There is no sin in cremation, that is for sure. And there is no inability on God’s part to raise a cremated body from the dead. But is cremation, a practice most often seen in Eastern religions, the best for the believer in Christ?
It is clarifying to note that burial was God’s preferred method of disposing of the body of Moses. God had the power to cremate Moses’ body on the spot, but rather, this gentle and loving phrase is found: “[God] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deut. 34:6). This fact alone is enough for me. If God chose this method Himself, then it certainly should be my preference also.
We must add, for a second reason, that burial underground (or in tombs) was the ordained method for the patriarchs, for God’s chosen people, and for New Testament believers. There are numerous references to this, from Abraham’s burial in the cave of Machpelah to Lazarus’ entombment in a crypt. The bodies of these saints were kept, as much as possible, in their original state, awaiting the resurrection of the body.
For a third reason, consider the death of Christ Himself. He is our example in everything. Christ was in charge of His death. As He said, “No one has taken [my life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative” (John 10:18). Certainly His burial was no accident either. The dramatic events God ordained to take place included the tomb as an essential ingredient. It accentuated His resurrection.
A fourth part of the rationale has to do with the place the body plays in our theology. Christianity is the most materialistic of the religions in this respect. That is, it gives an importance to the body and to all things tangible that other religions do not. For Hindus, the body is evil. This is why you find some Hindus practicing religious ritual abuse of their bodies or meditating for long periods in an attempt to escape their bodies. I’ve seen the burning of Indian bodies on a funeral pyre. There is no glory to God in it. But Christianity sees the body as useful, rather than evil. It can do much good, if a believer is controlled by the Spirit. It is so valued by God that the very body we are living in will be raised up one day, made new for eternity. For this reason, we symbolize the importance of the body by burying it with love.
Fifth, the burial of Christians was designed by God as the basis for our understanding of baptism. Though baptism does not save, it does picture our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (cf. Rom. 6:3-4). Such a powerful picture as baptism is dependent for its meaning on the burial of Christ and of believers.
Finally, we should bury because the grave is such a potent reminder of the future resurrection. I recently stood beside the graves of some famous authors in New Hampshire. Staring at their burial site reminded me again of the future bodily resurrection of both believers and non-believers, some to a resurrection of life and the others to a resurrection of judgment (cf. John 5:28-29).
As family and friends look at my grave one day, I am hopeful that it will keep on preaching the gospel. I want my family to spare no expense to put a clear message on that stone. But mostly I want that stone to remind people of a coming new day, which those in Christ should find most exhilarating. I’ve tried to say something in my life; I want to say something in death as well. And I hope that what is said will make clear what is ahead.
Not long ago I stood by the grave of my mother. It is hard to imagine a more selfless and sincere believer. On her stone were these simple words, taken from a hymn she would sing to herself day after day: “Jesus is all the world to me.” It’s a powerful message that reminds me to put Christ first in everything. I rejoiced that she will be “raised imperishable,” body, soul and spirit, at the resurrection of the righteous (1 Corinthians 15:52).
I realize that some will die at sea and others will be blown apart by bombs during war. But if at all possible, I recommend that you honor your dead loved ones by burial, keeping the body unchanged as much as you can. There will be change enough at the resurrection of the dead.