A Biblical Theology of Burial
Recently, I have had an extraordinarily high number of people ask me what the Scriptures teach about burial versus cremation. Not being the sharpest tool in the shed, I did not put together that this is most likely on account of the economy. Yesterday, I happened to be speaking with the owner of a funeral home who said, "People just aren't dying like they used to." Immediately thinking, "He can't mean that people aren't dying at the same rate as they used to, " I thought, "he must mean that they are opting for cremation over burial for economical purposes." This was precisely what he was suggesting. In fact, he told me that there are even cremation services that are advertising on television now. You can get a $999.99 special at one such place in the area. So, the question remains: What, if anything does the Scripture say about burial? The answer might surprise you.
The earliest account we have of burial has to do with Abraham and his immediate family. Having given Abraham promises of blessing and inheritance--which were all dependent on the coming of the Redeemer--the Scriptures reveal to us that all of God's dealings with Abraham have--in some sense or another--to do with the prospect of redemption. God promised Abraham land, but--contrary to the opinions of many--this was a promise of the inheritance of the New Heavens and the New Earth that believers get in union with Christ. Abraham actually never inherited any of the land. He did, however, become heir of all things in Christ. The promise, the Apostle Paul tells us, was that Abraham and all his spiritual offspring would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13) through the righteousness of faith.
The Genesis narrative helps us understand that the promise was not ultimately about the land of Israel, since Abraham never inherited any part of the land of Israel except for a burial place that he bought for himself, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah (Gen. 23; Gen. 49:31). The purchase of the burial place was actually an act of faith. Abraham was hoping for the bodily resurrection that God promised. S.G. Degraaf captures the theological significance so well when he notes:
It should be noted that from the very beginning of Genesis 23, Abraham speaks of "my dead," and the Hittites likewise speak of "your dead." Abraham clings to Sarah in faith even after she has died, just as we cling to our dead in Christ. Moreover, he loves her earthly appearance and wants to see it restored. That's why he seeks a burial place for her in the inhabited world and does not bury her somewhere out in the fields. For believers, the grave is a symbol not only of humiliation and downfall but also of the part they play in history here on earth and even of their ultimate glorification along with the earth. Because he believed in the resurrection of the dead, Abraham buried Sarah. For him her grave was a guarantee that his seed would inherit the land and possess it forever. One day Sarah and her children would be glorified there. Still, the path to that everlasting inheritance passes through death. For Abraham there was no avoiding this part of the journey, this dying to everything in order to receive everything. The path all believers have to travel (including Abraham and Sarah) is the path Christ faced, for He passed through death to gain His everlasting inheritance.1
The hope of the resurrection is further highlighted in Joseph telling his brethren to take his bones up from Egypt to the promised land when they entered in 400 some years later (Gen. 50:25 and Heb. 11:22). What good would it do Joseph's bones to be in the promised land if he was dead? Joseph was teaching the Israelites that there was a greater promised land, and that one day he would be raised up--body and soul--to inherit the New Heavens and the New Earth. This is also what the writer of Hebrews tells us was true of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob before him:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God...These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Heb. 11:8-16).
Burial as an act of faith is also seen in the Jewish burial acts recorded in the Gospels. Perhaps the most instructive--apart from that of our Lord's-- is that of Lazarus. When Jesus came to Mary and Martha about the death of their brother, He said to them, "Your brother will rise again." Mary and Martha responded by saying, "Lord, we know that he will rise on the last day." Jesus then corrected their misunderstanding about who He was by saying, "I am the resurrection and the life." The point, however, is that Mary and Martha embalmed their brother and gave him a proper burial in hope of the resurrection on the last day.
The most significant of all burials in the Scriptures is that of our Lord Himself. The Spirit of Christ through the Psalmist had prophesied that His body would not see corruption (Ps. 16:10-11; Acts 2:22-39). This is because Jesus was uniquely the Holy One of God. When the apostle John tells us that Nicodemus brought 75 to 100 pounds of costly spices, it was to intimate that God was preserving the body of Jesus for His resurrection. Additionally, the prophet Isaiah had prophesied that Jesus would be buried with the rich in His death because He had done no wrong, nor was there any deceit in His mouth (Is. 53:9). If it had not been so, then Jesus would have been thrown on a trash heap, with those wicked men with whom He had been crucified. His body would then have been burned. Burning a body was a sign of disrespect and judgment. In the Old Testament, God often sent judgment on wicked men and women by having them burned (Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 11:1; Num. 16:35; Deut. 32:21-24; Ps. 21:9; etc.). Jesus was the Holy One and so His body was given a respectful burial.
The burial of Jesus also teaches us that our sins were put away from the presence of God. We, like Him, have died, been buried and risen spiritually. The burial of Jesus is one of the often overlooked redemptive-historical elements of our salvation. Our sins were representatively put away from the presence of God in burial. This secures for us the hope of the physical resurrection on the last day. We must not miss the solidarity that we have with our Lord by virtue of our union with Him.
It is fitting that the we are told of the first New Covenant martyr for Christ that "devout men carried Stephen to his burial and they made a great lamentation over him" (Acts 8:2). This shows us that burial is not simply a redemptive-historical act in the Old Testament, but something that New Covenant saints practiced as well. The language of the New Testament is that the saints are "asleep in Jesus." This does not mean that they are not dead; nor does it mean that they are in some kind of soul-sleep. Rather, it is a phrase that teaches that death for the believer is as if her or she were merely asleep and that Jesus will raise them up again. Burial shows this hope to the watching world.
Throughout church history there are multitudes of examples of saints who have viewed burial as an act of faith. Whether it is in what is written on a gravestone, or even where saints chose to be buried. One of the greatest examples of this is seen in the tombstones of Samuel Rutherford and Thomas Halyburton. The two great Scottish theologians of the 17th Century are buried next to one another in a graveyard in St. Andrews, Scotland. As the years have progressed, the two tombstones are almost touching one another at the base. Some have spiritualized this and said that it is as if the two are holding hands awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus from heaven.
In short, a burial of the body of a believer is, in the truest sense, the last great act of faith that a believer may exhibit with his or her life. Whatever one may say about burial verse cremation, this much we can be certain of, burial is a distinctively Christian practice. Many churches have had their own graveyards throughout the New Covenant era. The purpose of these graveyards served was that of a memorial. It was a tangible expression that the saints buried there had spent their lives in the service of Christ--and now awaited the resurrection. For a fine exposition of this, listen to Derek Thomas' sermon at the installation of Sinclair Ferguson at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC. The bones of these believers were planted in the ground, as it were, to await the resurrection from the dead. While, the Scriptures do not say that cremation is sinful in and of itself, there is ample reason for us to love and act upon the example of Scripture as an act of faith. May God give us grace to learn from the saints who have gone before us.
1. S. G. DeGraaf Promise and Deliverance vol. 1 pp. 142-143
*This first appeared at The Christward Collective.