‘EARTH TO EARTH’
Considerations on the Practice of Cremation
S. M. Houghton*
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;
for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. Gen 3.19.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. 1 Cor 15.44
The obituary columns of our newspapers make it abundantly clear that, in many quarters, cremation rather than burial is rapidly becoming the normal mode of disposing of the bodies of the dead, and the evangelical Christian comes, willy-nilly, face to face with the issues involved in the practice. It is urged upon him by some that hygienic considerations in lands of ever-increasing population make cremation highly desirable, if not absolutely essential, and by others that there is nothing in biblical teaching and Christian theology that conflicts with it. Some would argue that the evangelical tends to be a hidebound conservative, inimical by temperament to all new ideas, both theoretical and practical, and averse to change even if it be change for the better. Accordingly some are bewildered; they look into the Word of God and seemingly they find little to guide them; they look to the pulpit and find it normally silent. Is it, they wonder, a case of ‘Please yourself. As they survey the contemporary scene they find some evangelical ministers willing to take part in funeral services in which cremation has a part, and they ask themselves whether their difficulties in accepting cremation are due to prejudices which cannot find support in the Word of their counsel, or on the other hand whether the acceptance by so many of this form of disposal of the bodies of the dead is, after all, acceptable to God and in keeping with a conscience which seeks to remain void of offence in the sight of God and men.
Historically considered, it is certainly the case that cremation dates from ancient times. It has been the practice of Hinduism from times out of mind. It was common among the aboriginal peoples of India, and it is common among Buddhists. It was once widely practised among some of the ‘Indian’ tribes of North America. In Europe it finds ample illustration in the
tombs of the Stone and Bronze Ages and down to the beginnings of the Christian era. Among ancient Greeks and Romans it was fashionable, particularly among the official and wealthier classes, although – and here we quote from the Oxford Classical Dictionary [Article on Disposal’of the Dead: 1950 edition] – ‘it does not appear that these two methods [cremation and inhumation] corresponded to different eschatological beliefs… In the Roman Empire considerations of economy or convenience had a good deal to do with the choice’. The dictionary gives a clear and fairly detailed account of the disposal of the dead in the classical world.
Certain anthropologists tell us that among some uncivilized peoples the idea prevailed that the spirits of the departed would return to the buried bodies to plague the living, and that cremation must be practised to prevent this. There was also the notion that cremation set free the spirit of man for ever from the ties of this life and enabled it to enjoy unfettered bliss in the life beyond death. Clearly, however, such beliefs bear no relation to biblical revelation, and they have no bearing upon our inquiry.
The great national exceptions to cremation in the old world were Egypt, China and Israel [Judah]. In the first-named the practice of embalming and then burying was observed, as we find illustrated in the Book of Genesis and in the vast number of tomb pictures and papyrus records, some of which can be seen in our museums and investigated in our libraries. Jacob was embalmed by order of Joseph, Gen 50.2. Joseph himself was later embalmed and ‘put in a coffin in Egypt’ until his descendants could give him sepulture in the land of his fathers. The oath which he had caused them to swear was the outcome of his faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Gen 50. 24-26. By faith he gave commandment concerning his bones, Heb11.22.
The Chinese held it as part of their moral code that the bodies of the dead should be buried in China’s earth, whence arose the practice of returning to China for interment such as died outside their native land. The Chinese custom was evil so far as it was associated with the worship of one’s ancestors. Some critics have also remarked that it penalized the living because a deep veneration caused the best spots of land to be reserved for the burial of the dead. It was an aspect, too, of China’s intense conservatism. But the Christian cannot rightly call China’s national custom in question.
It is the practice of the Jews that lies at the root of Christian custom. John’s Gospel includes the phrase, ‘as the manner of
the Jews is to bury’, 19.40, and the entire mass of Old and New Testament witness constitutes the strength of the argument for Christian burial as against the modern plea for cremation. It was the spread of belief in the Gospel throughout Europe that ended the practice of cremation as it was found among Greeks, Romans, and ‘barbarians’. The doctrines of redemption (including that of the body) and of resurrection, backed by age-old Jewish custom, caused all who confessed Christ and embraced His teachings to desire interment at death, and this became universal in Christendom. In the early centuries of the Christian era, ‘it was to outrage this well-known Christian sentiment that persecutors sometimes burned the bodies of the martyrs and scattered their ashes in mockery of the resurrection’ [A. Plummer].
Introduction to Britain
We may well ask when and why the idea of cremation of the dead reappeared, and we shall virtually confine our attention to Britain although progress was rapid on the Continent of Europe. It was in the middle of the nineteenth century that cremation found its advocates. A few Italian chemists and physicians appear to have ventilated the idea in their own country, and it was in Italy that progress was first made, a major landmark being the legalization of the practice in 1877. Garibaldi, the best-known Italian of his age, was himself cremated when he died in 1882. His will had arranged for this. In England, Sir Henry Thompson, a professor of surgery of London University, was chiefly responsible for founding the first cremation society in the land in 1874, and he became its first president. Land was purchased for a crematorium, but the Home Office was hostile to the scheme and for a time it remained in abeyance. In 1884 a father was indicted for attempting to burn the body of his child instead of having it buried. The legal judgment that resulted laid it down that the father’s act was not an offence against English law, unless it could be proved that a public nuisance had been committed. The decision greatly encouraged the Cremation Society to go ahead with its plans. Its propaganda found support in some quarters and in 1902 an Act of Parliament gave definite legalization to the practice of cremation, while at the same time guaranteeing exemption from participation for any minister who found it repugnant to his convictions. Since then progress has been steady.
We may well note the fact that in Britain support for cremation began and increased at a time when a liberal
theology had invaded the churches. It would certainly be a difficult matter to prove that the progress and practice of cremation was directly due to the departure from a biblical theology. But it undeniably ran parallel to it, and particularly to a weakening in the belief in the resurrection of the body and in the physical resurrection of Christ Himself. Practice hinges on doctrine, and if the latter is denied or doubted, it is no wonder if practice undergoes a corresponding change for the worse. The man who denies the literality of the physical resurrection of the Lord is he who is also prepared to deny that the dead of all the ages will in God’s time experience a resurrection. No matter then what becomes of his earthly tabernacle when his soul vacates it!
It is not unworthy of note that Sir Henry Thompson, who championed the cause of cremation until his death in 1904, was himself an agnostic of a most pronounced kind. Two years before his death he wrote a short book entitled The Unknown God, the title being taken from Acts 17.23. A London minister of the period, speaking about the matter, told his congregation: The altar which St. Paul saw in Athens had on it the inscription, “Agnosto Theo”, which might without any great violence be rendered, “To the Unknown God”; and here, after these many centuries, that same altar is still raised, and a man in the heart of the Christian civilization, a distinguished man who has passed his life in scientific and beneficent labour, bows down before that altar’. The preacher went on to say that, to the writer of the book. God was nothing more than infinite and eternal energy; truth could only be learned from the study of phenomena; man could only discover truth by his own unaided efforts; no revelation had ever been given to man; the Bible has no divine authority, and Christ, though treated with respect as a remarkable person and even a remarkable teacher, is dismissed as a young Jewish enthusiast. And Sir Henry believed that all educated persons would, in no distant time, accept the position of the agnostic and discard completely the belief that man had received a supernatural revelation.
The Biblical Position
But we turn to consider the biblical position. To what extent is the Christian bound by a practice, undeniably Christian as it was formerly Jewish, which has remained unchanged through nearly a score of centuries? If he can travel by air without stirrings of conscience, and discard the pedestrian modes of travel of his forefathers, is he also entitled to discard
inhumation and take up with cremation? Is any Christian doctrine denied or compromised in cremation? We do well to ask ourselves these and similar questions, and to seek biblical answers. In this, as in all else, we must seek ‘to the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’, lsa.8.20. We are not to cleave to a practice simply and solely because it is ancient. An innovation may be for the better. Is it so in this case? We shall confine our attention to religious considerations as these are, with us, paramount.
We again emphasize the fact, plain to all, that burial has been the age-old practice of Jews and Christians. Old and New Testament alike know nothing else. The few Old Testament exceptions are not difficult of explanation. In several cases men were burned with [supernatural] fire as a token of divine displeasure, just as at sundry times, both biblical and post-biblical, the wrath of men has been vented upon their kind in such events as the ‘burning fiery furnace’ [Dan 3], and the fires of martyrdom in more modern times. Hatred for Wycliffe and his doctrine led to his exhumation and the burning of his bones long after he had died. To Marian martyrs was given the signal honour of manifesting their faith at the stake.
In Numbers 11.1-3 the’fire of Taberah’ burnt and consumed the complainers among Israel. In Numbers 16.35, 250 men who offered incense in the Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebellion were destroyed by fire from the Lord. Leviticus 20.14 shows the awful end of a man, his wife and his mother-in-law, who violated divine laws governing human relationships; while 21.9 in the same book decrees death by burning for the daughter of a priest who profaned herself and her father by playing the whore [cf. Gen 38.24]. In Joshua’s day the death of Achan and his family, the troubler of Israel, was by stoning followed by the burning of the bodies with fire, after which, we read, ‘So the Lord turned from the fierceness of His anger’ [7.25-26]. We are accustomed to being told that these various cases reflect merely the mental and religious outlook of long ago, and that our thoughts of God do not run along such lines. We think not so. All things written aforetime, by divine inspiration, were written for our learning, for our encouragement and for our admonition ‘upon whom the ends of the world are come’. [1 Cor 10.11].
Centuries later, when Jeroboam I commenced golden-calf worship in Bethel and Dan, the ‘man of God out of Judah’ denounced his act and prophesied that men’s bones would be burned upon the idolatrous altar at Bethel; this would render it
an abomination indeed to all pious persons, and even to the ungodly worshippers. Fire from heaven burned up the two companies of fifty which were sent by the ungodly Ahaziah to take the prophet Elijah, 2 Kings 1.10-12. Amos records special divine indignation against Moab because its king had ‘burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime’ [2.1], an act comparable to that recorded in 2 Kings 3.27. As recompense, Amos prophesied that God would send a fire upon Moab and its palaces. In otherwords, from a nation which did not own the God of Israel, Jehovah required behaviour befitting His moral law written in the consciences of men at large. And that law ran contrary to the burning of an enemy’s corpse, rendering honourable interment impossible.
The teaching of the Old Testament, clearly enough, is that the burning of a human body is only right when a sin peculiar for its hideousness is awarded a penalty designed to show the hatred with which it is regarded by God. The burning of the bodies of King Saul and his sons by the men of Jabesh-gilead, after they had taken them from the Philistines, seems to have been occasioned by the desire to prevent the further desecration of the bodies by the enemy if, perchance, they recovered them. Dr Robert Jamieson remarks, in his comments on this passage [1 Sam. 31.11-13]: ‘This was not a Hebrew custom. It was probably resorted to on this occasion to prevent all risk of the Bethshanites coming to disinter the royal remains for further insult’. Hence it is a ‘neutral’ passage on which no teaching can be based. Amos 6.10 records the burning of a human body. Ten men die in one house, probably of plague and starvation, during a siege; an uncle, as the next of kin, comes to dispose of the dead by burning, the highly unusual practice only being resorted to through dire necessity, and possibly to prevent contagion. ‘Here’, says A. R. Fausset, ‘it heightens the sadness of the picture that there was not admissible the decent mode of interment, but that a mode had to be adopted most alien to their feelings and religion – viz:
burning, and this by the one who loved the dead most, the uncle, now that father and brothers were gone’.
The references to burnings accompanying royal entombments [e.g. 2 Chron 16.14-the burial of Asa] do not indicate cremation, but nothing more than the burning of spices and possibly furniture in the king’s honour. Jeremiah 34.5 makes reference to the same practice. It was common also in the Greek and Roman world to present ‘grave-gifts’ to be burned with the body [if cremated] and these might be large and costly. It seems to have been a widespread custom
throughout the ancient world, particularly followed in the case of distinguished persons. There is no suggestion of burning the dead belonging to the hosts of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 39. After the tremendous slaughter which this chapter indicates, it takes the victors seven months to deal with the bodies of the slain, but it is burying, not burning, which is mentioned.
Again, whereas we have in the Old Testament two cases of translation, those of Enoch and Elijah, we learn that it was not the will of God to translate Moses when his work was done. His prayer [Psalm 90] speaks of man ‘flying away’ [verse 10], but not in the sense of a translation including the body. Moses himself was to die by the hand of God. Mount Nebo became his death chamber, and from its window he looked upon the land which he was not to enter. ‘So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord; and He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab… but no man knoweth of his sepulchre’, Deut 34.5-6. Where God is Himself the undertaker – we speak reverently – there is no thought of cremation.
And no man knows that sepulchre,
And no man saw it e’er,
For the angels of God upturned the sod
And laid the dead man there.
We may well agree with the famed poetess: That was the grandest funeral that ever passed on earth’.
The only New Testament reference to the burning of the human body occurs in 1 Corinthians 13.3, and obviously it has no relevance to the relationship of cremation to the death of the Christian. The apostle was undoubtedly aware of the Greek practice and uses it as if to say, ‘If a man [a Greek] is prepared to lay down his life for a cause in which he believes, it profits him nothing unless love is the motive of his action’.
But the New Testament, and Christian doctrine based upon it, certainly include indications, if not precepts, that burial, not cremation, is the mind of the Lord. We have already made reference to the replacement of cremation by burial in Christendom when the Gospel had spread abroad. The change calls for explanation, and it cannot be doubted that, in chief, the practice of the Jews, the facts of the Gospel of Christ, the belief in the resurrection of the body, and the theological tenet that the Christian’s body was the redeemed temple of the Holy Spirit of God, combined to bring it about. The practice of the Jews needs no further comment, the further points do.
That Christ was buried is an essential part of the Gospel. He was the corn of wheat which fell into the ground and died, that it might bring forth much fruit. Loving hands anointed Him for His burial [John 12.24; 12.7; Matt 26.12]. When Paul summarizes the Gospel which he preached – and he had first received it from heaven – he says that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures’ [1 Cor 15.3-4]. That Christ was to be buried was prophesied by Isaiah in his 53rd chapter: They appointed His grave with the wicked, but He was with the rich in His death’ [verse 9], and the fact is wonderfully sacred to Christian hearts. For Christians’ sake the Lord of life experienced death. He
bowed to the grave, destroyed it so,
And death by dying slew.
If, when we ourselves come to die, we wish to follow His steps [1 Peter 2.21], it is supremely fitting that we should seek honourable burial. Those who, in God’s providence, have been called through faith to meet death in the fires of martyrdom have honoured their Lord indeed. But the many who through faith have escaped sword and fire and scaffold have honoured the Lord equally in their ‘sleep in Jesus’. The delightful apostolic phrase suggests the provision of a bed in which the blessed of the Lord thus sleep, and the bed is the grave, whether it be rocky cave or excavated earth. The word ‘cemetery’ itself simply means ‘a place of sleeping’. It is the body alone which sleeps. The soul and spirit depart to be with Christ, which is far better, Phil 1.23. The inferior part, redeemed together with the soul by the precious blood of Christ, remains on earth until the trump of resurrection ‘awakes the chorus, from desert and field, of the blessed dead’.
Alone and safe in the holy keeping
Of Him who holdeth the grave’s cold key,
They have laid thee down for the blessed sleeping,
The quiet rest which His dear ones see.
C. H. Spurgeon, speaking in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, once said that if he were presented with a choice between living until the Lord’s Second Advent, or dying before the advent, he would choose the latter, so that he might have fellowship with the Lord in burial and bodily resurrection. Perhaps we cannot echo the desire, but it is a permissible one. And certainly the whole tenor of the New Testament favours
the burial of the body of the believer, not its burning.
Again, the fact of a bodily resurrection yet to come suggests the congruence of burial with the ‘blessed hope’. The apostle in 1 Corinthians 15 takes it for granted that the bodies of believers who die are buried. There is nothing to suggest otherwise. His own emphatic and repetitive word is ‘sown’. His analogy is drawn from agriculture. The seed, ‘it may chance of wheat or of some other grain’, is sown in the earth and bears after its kind. ‘God gives it a body [in that which follows the sowing] as it has pleased Him’. ‘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 in weakness; it is raised in power:
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body!’
Repetition of the expression indicates the emphatic character of the apostolic teaching. Cremation cannot fit into the analogy. The farmer does not burn his seed in order to procure a harvest. The Christian is not, in this sense, to give his body to be burned. Burning, if it takes place, does not and cannot defeat the will and purpose of God. There is assuredly to be a resurrection both of the just and of the unjust [Acts24.15]. The human body may have been burned in fire, may have been eaten of beasts or of cannibals, may have become mingled as dust with the dust of earth and scattered to the four winds. In the day of resurrection, by a display of stupendous power-the power which raised the body of Christ from Joseph’s tomb In Jerusalem and rendered it a glorious body – the believer’s body will be raised again and fashioned like Christ’s body of glory. The bodies of unbelievers will be raised to shame and everlasting contempt [Dan 12.2]. Daniel speaks of ‘sleepers in the dust of the earth’ and, as in much else, the New Testament carries on the same thought.
We remark in passing that burial, as that which befits a so-called Christian land and nation, is embedded in English literature, and not only in Christian literature. One or two examples must suffice. The most famous poem in our language includes the lines,
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-trees shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,.
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
But the trump of God will avail when call, twittering, clarion and horn fail. The voice of the Son of God will be heard by ‘all that are in the graves’ and resurrection to life or to damnation will be the immediate and inevitable consequence [John 5. 28-29].
Or again, when an English poet laments ‘the brave who sink to rest, by all their country’s wishes blest’, he imagines that
Honour comes, a pilgrim grey,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay:
And Freedom shall awhile repair
To dwell, a weeping hermit, there.
Comfort for the Christian
But it is when we turn to our ‘more sure word of prophecy’ that we find the endorsement which comforts truly Christian hearts. Believers sleep, not only in the grave, but in Jesus. ‘My Flesh also shall rest in hope’, Psa 16.9; Acts 2.26. Unlike the Lord’s body, the bodies of believers certainly see corruption. But if, in a spiritual sense, they are ‘buried with Christ by baptism into death’ [Rom 6.4], they may know too that the very sepulture which they receive at the hands of their kindred and friends sees them following according to the pattern shown to them in Scripture. In the grave for awhile they find a silent fellowship with the Lord, of whose body it was said by the angelic visitor to earth, ‘Come, see the place where the Lord lay’. The grave’s dishonour is removed by the burial of Christ, even as death’s sting is removed by His death and its power is snatched from it by His resurrection. The lifeless body which lay for three days in the garden-tomb is described by the angel as ‘the Lord’. In occupying a similar resting place, do we not demonstrate our soul’s rest in the Lordship of Jesus Christ? ‘Be it so, and Thine, Lord, all the glory!’
To honour the Lord thus is a part of blessedness. Death has lost its sting; the grave does not have the victory. ‘Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’. Let us, like the ‘beloved brethren’ of the Epistle, follow in the steps of the ‘blessed of the Lord’. Let us imitate them in their steadfastness and unmovability, and repudiate firmly and graciously the teaching and belief that cremation is a ‘more excellent way’ than that which its adherents wish to displace. If
we die, let devout men carry us to our burial. Let us honour the Lord in death as in life. Certainly, in another sense, the body’s honour is not yet, for ‘it is sown in dishonour’; but when the body is raised in glory, then we shall see and share the glory of the Lord and know the excellency of our God.
I shall sleep sound in Jesus,
Filled with His likeness rise,
To love and to adore Him,
To see Him with these eyes -‘Tween me and resurrection
But Paradise doth stand,
Then, then, for glory dwelling
In Immanuel’s land.
* This article was first published in the Banner of Truth Magazine and appears in the recently published book Truth Unchanged, Unchanging. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.