Cremation or burial? It’s a question many of you have asked us to address, and of course, every one of us and every family will face this question at some point. For some Christians who live in a densely populated area where cemetery space is scarce, financial factors can weigh heavily on the decision. In Japan, for example, over 99.9 percent of people are cremated. Cities like Tokyo have ordinances requiring it. But taking away the financial factors and all things being equal, from a biblical perspective, what’s a better choice: cremation or burial? It’s an interesting question addressed by Pastor John a few years ago in a Q&A context. Here’s what he said:
Does it matter whether we are cremated or buried? Not ultimately, but I don’t ever counsel people toward cremation. An older couple had me over a few weeks ago. He is pushing ninety, and she is close behind. The son who was there said, “The reason I wanted you to come is to tell my dad what you think about cremation and burial.” So this is a real situation because they are years or months away from this. The son had heard me talk about it, and he wants to bury his dad. And the dad is thinking he wants something quick and efficient — to get it done. He wanted to do it more cheaply. Well, it may not be cheaper.
Burial as Belief
Here is the essence of what I said: The biblical pattern is that burning your children is pagan, and burying your loved ones is a sign that you believe in the resurrection. I am going to encourage people toward burial because of what it says about the body: The body is precious, and it is going to be raised from the dead.
I know it decomposes. I know it is no more there in one hundred years than if you burned it — I know that. We are talking symbolic significance of a body stretched out there in a coffin, looked at, and lovingly kissed and buried, rather than the horrible prospect of my wife or my child or my dad being burned — incinerated. I would have to do a major mental escape in order to keep from feeling like that is so out of sync with what the body means to God. He created it. He is going to resurrect it.
There is going to be continuity between what you were and what you are so you can recognize each other. And you don’t want to symbolically destroy the body. You want to symbolically put it to rest, because that is the language of the Bible. When you are dead, you are sleeping, right? He will awaken those who sleep (see 1 Thessalonians 4:14). “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).
The picture in the New Testament is the dead are asleep. They are going to be raised from the dead, and they are alive to God (see 1 Thessalonians 4:16). I have probably overstated my case now and made all the people who ever cremated feel terribly guilty. But it is not ultimately an issue of mattering. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Cremation is simply not a custom the New Testament would naturally lead us to.