In this video, Russell Moore spells out a nuanced difference between burial and cremation. While avoiding any condemnation of cremation, he suggests that burial communicates better the Christian concepts of the coming resurrection and a high view of the body.
When Christians ask about burial or cremation, one of the things that is often in the background is the fate of someone they love who may have been cremated, and so I will sometimes have Christians who will become very alarmed when they will hear me say that burial is a Christian way of the disposal of the dead because they fear that what I’m implying is that people who are cremated are somehow now unresurrectable. That’s obviously not the case. Even in the case of burial, the body decomposes and so at the shout of the archangel and the peal of the trumpet, the coming of the Lord Jesus is able to, by the power of God, reassemble the body at resurrection regardless of what has happened to that person. The sea will give up its dead, the Scripture tells us. People who have been eaten by lions and ripped into pieces will be resurrected at the last day. All sorts of things can happen to the body, and God is still able to resurrect that person. That’s not what the question is about.
The question is: what do we, as the people of God, intend to communicate when we are dealing with our dead? Cremation comes from eastern religions that would hold that the person’s ultimate destiny is to be disintegrated. In the 19th century, there was a great move from those who would advocate for cremation because burial gave, in their view, a picture of sleep and a picture of a day of resurrection that is coming that was religiously offensive to them.
They were right to see that because the Scripture says we are but dust and we will return to the ground from which we came. The Scripture also uses that language of sleep. We are put away in sleep in order to be awakened, in order to see resurrection of the entire body one day.
And so, it’s not so much about what happens to the person as it is what we are communicating. And we care what we communicate about death because of the very high view that the Bible has of the body. The body isn’t just a disposable container of the person.
Think of the women who went to the tomb of Jesus. The Scripture says they were going to anoint “him.” They were not going to anoint some meaningless piece of tissue. They were going to anoint him; his body was him. And so, death unnaturally separates the soul from the body, but we are soul and body together. When we care for the body and when we honor the body, we communicate that the body matters and that a day of resurrection is coming.
I wouldn’t want to judge anyone who’s chosen cremation. I wouldn’t want to put guilt upon someone who has cremated a family member. But I would say that Christians should hold on to the meaning of burial because it communicates what we believe about the body and the future day of resurrection.