Updated: Jun 4, 2022
“Funeral customs and practices show how bodies are regarded in any society. They reveal what is commonly believed about death and what happens to people when they die.” (Kleining, 140).
The way we bury our dead is an act of faith.
I’m writing this post for several reasons:
First, because it matters how Christians handle the bodies of those who die.
Second, most Western people do not think about this topic until it is required — such as the death of a loved one. And usually, at that point, they are not prepared to reason logically and theologically about the subject. Emotions will have taken over.
Third, there are a lot of questions in the Church today about burial practices: Is cremation a sin?; can my ashes be scattered somewhere?; should I buy a casket, vault, and more?
Fourth, the Bible helps us think through this issue holistically.
Fifth, there aren’t many talking about this.
-My hope and aim here is to provide some biblical wisdom and guidance.
So, let’s get started…
What are the available options today for handling a dead body?
Burial/Interment in the ground.
Interment in a Vault or Mausoleum.
Burial with/without embalming.
Burial at Sea.
But, which of these options are open to Christians? How does the Bible help us to think through handling the bodies of our loved ones?
What does the Bible say about the Body in General?
-The body is the creation of God and is His gift, in many ways, to humanity. As I’ve noted in other articles, humans are not merely body or soul, but embodied souls. That means our soul and our body are dependent on each other; they are each halves of the whole.
-The Bible teaches that God places great value on the human body.
We are created embodied (in the body) by His design.
When we come to Christ by faith, we are Redeemed in the body.
The New Testament teaches us that the future hope of heaven includes the body.
The Bible teaches from the beginning (Genesis 1-2) that the body is necessary for obedience to God’s creation mandate of marriage and childbearing.
And, what is perhaps the most meaningful and deeply rooted value of the human body, Jesus Christ accomplishes the Redemption of the human race in a physical body. (The Incarnation).
-So, the Bible is clear: Our physical bodies are of great value and consequence. We must, therefore, take great care and consideration in how we treat them.
What Happens when We Die?
-When we die, our souls go to be with God. If we die in Christ, we are welcomed immediately into heaven.
For those who die apart from faith in Christ, they go to a place the Bible calls Sheol, or the place of death as they await hell.
Either way, when we die, the Bible is clear, our souls depart our bodies, and our bodies cease to be alive on the earth.
Our bodies then return to the earth (Ecc. 3:20).
Does the Bible Tell Us What to Do with Dead Bodies?
-Now, when the body dies, it does not lose its value. The departure of the soul is no permission to treat the body as trash.
All the Biblical truths remain in force. The body is of great value when we are alive, and after we have died.
-Man is made from the dust of the ground; the natural elements of the earth.
Genesis 2:7 - “...the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into His nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
-When we die, our bodies return to the earth, just as God has made them to do.
Ecclesiastes 3:20 - “All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”
Ecclesiastes 12:7 - “...and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
-Therefore, it is right and best to commit the body back into the earth. Burial in the earth is a sacred act of faith, for the earth belongs to God, and God has ordained the earth to absorb the body upon its death.
To embalm, then, is to prolong/prevent the natural process that God has ordained to take place.
To cremate is to speed up this process unnaturally.
The Biblical Pattern
-Throughout the Bible, the typical pattern we see is the burying of dead bodies in the earth without embalming.
And we know embalming technology existed, for the Egyptians were practicing it from the time of the Pharaohs.
The Bible talks about the burial (in the earth) of countless men and women throughout history.
Primarily, we look at the burial practice for Jesus Himself. On the very day of His death, His body was interred, un-embalmed, into a tomb in the earth.
-Burial of the body into the earth seems to be the overwhelming biblical pattern.
Do Our Bodies Have a Future?
-Yes, the Bible tells us our bodies are of such value that we will be in our bodies forever. In heaven, we will be in the bodies we now possess, only without sin and imperfection. Our heavenly bodies will be perfected in every way. We do not yet know what that will quite look like, but the New Testament does give us some glimpses…
Daniel 12:2 - “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Philippians 3:20-21 - “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to himself.”
Revelation 21:4 - “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
-So, the testimony of the New Testament is clear: Our bodies have a future. This should, therefore, affect and influence how we handle the body on earth now. It has practical application for when we are alive, but also for how we handle a body after death has occurred.
Where Do Embalming and Cremation Come From?
-These burial practices have been incorporated into the Western tradition and serve no great religious purposes. But, it is important for us to know where the practices themselves come from.
Embalming comes from ancient Egypt, going back approximately to 3200 BC. The Egyptians embalmed their dead because of what they believed about the afterlife. “Since the body had to be attractive enough to lure back the soul and other elements, the highly skilled and trained embalmers took exquisite care to preserve it.”
Cremation comes from ancient pagan practices. The Greeks cremated their soldiers who fell on the battlefield as an act of valor; and some pagans cremated their dead thinking it helped to free the soul from the body.
-Most Western people, and most Americans, probably have no idea about how these practices developed, and I’m sure almost no one chooses to do them for these reasons. Most people choose to embalm out of a sense of respect for their dead, or as a way to preserve the body for the funeral. And many choose cremation as a way to save money on funeral costs.
And yet, both of these are misguided decisions.
Neither embalming nor cremation captures the biblical picture of rightly caring for the dead.
With the modern technologies of refrigeration, embalming is not even required for preserving the body for a funeral.
And cremation is not the cheapest funeral option.
Finally, What does the State Say?
-While this is an important consideration, it should not be the determining factor in how we handle the bodies of the deceased. Even so, State laws and regulations must be taken into consideration. I live in North Carolina, so what I list below are from the laws of NC and can be found here.
Embalming is not required.
Cremation is not required.
Caskets are not required by the State. Some cemeteries have their own regulations, but these requirements are typically minimal; a simple wooden casket in most cases (approx. $500.00).
Vaults are also not required.
North Carolina does not require the usage of a funeral home.
North Carolina does not require burial in a cemetery.
-In the State of North Carolina, there are minimal requirements when it comes to handling the body of a deceased person. A body can be buried legally for the cost of a simple wooden casket and the burial plot (if a cemetery plot is chosen).
Such realities seem a bit distanced from the fact that American Funeral homes make, collectively, $20 Billion dollars every year; and the average funeral cost today is between $8,000-10,000.00
1 study shows that as many as 1 in 5 families go into debt to cover the cost of a funeral.
-I also think there is an argument to be made here for Churches providing cemeteries. After all, a Church cemetery is a very public testimony of our collective belief in the coming Resurrection. Churches can also provide very affordable options for Christians to properly bury their dead.
What about Those Who Die in Tragic or Destructive ways?
Throughout history, people have unfortunately died in numerous ways that destroy the body leaving nothing to bury.
Death at sea.
These types of events do not leave a body to bury/inter in the earth. So, what happens to their bodies?
The Bible is very honest that God will raise our bodies on the last day. The situation surrounding our earthly death does not inhibit God’s ability to raise our bodies in any way. He is the Creator of our bodies, and He will raise them on that day.
On Judgment Day, Revelation 20:13 states, “...the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”
So, on the Last Day, God will command His creation to give up the bodies of His creatures. And it will obey…Bodies destroyed on earth are not lost to God.
What if I’ve Already Cremated or Embalmed my Loved One?
-We need not worry here, for God is not limited by our choices. We have not somehow committed our loved ones to eternal suffering because of how we’ve handled their body.
Such beliefs are pagan and find no support in the Bible.
No matter how the body is handled after death, God is able to raise the dead on the Last Day.
What about Organ Donors and Scientific Research?
-While there is nothing specific in Scripture about either of these two practices, it does not seem to violate any biblical teaching to have one's healthy organs donated in the event of death. A body left to scientific research would require more careful and nuanced thinking.
Either way, the principle of treating the body with respect and interring in the ground would still apply.
Can Christians Cremate or Embalm?
-While I do not think cremation is the best practice, I do not see that it is a sin. Whereas, with embalming, I do think Christians should steer clear of this practice for it prolongs the natural process that God has ordained to happen to our bodies after death.
What about Mausoleums? As a general rule, given the biblical teaching, I think Christians ought to steer clear of this practice as well. The Bible is clear that our bodies are to return to the dust. God made us from dust, and He commands the earth to reabsorb our bodies upon our death. Interring in a mausoleum seems to be acting against this mandate.
I think the same applies for the spreading of ashes. The Bible does not recognize this practice. Again, based on the Biblical teaching and examples, it seems best to inter the body or the ashes of the body into the earth.
So, How Should Christians Bury Their Dead?
-Given the normal course of things, when we are faced with handling a deceased body, the most biblical thing we can do is to commit it to the ground as it is.
The most Christian act of faith we take with the bodies of our loved ones is to commit them as naturally to the ground as we can.
We bury the body in the ground knowing that God has already commanded the earth to care for the body.
We bury the body as it is in the hope of the Resurrection.
We inter the body into the earth knowing that on the Last Day God will raise the body for eternity.
-My counsel to people faced with the reality of caring for a body and seeing to it that it is properly buried is this: Recognize the teachings of Scripture, pick an appropriate plot for the burial, secure a minimal, but respectful wooden casket, and commit the body into the ground in faith.
I hope this is helpful.