I’ve always been impressed by the different, detailed burying practices in the Bible.
- Abraham insisted on paying for a cave in the field of Machpelah, Hebron, for the purpose of burying his wife, Sarah. (Genesis 23:1-20) Abraham was later buried there, too. (Genesis 25:8-10)
- Isaac was buried by his sons in the cave of Machpelah. (Genesis 35:29; 49:31)
- Jacob passed away in Egypt, was mummified—a forty-day process—and carried back to Canaan for burial. A great cortege from Pharaoh’s house traveled with Joseph to bury his father. (Genesis 50:1-7)
- Joseph died . . . and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:26). Many years later, the Israelites buried Joseph’s body—which they had taken out of Egypt in the exodus—in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph (Joshua 24:32b).
- Moses died in Moab, and God buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day (Deuteronomy 25:6).
- Samuel died; and all the Israelites were gathered together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house at Ramah (1 Samuel 25:1a).
- David was buried in the city of David (1 Kings 2:10). Solomon and many other kings of Israel were also buried in the city of David.
- Jesus’ body was wound with linen and spices and placed in a new tomb, near Calvary. (John 19:38-42)
With all the obvious care taken in Bible burials, many Christians have buried an intact corpse in a crypt or in the ground.
When we moved to Spain, I was surprised by the customs in this region. Here, there isn’t much land space available for cemeteries, so they build concrete “apartment buildings” of niches. The casket slides into an open niche, which is sealed by a brick mason. Most of these niches are above ground, like drawers in very large dressers. A very few wealthy people own their own pantheons, which are basically the same thing, only in a family unit with a roof, like a small house.
The deceased person only occupies the drawer for a limited amount of time, usually around ten years. Then, the remains are taken out, dumped into a pit of calcium, and dissolved. The family is notified when this will happen and may choose to be present or not. So, even if the body was “buried,” it’s only there for a relatively short time, and then the casket and remains are destroyed.
I first became interested in this subject years ago, when acquaintances chose to cremate the body of a loved one for easy repatriation back to their home country. To move a corpse would have cost many thousands of dollars, while transporting an urn was cheaper and much simpler.
Around that time, I read a fascinating set of articles, including the one you can access here.
Later, as I was reading my Bible through, I came across this passage: All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days (1 Samuel 31:12). It left me scratching my head. Why did these brave men burn King Saul’s and the princes’ bodies instead of burying them? These valiant men risked their lives to go and get their bodies. They honored them. So, why did they cremate their bodies? Continuing the reading of this passage, nothing in the biblical context indicates that they were wrong to do so. (They did later bury their bones.)
Since my first interest in this burial versus cremation issue, I’ve known several people who passed away and were cremated for different reasons, lack of finances being the main reason. So, I did some research to see the difference: A normal Basque region funeral, including same-day burial (no embalming, here), casket, and niche will run into the thousands of euros—usually around 5,000. Cremation costs between 150-300 euros. The urns can be inexpensive or very costly, depending on materials. Again, here, the remains are only in the niche (or ground) for a few years, and then they’re cleaned out and disposed of. (Is it any wonder that cremation is growing in popularity?)
In different areas of the world, because of space issues, predominant religions, and other cultural traditions, the dead are treated in different ways. (Thanks, missionary friends, for your help!)
- In Japan—Space is at a premium. Cremation is mandatory with very few exceptions. I understand that a Christian group owns a burial plot for its people. The emperor, for example, wouldn’t be cremated.
- Where Hinduism is the prominent religion—Almost everyone is cremated and their ashes sprinkled into a river. Sometimes, they will bury a child’s body, but not always. There are a few Christian cemeteries.
- Jewish traditional burial—A simple, unfinished wooden box with holes drilled in the bottom to speed decomposition. Underground burial.
- Muslim burials are done within twenty-four hours and follow a washing and shrouding ritual. There is no casket, and the shrouded body is buried in the earth. Muslims do not admit cremation, but they do allow for sea burials.
Which brings us back to our question: Is there a biblically prescribed “right way” to deal with a corpse? Let’s go to the Bible and see exactly what it teaches.
- Is there biblical precedent for burial in a cave/niche? Yes.
- Is there biblical precedent for burial in the ground? Yes.
- Is there biblical precedent for mummification/embalming? Yes.
- Is there biblical precedent for cremation? Yes.
- Were true believers’ bodies treated in all four of these ways? Yes.
- Is there a biblical command to put a person’s body away in a specified manner? No.
My conclusion? After delving into this subject, I believe we have Christian liberty to decide for ourselves.
- What is your personal preference?
- Where do you live—culture, religion, customs—and how does that factor into your decision?
- Consider your family. Are they opposed to cremation?
- Is cost an important consideration?
As born again Christians, we have the blessed hope of a resurrected body. God can do that with no trouble at all. I don’t pretend to understand how, but He can find cells, ashes, persons buried at sea, and whatever He has to do. Nothing is too hard for Him!
But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you,
he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken (bring to life)
your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you (Romans 8:11).
So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption;
it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; 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. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. . . .
Death is swallowed up in victory. (1 Corinthians 15:42-45, 54b)
Death is swallowed up in victory. Praise God!