Author’s Note: For some, this article will not be an easy read. Some readers may take offense, perhaps because of decisions that have already been made. But whatever your view on cremation, know that the Lord is gracious, and he is able to raise the dead. There is not one believer in Jesus Christ (lost at sea, burned at the stake, cremated, or buried) who will not receive the full reward of the resurrection. Jesus will save all His own, and take them home, body and soul, forever.
The human body is fascinating, beautiful, and complex. God made it so. He fashioned the first human body, beginning with a lifeless form of dust—and breathed into that body the breath of life. It was very good.
Before God made Adam and Eve he said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Thomas Boston described man as so created “a stately building; man carved like a fair palace.” And how could man not be such, when the Architect, Builder and pattern was the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God? Herman Bavinck reminded the church that the imago dei is not simply a matter of some attributes, or one single part of man—but that the “whole human being is the image and likeness of God, in soul and body”—the “human body belongs integrally to the image of God.”
God purposed to dwell within this temple: “Do not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” These are mind-bending truths—you are body and soul the image of God, and your body was fashioned by the Creator for the purpose of being a temple in which His glory would dwell. To His disciples Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”
Herein lies the dignity of the human body—not according to the world’s commodification of beauty—but in the reality and implications of the image of God, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God made you, male or female, after His image. John Calvin wrote “the human race is like God’s lineage.” You are a masterpiece of divine creative genius, made in God’s likeness.
But we go higher yet when we consider the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is the “express image of [God’s] person.” Jesus is the pinnacle of Christian theology concerning the human body. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” The world was placed in subjection to the Man, God in the flesh, who was “crowned with glory and honor.”
The human body is sacred—this principle underlies our very good laws prohibiting defacing the image of God, both those concerning murder and the desecration (to divest of sacred character) of corpses.
So if you know even a little about cremation—the incineration of human flesh and the grinding of human bones—you should realize that it is desecration.
The Bible speaks to us clearly concerning Christian burial. When God blessed Abraham He said: “As for you…you shall be buried.” Abraham, in the first funeral recorded in the Scriptures, went to extensive and expensive lengths to bury Sarah in the land of promise, with the hope of receiving that promise. Our promises are better: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
And Abraham was buried. Rachel was buried on the way to Bethlehem; Jacob set up a pillar on her tomb. Isaac was buried. Joseph buried Jacob; Joseph later arranged to be (re)buried in the Promised Land, and Israel took his bones on the Exodus journey. Miriam died and was buried. Aaron died and was buried. Joshua, Gideon, Ruth, Samuel, Saul and David died and were buried. Solomon died and was buried. There was “something pleasing to the Lord, the God of Israel” in the rebel Jeroboam’s dying son, and the sign of God’s pleasure was that the boy would be buried—not like the rest of his family who were cursed, and so not buried.
True—Elijah breaks the pattern. He wasn’t buried, and for fairly obvious reasons. Elisha was died and was buried—and his bones retained their prophetic power. This makes me think of the exquisite beauty of a little phrase in the Westminster Short Catechism—that the bodies of believers “being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection?”
Bodies still united to Christ? Do we believe this?
When Moses died, just short of the Promised Land, he was alone. Ah—no people, no burial? Not so fast—the Word records what happened next: “And [the LORD] buried him.” The Son of God battled Satan in order to gently bury His face-to-face friend, the insufficient mediator, with the intention of raising him up at the last day by the power of His own perfect mediation. Paul writes, “Be imitators of God, as dear children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us.”
When the One greater than Moses died, He was buried. He was buried by friends who loved him, and who were willing to die to bury him; if they had died, they would have been buried. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus “came and took the body of Jesus.” They laid His body gently in the tomb, after having “bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as was the custom of the Jews to bury.” “The women observed the tomb and how His body was laid. And they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils.” And Paul writes concerning our union with Christ, “we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” “We were cremated with Him through baptism into death” doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? And what if Joseph and Nicodemus had cremated Christ—because it doesn’t really matter, does it?
The Bible commends burial to us, not cremation. When God pronounced curses on Israel, He said: “They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried. They shall be as dung on the surface of the ground.” Amos condemned the bone-burners of Moab; Calvin remarked “to dig up the bodies of enemies, and to burn their bones, this is an inhuman deed, and wholly barbarous.” Ahaz, a wicked man, passed his children through the fire. The fiery furnace was destruction, so the fires of Sodom, and so will be the final judgment. The early church didn’t miss the cues, and was marked by her care for the dead, so much so that burning of the dead was replaced by Christian burial. Like father Abraham, they believed in the resurrection from the dead, and they believed in the Promised Land.
My father died nine years ago. I was home in South Carolina, and my mother called before Monday’s sunrise with the news that the Lord had taken him. We knew death was near—Lou Gehrig’s disease marches on. Just weeks earlier we had talked face-to-face about God and heaven, and about Christ and the resurrection; my children sat quietly at his feet as he whispered encouragements to follow Christ.
A day’s drive later we arrived in Ontario, and went through the customary motions of the bereaved—the wake, the funeral service, and the interment at Elmdale Memorial Park. There are a few moments that I remember vividly. I remember reaching to touch his hands, which stirred a deeper memory of a little boy held close, pressed into his father’s rough wool sweater. I remember my children weeping quietly in the funeral service, and my hands holding them close. I remember the officer standing at attention as the procession rounded the corner at Wilson and Elm. And I remember the honor, shared with my brothers, of the old tradition of carrying my father’s body to its resting place.
My father died, and was buried. We recited the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . He was crucified, died, and was buried, on the third day He rose again from the dead . . . I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” And I still think about the words of Jesus: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”
So for Jesus, so for every Christian.
For millennia we Christians have gently buried our dead. Let us keep the faith, eyes fixed on Jesus, who died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day. Let us bury those who sleep in Jesus, laying each Christian body to peaceful rest, in their graves, until the resurrection.
There are times—more often than we care to admit—when prevailing culture influences the beliefs and practices of the church in ways that are not pleasing to God. Sometimes we need to change our ways; I think this is such a time. Perhaps a simple way the body of Christ can repent is to help needy families pay for Christian burials.
My hope is that the church would reconsider her practices and be known again, as the church in past ages, as the people who refuse to desecrate the body, but instead gently care for the dead. We’re more than simply pro-life during life—we need to hold fast to the full dignity of the human body, made in the image of God, from womb to grave.
This is part of living the gospel together, and letting some of its hopeful light shine in a dark and hopeless world.
Peter Van Doodewaard is the pastor of Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Greenville, South Carolina.
"A Biblical Theology of Burial" by Nick Batzig
"What Should Christians Think about Cremation?" by Rick Phillips
"On Burials and Bargains" by Aaron Denlinger
"Was Jesus Still God in the Tomb?" by David Murray
14 Words From Jesus by James Boice and Philip Ryken
 Gen. 2:7
 Gen. 1:31
 Thomas Boston, Human Nature In It’s Fourfold State (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 55.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 1:561.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:559.
 I Cor. 6:19-20
 Mt. 5:14
 John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis, trans. Rob Roy MacGregor (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 93.
 Heb. 1:3
 John 1:14
 Ps. 8.5, Heb. 2:7
 Such laws have a long pedigree in the Christendom. Charlemagne instituted the death penalty for cremation in 789, which seems noteworthy.
 Gen. 15:15
 Gen. 23
 Mt. 5:5
 Gen. 25
 Gen. 35:19-20
 Gen. 35:28-29
 Gen. 50:1-14
 Gen. 50:25, Ex. 13:19, Josh. 24:32
 Num. 20:1
 I Kings 14:11-13
 II Kings 13:21
 Deut. 24:6
 Eph. 5:1
 Jn. 19:38-42
 Jn. 19:40
 Lk. 23:55
 Rom. 6:4
 Jer. 16:4
 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2003), 14:172.