Should I burn my mother-in-law?

In April I flew to Iowa to meet my family and bury my great Aunt.  She was an amazing woman who grew up on a farm during the depression, won a state basketball championship in high school, and was one of the most honest, spirited persons I have ever known.  She loved the Lord, served her church faithfully, and upon her death was cremated.  Since then several people in my family have talked of being cremated when they die.  This includes my mother-in-law who asked me about this very subject last night.  I have given it some thought but wanted to see where others stood on the issue.  John Piper gives several reasons why he does not counsel people to be cremated:

1. Burning people was associated with pagan religions in Scripture.  “The biblical pattern is that burning your children is pagan and burying your loved ones is a sign that you believe in the resurrection.”

2.  Scripture speaks of believers who die as though they are asleep.  This is most symbolically represented by the placing of a body in a casket and then burial in the ground.  You want to symbolically put it to rest, not destroy it.

3.  The bible has such a high view of the body.  It is God’s creation.  God will redeem it upon his return.  It is the temple of God while the believer lives on earth.  All of these truths should lead every believer to treat the body with respect, and Piper does not feel that cremation necessarily does this.

4.  Although the financial cost may be cheaper, the emotional cost on family members who don’t want to see this happen to a loved one may outweigh the material cost.

He makes good points here, but there are arguments on the others side as well.

1. The Bible never explicitly states that cremation of a deceased loved one is a sin.  When Piper says that “burning your children is pagan,” he is referring to child sacrifice in the OT which was murder and an abomination.  Those who speak of cremation are dealing with a person who is already gone, although a funeral is a religious ceremony as well.

2.If our desire was really to follow biblical patterns for burial, we should be placing bodies in catacombs wrapped in linen and spices.

3. In a hundred years it will be as though the body had been cremated when it returns to the dust of the ground.  Furthermore, many people have died in various ways that have affected the body and this will not hinder God in creating a new-redeemed body for the believer.

So my question is whether or not this issue is more a matter of preference, or if there is clear biblical teaching and principles that should be followed?

Posted on September 3, 2010, in Anthropology, Creation, Culture, Misc. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. There’s an article in the most recent JETS on this: David W. Jones, “To Bury or Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation,” JETS 53.2 (2010): 335-347. It’s a pretty brief article, but it briefly summarizes the main historical/theological arguments (and a load of footnotes). Ultimately, he concludes that burial rites are adiaphora, but that we should be aware of what we’re communicating in how we treat our dead. He final thought was a good one: “After all, within the Christian tradition, funerals are not simply ways of disposing of dead bodies, nor are they solely about remembering the departed or expressing grief. Rather, for believers, funerals ought to be Christ-centered events, testifying to the message and hope of the gospel.”

  2. Cremation isn’t great for the environment either, there is a rising trend of eco-burials which bury you in a plot where they are regenerating forest, rarther than taking up space in a cemetry. I also heard rumours of wet burials where they just let a heap of crustaceans and microbes nibble you to bits. The nice thing about cremation is your ashes can be scattered in some scenic location for your family to visit later. Sorry, not very theological, but I’d go with the adiophora comment.

  3. The aforementioned article by D. W. Jones is the best recent work on cremation. If you search for it online you’ll find it posted in PDF format in several places. Many scholars and pastors have noted it’s helpfullness. Jones is a very careful and reasoned thinker whose prose is easy to read, yet each sentence is packed with implications. Read the article carefully, including the footnotes. The article is very pastoral in nature.

    In regard to your arguements for cremation mentioned about, Jones’ work will answer #1 and #3 (again, read the footnotes). Your second point is not actually biblical, but historical, as there is no mention of burying in catacombs in Scripture. Also, be care of making utilitarian arguments.

    Sorry to hear of the loss of your mother-in-law. I trust that the Holy Spirit will do his work of comforting in your life, as well as guideing you in the right burial practice.

    • With respect to #1, Jones’ argument that cremation was a largely pagan practice in biblical times does not constitute a particularly strong argument here unless you can establish that it still constitutes a pagan practice today. If not, then this reason for avoiding cremation would no longer seem valid.

      Actually, Christians in some places did bury their dead in catacombs. But, the real point of this argument is to point out that if we’re going to say that the burial customs of the early Church should be normative, then how do we determine which burial customs should be normative? Why is internment normative, but not burial cloths and spices?

      I agree that #3 is not a particularly strong argument. The point is not what happens to the body after it’s buried, but how you treat the body after a person dies.

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