By Dr. Roger W. Maslin
God has given us an amazing body! But it is going to wear out. “It is appointed unto men once to die”. (Heb. 9:27) We are marching inexorably toward that destination. We do not have a choice. Death will come to all of us unless our Lord returns first, and even those who are caught up to meet the Lord in the air will be radically changed – so much that this old body would be of no use to us. We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is. Assuming that does not happen in our lifetime, at death, the problem for the family is the disposal of the body, if the deceased person has not already made the desired arrangements.
While we are living, for the believer, the body is said to be “the temple of the Holy Spirit”. (I Cor. 6:19) As such it is at all times to be treated with respect. Our lifestyle, eating habits, and bodily care should honor His presence. Recourse to the best medical care is to be respected. But we can still not avoid the inevitable. At death the spirit and soul, the invisible spiritual part of man, leaves this earthly “tabernacle”. (II Cor.5) The invisible and spiritual are just as real or more real than the material, even though we are naturally inclined to think of the material as the real because we can see it, feel it, and touch it. For the believer, the spirit goes to be with the God who gave it. And the body, sooner or later, returns to dust. For the unbeliever it is a different story which I shall not go into now. For this article we are concerned with the disposition of the body.
The traditional funeral and burial are the prevailing custom. But it is not the only solution for every family .There are theological, economical, and stewardship considerations to be made, which we shall discuss now.
1. Theological considerations: Do the Scriptures prescribe or give directions on what to do when death comes? Job seems to have burial in mind when he speaks of worms destroying his body in Job 19:26: “And though after my skin worms destroy this body; yet in my flesh shall I see God.” Being a godly believer, he could look beyond the experience of death with the assurance that he belonged to the Lord. This is hardly a command or God-given direction to us in regard to burial. It is a recognition of the prevailing custom of his time. The other item I would mention is the example of Stephen, where “devout men carried him to his burial” (Acts 8:2) Perhaps this explains our current custom with pall-bearers. But it is hardly a direction for our actions in light of the fact that the soul is not involved. In the case of Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit and were struck dead, the “young men carried them out” and buried them side by side. (Acts 5)
Does cremation endanger the destiny of the soul? Absolutely not! Once we have experienced the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, when we pinned all of our hopes on the finished work of Christ on the cross, nothing can separate us from God’s love and the promised destiny of heaven. (Rom. 8:38, 39) Cremation in many cases is not voluntary, but inevitable. Would the Christians who have perished in house fires, fiery plane crashes, or war, be lost? Of course not. Their remains may be cremated in the awful tragedy but they are “safe in the arms of Jesus.” Many Christians such as William Tyndale in England have been burned at the stake for their faith. Lottie Moon, famous Southern Baptist Missionary to China, was cremated in Japan. National law would not permit the shipment of her body to her homeland. The annual foreign missionary offering of Southern Baptists is named after her. Todd Beamer, a devout Christian, was one of those who perished in the fiery crash on 9-11 in Western Pa. There could be countless thousands of believers through the ages that have experienced involuntary cremation .I can confidently affirm that cremation has no effect on our eternal destiny, nor the process of resurrection of the body.
Where are all of the remains that have been buried? Nobody knows- only God. Roger Williams, the champion of religious liberty in Rhode Island was buried on his own property underneath an apple tree. When it was decided to give him a more prestigious place of burial and they dug up the body, they discovered that the roots of the tree had had made their way into the casket and consumed the body. They placed what remained in a bronze container and put it in the base of a monument to him.
2. Economical considerations: Many families with limited income would be wise to consider the cost in choosing between burial and cremation. Since the cost of cremation can be under $1000 and the cost of a traditional funeral and burial can easily be $5,000 to $10,000.I realize that this is not the only consideration, but it could be and maybe should be one at least.
3. Stewardship considerations: Families with a limited estate should consider how those funds can best be used. It is not improper to provide for family survivors; in fact, it is encouraged: “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel”, I Timothy 5:8. For those with a larger estate, it seems to me, that other stewardship considerations should be part of the decision. The extra money involved in burial expenses could best be used in the service of Christ, rather than be put in the ground. The earth doesn’t need it nearly as much as do missionary Gospel organizations. I believe that the admonishment “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” could well apply here. (Matt.,6:19,20)
Therefore, in light of these three considerations, I choose cremation over burial and have made corresponding arrangements. God, in His sovereign grace, has given me 82 years to serve Him, to enjoy the beauty of His created world, and to care for my family. If He wants to give me more, with a sound mind, I would welcome His gift. I have registered my “no flowers please”. If anyone feels compelled to recognize my departure, a token gift to my favorite missionary project would be more appropriate and consistent with my views on Christian stewardship. I hope the memorial service in the church where I am a member will be a service of victory. I trust that a modest marker at my cremation lot will mark where the ashes are buried and indicate the years of my journey here on earth. But I will not be there!. When the Holy Spirit completed His convicting and regenerating work, I committed my life and destiny to Christ my saviour . “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith,… I am now ready to be offered… for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (I Timothy 1:12;4:6,7) I will be with Him in glory.
BUT, cremation is not for everyone. If the family cannot handle the matter theologically and emotionally, then burial should be the family decision. Some cannot depart from the traditional arrangements with funeral and graveside services, regardless of the expense. For myself as a Christian believer I prefer a memorial service in the house of God. Many times I have conducted services with the open casket and wished that it were closed, so that the focus would not be on the body. It is better to celebrate the life and the glorious promotion of the believer more removed from the actual scene of death. But I take no pleasure in the service for an unbeliever, whether by burial or cremation. I find no comfort in a mechanical service like one I was asked to conduct. The stipulation was that there was to be only Scripture and a prayer. Then the organist played “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and they cremated the corpse was cremated. Only the lawyer estate administrator was in attendance.
Also, I do not condone cremation that scatters the remains over land or sea with the view that this is the end of the person, and that there is no after life, no heaven or hell. The other part of that verse in Heb.9:27 is: “but after this the judgment.”
Now, where does the resurrection come into our discussion? It is actually a part of the theological considerations. The reality of the resurrection is not a part of the debate here. Jesus said: “ Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice. And they shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:28,29) This statement cannot be construed as to mean a visible burial site exclusively. That would be in conflict with other promises of the Gospel. I take it as a reference to all the deceased of all ages. Paul asserted in his defence before Felix “that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.”. He also explained in I Cor. 15:42-44 the nature of the resurrection. “So also is the resurrection of the dead; it is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
Many people may ask: “How can this be accomplished? And it may affect their attitude toward cremation. So, let me offer an explanation. I agree with Richard A. Swenson in his book MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE, p.142-143. His statements throw light on the “how” of the resurrection: “The observable universe contains a hundred million trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion elementary particles.” “Not only does God know precisely where the earth is, He also knows precisely where each one of these subatomic particles is located.” The omniscient God “knows where each of these particles in the universe is located – every second of every day, for the complete duration of eternity.” In the resurrection of the body every particle of dust from all the people that have ever lived will be gathered by the omnipotent God “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”. It’s more than a chorus – “Our God is an Awesome God” - it’s a fact. Paul says “Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”. The mystery he describes does not have as much reference to the “sleep” he mentions, which I take as a figurative way to describe the experience of death, as it does to the phrase: “but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” (I Cor. 15:51,52)
“Dust to Dust”. God created man out of the dust and in Job 34:15 we read “that man shall return again unto dust.” The Psalmist exclaimed “for he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.” Psalm 103:14 The Psalmist also said “thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.” (Psalm 104:29) “The world’s wisest man”, as some have called him, asserted that “ all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Eccles. 3:20) So, there you have it, whether you like it or not. It doesn’t matter, whether it is after “the worms have destroyed the body” or the ashes of cremation. It is all dust. And who can say where the particles of the body are. They may be strewn across the ocean, the mountains or the plains, but the omnipotent God can gather them all up “in a moment; in the twinkling of an eye.”