In this passage, Paul uses the analogy of a seed: “When you sow,” he writes, “you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body” (1 Corinthians 15:37–38).
The fact that seeds are planted in the ground and then are resurrected to give life was one reason the early church buried their dead. They rejected the custom of cremation that was practiced in their culture, believing that Jesus’ followers should adopt the model of His death, burial, and resurrection for themselves.
I approach this issue with caution, for I know many Christians who have chosen to be cremated rather than buried. Indeed, there are good arguments for cremation: We are running out of burial space; eventually, the buried body disintegrates anyway; cremation is cheaper, thus saving funds that could be used for better purposes. Certainly cremation seems to be wise in some instances where there is danger of the spread of disease and where burial options are impossible because of the location of the body, or the manner in which death occurred. On the fateful terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many hundreds of bodies were cremated without the consent of the victims or relatives.
That said, I believe that burial for the Christian is preferable to cremation. I do not believe that cremation is a sin, since the Scriptures do not forbid the practice, but there were reasons that both the Hebrews of the Old Testament and the Christians of the New Testament buried their dead.
First, the early Christians followed the example of Jesus and the saints in Jerusalem, such as Stephen, Ananias, and Sapphira, who were buried, not cremated. The Christians in Rome took the bodies of St. Justin and his companions and “buried them in a fitting place.” This did not mean that the early Christians assumed that the resurrection was dependent on the preservation of the body, but burial was symbolic of the resurrection.
Second, the Christians believed that burial better expressed the sanctity of the body. Since our bodies are created by God and through faith become the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19–20), it was thought inappropriate to have the body destroyed by fire. The body was created from the dust, and the best way for it to return to dust was through the decomposition that sets in through burial. Fire in Scripture is often associated with God’s judgment, not His blessing.
Third, we’ve already spoken of Paul’s imagery that the body is like a seed sown in the ground. Like an acorn that will eventually be an oak tree, so the body is sown in the ground to arise in a new form. This metaphor, along with the New Testament’s reference to the dead as “sleeping,” is best depicted by burial, not cremation.
Interestingly, many non-Christian countries practice cremation, not merely for lack of burial space but because burning the body symbolizes the pagan notion that the body is to return to the unity of nature, or the great “One.” In contrast, the practice of burial handles the body with tenderness in hope of its coming resurrection. During times of plague, the early church, where feasible, washed the bodies of unbelievers and buried them, arguing that even the wicked should have a proper burial in light of their own future resurrection.
As a pastor, I have had to deal with the matter of cremation. Whenever appropriate, I counsel burial, but I have never made this a point of contention if cremation is preferred. There are several current burial practices I would like to see changed to reduce the cost of burial and make it more conducive to a Christian understanding of the body. Those matters are best discussed in a different context. Cremation is not inherently evil, but burial follows the pattern of Jesus and the early church.
by Erwin Lutzer
It has been said that death is one of the last taboos. Even Christians confident of their salvation are often uncomfortable with thoughts of...
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