Mythbusters Series: "Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust"
by Dennis Michelson
I Corinthians 15:43-44
Introduction: The phrase found in the title of this message is often recited at the funeral or burial services of people - Christian and non-Christian. Many think it is a quote from the Bible but it is not. The phrase is borrowed from an English book of Church liturgies and was incorporated into prayer books and ministerial aids, but the phrase is not found in Scripture.
It is often used to support the practice of cremation among Christians. Has the practice of cremation slipped into the church much like the phrase in the prayer book or is it just "much ado about nothing", to borrow another phrase from an Englishman.
1. The Concerns
Christians are divided over the popular practice of cremation in distinction to traditional burials. If the Bible condemns such a practice then the case should be closed. If the Bible condones such a practice then why are sincere Christians so concerned and troubled about the practice? If the Bible is silent on the subject then individual choices by other Christians should be of no concern to us.
2. The Cremation
The term cremation comes from a Latin term meaning "to burn." Of course our current subject of interest involves the burning of a corpse. I am sorry but that is exactly the issue before us. Is it more biblical to burn a corpse and let it be consumed rather quickly or bury the corpse and let it decompose gradually?
Essentially the body is burned at a temperature of between 1400 and 2100 degrees Fahrenheit in a process which takes three to five hours. The remains are then reduced to anywhere between four to eight pounds of particles and small fragments of bone.
It is commonly known among those in the profession that a small portion will be left inside the cremation chamber and subsequently mixed with the next body in the cremation process. The Old Testament has several references to the disposal of bodies by burning. The burning of bodies in ancient Israel was reserved for criminals, idols, or enemies.
To not be given a proper burial in the Old Testament was seen as a high dishonor as well as a great tragedy. The New Testament has at least two references to the burning of things or people - Acts 19:19 and Revelation 20:15. There is no direct prohibition against cremation in the Bible but in every instance the burning of a body was viewed as something less then honorable and respectful.
When people are asked about why they might choose cremation they will typically cite economical and ecological reasons but never biblical ones.
3. The Casket
I am sorry but I could not resist the "casket" point. You see most of the Christians I have dealt with over the past 40 years have seen an "urn" as an unbiblical receptacle for human remains and the "casket" as the biblical mode of disposal. Neither has superior biblical warrant because the emphasis in Scripture is always on the BODY and not the BOX.
Of course the Bible cites many instances of deceased persons being placed in the ground, or a tomb, but not a box. Why were Old Testament believers and New Testament alike so concerned about the proper disposal of the body?
The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. Both readings were directly in line with the cremation process. But what should the disposal of a body by a Christian communicate to those left behind?
The body of every person was created by God and in His image and should be treated with respect. Just as Christ was buried and raised bodily, so Christians want to communicate that their burial is nothing less than a witness of the resurrection to come.
4. The Culture
There can be a fairly good case made for the burial of a body if you check the entire Bible. Does the Bible ever command, encourage, or condone cremation as an acceptable (or preferred) practice for disposition of a believer's corpse? Burial seems to be more in line with the inspired revelation of Scripture than the less than favorable light cast upon disposition by burning.
However, burial is the primary issue - not funerals$$$$. Forget the pine box everyone used to talk about and just get a sheet, wrap me up, and plant me in the back land! Caskets, vaults, cemetery plots, opening and closing fees, embalming, etc., have clouded the issue of planting the body like a seed in the ground.
Of course our American culture - in the form of local and state ordinances - might have something to say about that. Considering the concerns, the cremation, the casket, and the culture, can there be any conclusion?
5. The Conclusions
The Presbyterian preacher George Buttrick said, "There is nothing more incongruous than dressing up a corpse in a tuxedo!" Our culture has sought to put a tuxedo or a tarp on death so those left behind will view it as something other then it really is - stark, ugly, and final.
A pressing question for Christians ought to be what is the message and meaning behind any last rites. Modern funerals tend to put novacaine on the soul with soft music, plush carpets, and expensive caskets.
I leave you with these questions:
Which practice best reflects the Christian hope of the gospel?
How do you best express the honor due to the human body as a creation of God and temple of the Holy Spirit?
Where did cremation start and why is it growing in popularity?
Cremation and burial produce the same result - the dissolution of the body. Burial does so more slowly - especially after a good job of embalming. Cremation is quicker but there is one other important difference. Cremation is an active process in which the body is rapidly destroyed in a deliberate fashion.
Burial (and entombment) is passive in that God's normal process accomplishes its end without human intervention. It is just like a garden. God told Adam ". . .till thou return unto the ground: for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
Sorry no ashes - just dust.