August 16, 2015 Genesis 49:28-50:14 and 50:22-28
Series: Divine Hope for Dysfunctional Families
Today’s Message: “What Should Be Done with the Body?”
Pastor Louis Prontnicki Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church
Intro: Death has been with us ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden, and death impacts our spirit and our body. Spiritually, we lost our fellowship with God and became spiritually dead. But the body also suffered. It became corrupt; it began to decay, culminating in death. This physical death led to the problem of what was to be done with the dead body.
The ancient world used three main methods for disposing of the bodies of the dead. Cremation was the normal practice of Greeks and Romans. They believed in the immortality of the soul and saw no reason to give special attention to the body. Hindus as well, with their doctrine of reincarnation, still practice cremation. At the other extreme were the Egyptians, who sometimes mummified the bodies of their dead rulers, seeking to preserve the corpse indefinitely.
But the Jews, and then the Christians, would almost always bury the bodies of their dead.
Why did they choose that method? And is that relevant for us today, as Christians?
That’s what we want to examine this morning.
Let’s review last Sunday’s message:
In Genesis 49 and 50 we are given the detailed plans for the funeral arrangements of both Jacob and Joseph. We inferred that God wants you to have the last word…at your funeral…and even beyond the grave. Believers in Christ should have enduring testimonies through their funeral arrangements and burial plans. Our aim should be to make the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ the last word in our life and in our death and burial – for God’s glory, and for a testimony to your faith in Jesus. Therefore our funeral arrangements should be (1) clearly communicated; (2) Biblically-based; and (3) evangelistically expressive. (See Planning Your Funeral and Burial, for God’s Glory, at the end of this sermon.)
But let me remind you again of the foundational truth: You must trust Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin and death, and believe in Him as the Resurrection and the Life. For what does it profit a man to plan a marvelous funeral if he loses his soul?
Today we are looking at the question of what to do with the dead body, particularly the question of choosing burial or cremation. Does God’s Word tell us what we should do with our bodies, after we die? This may be a touchy subject for some of you. Perhaps you have had the remains of your loved ones cremated, while others of you have opted for a burial. So…does it matter whether we’re cremated or buried? In the ultimate sense, no. It doesn’t matter. The Bible does not forbid or command people either way. Our bodies will decay and return to dust either way, eventually. Let me be clear: it is not a sin if you bury instead of cremating, or cremate instead of burying. Okay? At the same time, the Scriptures are not silent on this issue.
Let’s first consider the Old Testament Scriptures:
Prompt burial of the dead body was the norm in the Old Testament. We read in the OT of patriarchs and kings being buried; there are over 100 references to such burials. Internment was usually in family burial places (Gen. 49:29; 2 Sam. 19:37; 2 Chron. 21:20). On the other hand, disposal by burning or cremation was unusual, and usually for one of two reasons. First, because a body had been left out, and was badly decomposing, and needed to be burned for health reasons, as was the case with the bodies of Saul and his sons, in 1 Sam. 31:12). Second, a body might be burned as a sign of God’s judgement, to show the burning anger of the Lord. For example, in Joshua 7:25-26 we read about Achan and his family, how after they were stoned for their crucial disobedience, that their bodies were then burned. (Note: after this incineration, a large heap of stones was piled over their ashes, which “remains to this day.” We see there that even the final place of the wicked served a warning purpose, perhaps even as a picture of hell.
Summary: burial was the norm; cremation was the exception and/or a sign of judgement.
Second, let’s consider the New Testament Scriptures:
In the NT there are far fewer references to the method of disposal, and they tend to fall into these categories:
One is the burial of Jesus, recorded for us at the end of each gospel. A second is the symbolic idea of our being buried with Christ in baptism. [Paul never uses the imagery of being cremated with Christ!]. Third, there are a few NT references to people being buried, such as Lazarus (John 11), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5); Stephen (Acts 8:2). But admittedly these passages are more descriptive than prescriptive.
However, we also know that burial, as opposed to cremation, was the accepted method for disposing of dead bodies among the early Christians. Timothy George writes that, “As the catacombs in Rome attest, the early Christians insisted on burying their dead. Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means “sleeping places,” reflecting belief in a future resurrection.”
Summary: the NT Scriptures and the history of the early church all point to burial as the normal and expected method of disposing of the dead body.
So let’s ask the question:
Why were Christians concerned about the burial of the body? George gives 4 reasons:
(1) The body of every person was created by God, bears His image, and therefore deserves to be treated with respect.
(2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely sanctified human life and bodily existence.
(3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor.
(4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come. They saw their dead bodies as “sleeping,” even as 1 Thess. 4:14-15 talks about those who have “fallen asleep in Jesus.” (also see Rev. 14:13 “They will rest from their labors”) Therefore burial in the ground seems to symbolize this idea of sleep and rest more than being burned in a crematory.
Of course, many martyrs were burned to death, but Christians believed God would bring them forth, unimpaired, at the resurrection.
Therefore, in the context of the early church, when cremation was associated with pagan rituals and unbiblical beliefs, burial seemed to be a more loving and reverent way to bear witness to God’s ultimate victory over death.
And that’s the way it was for believers for nearly 2,000 years. As Christianity spread and eventually became the official religion in the Roman Empire and elsewhere, culturally Christian burial practices spread as well…until more recently.
The first cremation in America didn’t take place until 1876, (accompanied by readings from Darwin and the Hindu scriptures.) For many years, relatively few persons chose cremation. But that has now changed dramatically. For while only 5% of Americans were cremated 50 years ago, today about 44% choose cremation, with an expected rise to 56% in ten years.
The rise in cremations reflects many factors: concern for land use; the expense of traditional funerals; the loss of community and a sense of “place” in modern transient society; and New Age-type spiritualities. The shift in America away from a Judeo-Christian emphasis on the body made in God’s image has also impacted the rise in cremations.
So where does that leave us? On the one hand, the weight of Christian Scripture and tradition clearly favors burial. On the other hand, the Bible, taken as a whole, does not explicitly condemn cremation.
So let me give you three things to ponder:
First, your Motives Matter. In areas in which the Scriptures are not crystal clear, we must examine our motives even more carefully. For the bigger question for Christians is not whether one is buried or cremated, but the meaning given to these acts. You need to ask: Why I am choosing one over the other? How can I best glorify God and be a testimony of my faith in Christ? Your motives matter, as God looks at the heart.
Second, your Choices Have Symbolic Significance. You need to think about the symbolic significance of each option. Listen to what Pastor John Piper wrote about this:
“The biblical (OT) pattern is that burning your loved ones is pagan, and burying your loved ones is a sign that you believe in the resurrection. Therefore…I’m going to encourage people towards burial because of what it says about the body. The body is precious, and it is going to be raised from the dead. I know it decomposes. I know it’s no more there in a hundred years than if you had burned it. We’re talking about the symbolic significance of a body buried, rather than what is to me the prospect of my wife or child or dad being incinerated.
God created the body. He’s going to resurrect it. There’s going to be continuity between what you were and what you are, so that we can recognize each other. You don’t want to symbolically destroy it. You want to symbolically put it to rest, because that’s the language of the Bible: you’re sleeping. Right? “He will waken those who sleep.” “Whether we sleep or wake, we belong to the Lord.” So the picture of the New Testament is that the dead are asleep. They’re going to be raised from the dead. And they are alive to God. So I’ve probably overstated my case now and made all the people who have ever cremated feel terribly guilty. I’ll go back and end where I began: it is not ultimately an issue that matters. It’s just (that cremation) is not a custom I think the New Testament would naturally lead us to.” Your choice does have symbolic significance.
Third, you’ve got a Better Body Coming! The believer’s hope, whether we will submit our remains to burial or cremation, is that the body that is buried or incinerated is not the body that will ultimately dwell with the Lord. In 1 Cor. 15:42-44 we read: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
Did you hear that? If you are a believer in Christ, you will have a body that is imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual! Therefore, no believer in Christ, regardless of how you decide to deal with your body, needs to worry that you will be unable to participate in that great resurrection. No. Whether our bodies are quickly burned or slowly decompose, God will give all of His children new, glorious, and incorruptible bodies, and we will dwell with Him forever. Once and for all the effects of death and separation from God will be nullified. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
You’ve got a much better body coming!
Remember: (1) John 3:16 – Whoever believes should not perish, and (2) 1 Cor. 10:31 – make all your plans, including your final ones, so as to bring glory to God. Amen.
Planning Your Funeral and Burial, For God’s Glory
1. Are you ready to meet the Lord?
2. Decide on a funeral or a memorial service: in a church, a funeral home, or graveside.
3. Plan out your service: songs, scripture readings, eulogies, minister, etc. How will the gospel be presented?
4. Decide on burial, cremation, organ donation, giving body for research, etc. Think through the scriptures on these matters.
5. Select a funeral director/ home.
6. Select a cemetery (if it’s a burial.) What do you want on your tombstone?
7. Will there be a meal after the services?
8. What do you want written in your obituary?
9. Choose those who will carry out your wishes and communicate clearly to them.
10. Do you have a current will? Does your family know where it is? Have you named an executor?
11. Have you made end of life plans, and shared them?
12. Where should any memorial gifts be given?