Christians also have seen burial as the laying to rest of the body as though it is sleeping waiting for the waking of the resurrection. “We who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Early “Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means ‘sleeping places,’ reflecting belief in a future resurrection” (Timothy George).
One of the reasons putting the body in the ground, as if in sleep, was important was that no one knew when the Lord Jesus would come back. Therefore, it was possible that the trumpet could sound not long after the burial, and the dead would be raised very much as if he had only taken a nap.
But the main issue was the message of the symbolism about the preciousness of the body now, and the glory of the body at the resurrection. The double symbolism of sowing seed, as though ready to sprout, and laying to rest, as though ready to waken, was the main reason Christians have buried their dead and provided burial for those who could not afford it.
The Dreadfulness of Fire
The other focus of Scripture that leads away from burning toward burying (besides the importance of the human body) is the meaning of fire as it relates to the human body now and in the life to come.
The use of fire to consume the human body on earth was seen as a sign of contempt. It was not a glorious treatment of the body but a contemptuous one. This is the meaning of Achan’s cremation. He had betrayed Israel and so was not only stoned with his family, but deprived of an ordinary burial by being burned.
Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. (Joshua 7:25)
To be sure, fire is a great gift from God. It warms, and brightens, and guides, and cooks, and refines. But in relation to the human body, it is a dreadful thing. It wounds and tortures and kills and destroys.
This is most prominent in relation to the body after death. As a Christian who believes in the judgment of God after death (Hebrews 9:27). This fire is meant to be felt by the body.
“It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30)
“Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:24)
In summary, then, the two biblical focuses that point away from burning to burying are 1) the preciousness of the human body as God’s purchase and possession, now and forever, and 2) the dreadfulness of fire as it relates to the human body especially after death.
Four Other Reasons to Bury
There are other reasons, besides these biblical pointers, that should give us pause before we decide to burn our loved ones. (Using the word “burn” instead of “cremate” is like using the phrase “dismember babies” instead of “abort fetuses”—it prevents us from hiding reality.) For example:
1. Where Christians are a small minority, cremation is high. And where Christian influence is giving way to rapid secularization, cremation is rapidly increasing. “Almost everyone adhering to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism cremate their dead. … Japan has one of the highest cremation rates in the world with the country reporting a cremation rate of 99.85 percent in 2008. … The cremation rate in the United Kingdom has been increasing steadily with the national average rate rising from 34.7 percent in 1960 to 73.44 percent in 2008. … [In Canada the cremation rate rose] from 5.89 percent in 1970 to 68.4 percent in 2009” (Wikipedia). (Note: The Japanese cities of Tokyo and Osaka have ordinances requiring cremation “due to lack of cemetery space or for sanitary reasons.” I doubt that those two arguments would be decisive if there were not other worldview issues at stake. God will give wisdom to Christians living under this added legal constraint.)