Dr. Kloosterman was a professor of Ethics and New Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.
Among the instructions the LORD gave to Old Testament Israel, we find these words about grieving customs: ‘You are the children of the LORD your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave the front of your head for the dead. For you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth’ (Deut. 14:1-2).
From these verses we learn that grieving for the dead is covenant business. Israel’s funeral customs were to show Whose she was by sovereign election. The LORD had fixed a limit to her mourning, a limit which implied that one day, life would overcome death in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
As part of a covenantal style of life, believing funerals then — and now — constitute(d) a testimony to the watching world about the Source and Sustainer of life, the LORD God of heaven and earth. How people treat the bodies of the dead is, therefore, a religious and an ethical question.
Evaluating the growing popularity of cremation instead of burial among countries in the Western world should be approached within this framework.
Arguments for cremation
Five kinds of arguments are used to defend the permissibility of cremation; these include economic, hygienic, ecological, aesthetic and theological arguments.
The economic argument says that cremation is preferable because it is less expensive than burial. Costs connected with purchasing a cemetery lot, a coffin and burial vault, a grave stone or marker, and costs of maintaining the grave do not apply to cremation. Response: while it is true that cremation is less expensive than burial as long as the ashes are scattered or cared for privately, and not preserved in a building or vault, even so, this argument by itself is insufficient to justify choosing cremation. The economic argument will convince only those who for other reasons have already chosen cremation.
The hygienic and ecological arguments claim that cremation is preferable as less threatening or dangerous to human health and to the environment. In this context, some argue that burial takes too much valuable space. Response: modern regulations and procedures connected with burial avoid any threats to public health. The ecological-spatial argument is certainly overused in the West; even in the Netherlands, which is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, not one municipality has to resort to cremation because of a shortage of burial lots.
The aesthetic argument insists that cremation is preferable to the unaesthetic process of decay and decomposition associated with burial. Response: decay and decomposition are not pretty, but neither are the associations connected with burning flesh. And remember: Few of us will ever need to look at a decomposed corpse in a coffin or at a burning corpse in an oven. So the argument really fails to justify either burial or cremation.
The theological argument suggests that cremation is permissible in view of the new, resurrected bodies we will receive. One Reformed theologian from South Africa, the late J. Heyns, wrote: ‘The new body that is going to be raised will certainly display continuity with the natural body that has died, and will of course also be a glorified body; but this will in no way be affected by what happened to the natural body before and even during burial. Therefore, also for this reason, cremation is not to be rejected in principle’ (Theologiese etiek 2/1:329). Response: Let the reader be warned: what Heyns has written is true, as far as it goes. He did not say that cremation is in principle acceptable, but only that one should not reject cremation on the basis of its effect on the natural body. Therefore, Heyns’ observation is not really an argument for cremation.
The Bible favors burial
Without doubt, biblical examples indicate that burial is the preferred method of caring for a corpse. Negatively, the Bible talks about cremating corpses most often in contexts of divine judgment against wickedness (Sodom and Gomorrah; Achan and his family).
We find many positive examples of burial throughout Scripture. Abraham went to a great deal of trouble to buy a cave for burying his beloved wife Sarah (Gen. 23:3-20). Later Isaac and Ishmael buried their father Abraham alongside Sarah in what was to become the family grave for the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs. We are told that the LORD Himself buried Moses (Deut. 34:6). Israel’s and Judah’s kings were buried alongside their ancestors. In the New Testament we read of the burial of John the Baptist, of Lazarus and the lad from Nain, of Stephen and of the Lord Jesus. The burial of Jesus was proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets (Isa. 53:9), was prepared for by Mary’s anointing (Matt. 26:12; Mk. 14:18), and was necessary for our redemption (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 26, QA 41).
The relationship between burial and resurrection is emphasized by the apostle Paul as the pattern for the Christian life. To the congregation in Rome the apostle wrote, ‘Therefore we were buried with Him [Christ Jesus] 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’ (Rom. 6:4). And to the church in Colossae, the Spirit of Christ said: ‘In Him [Christ Jesus] you were . . . buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead’ (Col. 2:11-12). This same symbolism is applied in 1 Corinthians 15 to our own physical resurrection.
In summary, we may draw two conclusions from the biblical evidence. First, the Bible gives no explicit commandment to bury the dead. Second, the Bible does give us the consistent example of believers in both Old and New Testaments as a convincing testimony about the surpassing value of burial.
Burial as a witness to Christ
Concerning the second conclusion, we must readily admit that the customs of the Bible are not necessarily the infallible standard for our customs. Therefore, the examples found in the Bible are not by themselves sufficient or decisive for our conduct. But these examples are not in the Bible ‘by themselves’! They are presented within the context of divine activity, the work of Jesus Christ in His humiliation and exaltation. These obedient acts of our Lord Jesus Christ included His burial, something we confess every Lord’s Day in the Apostles Creed. Followers of Christ travel the route of death, burial, resurrection and ascension to glory. First Corinthians 15 speaks of a transition from mortality to immortality, from perishability to imperishability. In that process our burial is a very important stage. Our bodies are entrusted to the earth, whence they came, and as a consequence of God’s judgment upon our sin, they return to the dust from which they were made.
This message of mortality, dissolution and resurrection, a message that obtains expression in burial, is not ‘spoken’ in cremation. ‘Sowing’ the body in the earth, knowing that it will return to dust, sends a different message than pulverizing a body to ashes and scattering them in the wind.
The choice becomes one of bearing witness, in our death, to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Regardless of the fact that after awhile the net result is the same (dust and ashes aren’t that much different in the end), burial is a clearer, more consistent expression than cremation of the pathway pioneered by our Savior and followed, in life and in death, by His disciples.
Moreover, today the practice of cremation occurs within a religious context. As a symptom of our secularizing culture, cremation cannot be understood apart from the worldview of God-denying, man-worshiping secularism. Isolating cremation from its accompanying worldview often happens when people defend cremation as the cheapest, healthiest, quickest and nicest way to dispose of corpses.
Burial is preferable unless . . .
If we maintain that the Bible gives us no explicit commandment to bury, we must also say that the Bible contains no explicit prohibition against cremation.
Certain situations may occur where cremation is unavoidable. Think of epidemics where public health requires the disposal of diseased corpses in order to prevent the spread of infection. Or think of wartime, where a large number of casualties makes usual burial procedures impossible.
Moreover, in countries where the Christian faith has had little or no influence, burial is either impossible or extremely difficult. In Japan, for example, beside space limitations, the influence of Buddhism and the exorbitant costs connected with burial make cremation more necessary. Even in countries where Christianity has lost its influential position, burial can become an exception which presents difficulties to believers similar to those faced by Japanese Christians. The possibility of losing the privilege of burying our dead requires us to preserve that freedom as long as possible.
How, then, must we bury our dead?
We close with several observations regarding Christian funerals.
In many (not all) Reformed churches a funeral is a family matter. During the time of the Reformation the reformers removed funerals from their liturgical, pecuniary and often superstitious contexts within Catholicism. If a funeral is a family matter, this means it is not a church service. The person conducting a funeral (and it need not be a minister) delivers a message or address, not a sermon. The message should be personalized, though without becoming a eulogy. The focus should remain on God and His Word, on the gospel of gracious mercy for depraved sinners through Jesus Christ alone.
Because the funeral is a family matter, there may be a danger of making it too private. Grieving is a social as well as a spiritual activity. Opportunity should be given to friends of the family and of the deceased to express their grief. Christian burial should be a meaningful communion among the saints, before, during and after the funeral. The growing custom of having a private interment followed by a public ‘memorial service’ may rob believers of a beautiful opportunity to confess the reality of Christ’s triumph over death and the grave as they stand together at the graveside. Christian funerals are marked by the centrality of the Word of God and prayer, by the appropriate use of singing and confession of faith. Preparing our funeral services beforehand by selecting a Bible passage and appropriate songs (also for congregational singing!) has many benefits. Here’s one important advantage: apart from the emotional pressures connected with the death of a loved one, we can make sure the songs sung at funerals are fully Reformed in their words and their music. Why settle, in our funeral singing, for less than the best?
Nowadays Christians can also bear witness in their funeral customs to the reality of preborn personhood. Should parents of a stillborn infant have a funeral service for their child? Yes, probably with the immediate family only, since the child had no other social relationships. In the case of a miscarriage, parents will want to ensure that the remains, which may need to undergo medical testing, are handled in a dignified and respectable manner. For this, they can specify their wishes to their physician or hospital staff members. Even though parents and other family members were never able to develop a relationship with such a child, nevertheless there is a grieving process occasioned by the expectations associated with pregnancy, a process that is helped with a Christian funeral service.
Dr. Kloosterman was a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.