before Mambre. 14And Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers, and the ones having gone up with him to bury his father (Gen 50:10-14).

 

Jacob:

      When Jacob knows he is about to die, he tells his son beloved Joseph to bury him with his father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and his wife Leah. The death of Leah is not recorded in Genesis, but apparently, she had died before Jacob, and he had her buried in the family burial-place.

      But why was Jacob concerned about where he was to be buried? What difference does it make? He is dead; just an empty shell. He will see his family again in the resurrection no matter where he and they are buried. For that matter, why not just cremate the whole lot of them and scatter their ashes to the wind? God could reconstitute all of the atoms later and bring the family back together again. So what difference does it make?

      The answer is, it makes a huge difference. By being buried with his family, it is a testimony to the pagans in the land that this is not the end of him and his family. It demonstrates his belief in resurrection and that personal relationships do not end here in this life but continue in the afterlife.

      When Jacob dies, Joseph and his brothers obey his request and make the trek from Egypt to Canaan to bury him in his requested burial place. That was a long trip that to the “cremate me” crowd would have just been a waste of time. But his family did not think so, so they fulfill his wishes.

 

Joseph:

      We now come to the time for Joseph to die:

 

      24And Joseph spoke to his brothers, saying, I am dying, and God will visit you* a visitation [fig., will surely visit you*] and will bring you* out of this land to the land which God swore an oath to our fathers, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” 25And Joseph adjured the sons of Israel, saying, “At the visitation with which God will visit you*, then you* will carry up my bones from here with you*. [see Exod 13:19; Heb 11:22] 26And Joseph died, a hundred, ten years, and they buried him [fig., prepared his corpse] and put [him] in a coffin in Egypt (Gen 50:24-26).

 

      The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph. He is buried in Egypt. But the LORD had promised that He would bring up the Israelites out of the land of Egypt into the Promised Land. In trust of this promise, Joseph asks his sons to make plans to take up his bones out of Egypt with them when God in fact delivers them.

      But why? What difference does it make where he is buried? Why not cremate him and scatter his ashes to the wind? The answer? It makes a great difference, as his bones being brought up will be an object lesson to his descendants that the LORD has fulfilled His promise:

     

      17Now when Pharaoh sent out the people, God led them not [by the] way of [the] land of [the] Philistines [LXX, Phylistines], because it was near; for God said, “Lest the people repent [or, change their minds] when they see war, and return to Egypt.” 18And God led the people round [by the] way to the wilderness, to the Red Sea; and in the fifth generation the sons [and daughters] of Israel went up out of [the] land of Egypt.

      19And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for with an oath, Joseph adjured the sons [and daughters] of Israel, saying, “The LORD with a visitation will visit [fig., will surely visit] you*, and you* shall carry up my bones from here with you.*” [see Gen 50:24,25] (Exod 13:17-19).

 

      This scene is after the famous Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt. They leave hastily, but not without first securing the bones of Joseph in fulfillment of his request made four centuries earlier. But again, why? They are in a rush, being pursued by the Egyptian army. Why take the time to secure Joseph’s bones and take them with them? What difference does it make what happens to these old bones, now all decayed?

      It makes a huge difference, as it another testament to the Egyptians on top of all of the plagues they have experienced of the power of the LORD and His ability to fulfill His promises:

 

      31And Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders, as many as survived [from the] time after Joshua [i.e., who outlived Joshua], and as many as saw all the works of the LORD, as many as He did for Israel. 32And the sons [and daughters] of Israel [had] brought up the bones of Joseph out of Egypt, and buried [them] in Shechem [LXX, Sicima], in the portion of the field which Jacob bought from the Amorites dwelling in Shechem for a hundred female-lambs; and he gave it to Joseph for a portion. [see Gen 50:24,25; Exod 13:19] (Joshua 24:31-32).

 

      We have here the final fulfillment of Joseph’s request to be buried in the Promised Land with his family. This final act demonstrates the faith of Joseph not just in the promise of a deliverance for his descendants but in the promise of a future resurrection. And when that occurs, he wants to be raised with his people in the Promised Land.

      Yes, if his bones had been left in Egypt, he would still be resurrected and reunited with his family and his now many descendants. But his bones being carried up and buried in the Promised Land demonstrates that belief to an unbelieving world.

 

Conclusion

 

      All of the patriarchs of old had a faith in the LORD that was demonstrated in how their remains were taken care of, and the one consistent theme throughout them is their desire to be buried, ideally with their families, as a testament of faith in the LORD and His promises. Cremation would be a negation of such a faith and of the promises of God.

      This faith of the patriarchs is praised by the Writer to the Hebrews as an example for us to follow:

 

            8By faith Abraham responded [or, obeyed], having been called to go out into the place which he was about to be receiving for an inheritance, and he went out not knowing where he [was] going. [see Gen 12:1-7] 9By faith he lived as a stranger in [the] land of the promise, as a foreigner, having lived in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the joint-heirs of the same promise. [see Gen 12:8; 13:3] 10For he was looking forward to the city having the foundations, whose Craftsman and Builder [is] God. [cp. Rev 21:10; Heb 13:14]…

            13All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them from a distance and having anticipated [them] and having confessed that they are strangers and sojourners on the earth. 14For the ones saying such [things] make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15And if indeed they had been remembering that [land] from which they went out, they might have had an opportunity to return. 16But now they long for a better, that is, a heavenly [land]. For this reason, God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God, for He prepared a city for them.

            17By faith Abraham, being tested, had offered up Isaac, the one having received the promises was offering up his only-begotten [or, unique] [son], 18in regard to whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed will be called [fig, your descendants will come through Isaac],” [Gen 21:12] 19having taken into account that God [was] able to raise [him] up even from [the] dead, from where he indeed received [him] back in a parable [fig., figurative sense]. [see Gen 22:1-12].

            20By faith concerning coming [things], Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. [see Gen 27:27-40] 21By faith Jacob, [when he was] dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and prostrated [or, bowed] himself in worship, [leaning] on the top of his staff. [see Gen 47:31, LXX; Gen 48:1-22] 22By faith Joseph, coming to the end [of his life], made mention of the departure [Gr., exodus] of the sons [and daughters] of Israel and gave orders concerning his bones. [see Gen 50:24,25]

 (Hebrews 11:8-10,13-22).

 

Postscript: A Possible Compromise

 

      I discussed this article with my dad before it was published. He is a lifelong Catholic. He told me the position of the Catholic Church is that Catholics can be cremated, but their ashes cannot be scattered. They must be kept together in a container in one place.

      That might be a possible compromise for the person who cannot get past the idea of land being “wasted” by burials. And it would have some precedent from Biblical times.

      As mentioned, Joseph directed for his “bones” to be taken up when the LORD delivered his descendants. Joseph did not say his “body.” That is because he knew it would be a long time before their deliverance, and his body would have long decayed, but his bones would not have.

      That fact was used by Jews at the time of Jesus. When Jews died, their whole bodies would be entombed. But a year later, after the flesh had decayed, the bones would be exhumed and placed in an ossuary (bone box). That ossuary would then be buried or placed in a mausoleum. But the important point is, the bones were carefully kept together and separate from the bones of others, though the ossuaries of a family were often entombed together.

      Such an ossuary is far smaller than a coffin, so less space would be taken up by it. An urn for ashes would be smaller still. And if a person’s ashes were all carefully placed in an urn and that urn placed where it would not be disturbed, then that might fulfill the spirit of the Biblical practice.

      But note that I said “might.” Allowing a body to decay is just letting nature take its course, while cremation is not at all natural. And the bones of a person are easily identifiable as being human, while human ashes are not, short of a chemical analysis.

      Maybe we should return to the Jewish practice of using ossuaries, but that practice is not common anymore. That is probably because it entails exhuming the remains of loved ones a year after their deaths. And that could be quite traumatic for the survivors.

 

Bibliography:

      All Scripture verses from Analytical-Literal Translation of the Bible (ALT). Copyright 1999-2018 by Gary F. Zeolla (www.Zeolla.org). Bolding added for emphasis.

      Schaff, Philip. History of The Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes in One) (Kindle Location 52327). General details on the traditional Christian practice of burial are also taken from this series of books.

 

 

Christian Burial Versus Barbaric Cremation. Copyright 2018 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).

The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light newsletter.
It was posted on this website September 1, 2018.

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