Bury or cremate? I am asked this question more than you might think. Not surprisingly, when I am asked this question, it is normal for there to be some nervousness on the part of the inquirer. After all, some people have no control over whether a family member will be buried in the traditional manner or cremated and then interred in an urn. Does it matter? Can there be a sinful or wrong way to bury someone? What does the Bible say?
The first point to make is that the Bible does not give us explicit direction on cremation or burial. While we do know that the Jewish custom was to bury (John 19:40), it is only ever described as a custom and the practice is nowhere given as a command. Additionally, in the Gospels, we read that Jesus told a man to let the dead bury their own dead (Matt. 8:22). In that passage, Jesus was not teaching or providing instruction about burial, but addressing the wavering resolve of a potential disciple. Still, it is notable that the expectation of what is done with the body of the deceased is to bury it.
While the practice of burial is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition, what is different is the motivation: resurrection. In fact, there was a time when people were buried with their feet facing the east because the expectation was that when Jesus returns people would want to be raised in the right direction (Zion and Jerusalem being east of Europe and North America). Can you imagine the embarrassment of being raised to be with Christ and discover you’re looking the wrong way!? Clearly, this is more symbolic than real as all creation will be focused on Christ at his return – whether to join him in new bodies for the rest of eternity or to be judged and cast out of his presence forever more.
My point in all this is simply to say that there has been a theological reason for burial within the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it is not a biblical requirement. Those who died at sea and whose bodies are lost to us, those who died in accidental fires or were burned at the stake (eg. martyrdom) until they were reduced to ashes, and those who have died under the attack of animals will all receive new bodies at the second coming. God’s promise of a resurrection body (1 Cor. 15) is not thwarted by this body being destroyed.
In sum, while I prefer the theological foundation for burial, it is neither wrong nor a sin to have someone cremated. We should always have thoughtful reasons for our actions. If you bury, why? If you cremate, why? More important yet, how am I living so that no matter how I die or what is done with my body at death, what will speak most to those who remember me will be for God’s glory?