Disposition of a Corpse
Historically, a number of practices have been used to dispose of (or preserve) the dead, including mummification and exposure to the elements (and animals). The most common methods of disposition in our society are burial (interment, inhumation), burning (cremation), and donation of a body to medical science (which usually eventually concludes in cremation). Related to burial (which is usually underground) are also storage in an above-ground tomb or mausoleum (immurement) and burial at sea.
Burial is the common, dominant and preferred method of disposal of the dead recorded in the Bible. There is a consistent thread of preference for burial among God's people. God Himself buried Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5-6, 8) and in His determinate counsel chose burial for His Son Jesus (Isa. 53:9; John 19:40). Burial was performed by the early disciples for their own members. See Acts 5:6-10 and Acts 8:2. The great initiatory ordinance of baptism incorporates the allegory of a burial. (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12). The “sleep” analogy/metaphor is used several times in the New Testament writing to refer to death (Matt. 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52; John 11:11; 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 2 Cor. 5:6-8; 1 Thess. 4:13-16). Sleep and burning are incongruous acts, while one laid out for burial assumes a position reminiscent of sleep. These are some reasons for the Christian to prefer burial over cremation, exposure or some other form of disposal.
“Let the dead bury their dead” is not primarily a burial text. It is about the primacy of the claims of Christ on the believer over the claims of culture, tradition and family (Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:60). Yet it yields a measure of truth regarding the subject. Through it we understand that burial is a physical and temporal benefit, rather than a spiritual exercise. A fine burial may hide a wasted life, while lack of physical care for a body may accompany a treasured soul (Cf. Luke 16:22).
The believer will receive a glorified body (1 Cor. 15:42-49; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Job 19:25-26). Whether the body is buried, burned or consumed by animals will not prevent God's power in resurrection. I am presently unwilling to relegate cremation to the category of sin against God – as something inherently evil. But a biblical thaptology prefers burial above cremation. The main impetus toward cremation is practical – particularly that of cost. Cremation is much less expensive than burial. This is a true concern for many. Yet burials can be made much less expensive than they often are. Guilt and grief (and sometimes greed) can be driving forces in excessive costs for funerals. Expense as a sign of devotion for a loved one is not totally without reason, though, as Jesus indicates when he rebukes Judas for complaining about the waste of ointment to anoint Jesus (Mark 14:4-9). There is nothing in the Bible to commend cremation to God's people as a method of end of life disposal. When tucked away in a mortuary basement, cremation seems quite civilized. But to behold it as the last view of a loved one, most would be repulsed.
Christian apologist Marcus Minucius Felix, writing perhaps as early as AD 160, says, “Nor, as you believe, do we fear any loss from sepulture, but we adopt the ancient and better custom of burying in the earth. See, therefore, how for our consolation all nature suggests a future resurrection. The sun sinks down and arises, the stars pass away and return, the flowers die and revive again, after their win-try decay the shrubs resume their leaves, seeds do not flourish again. unless they are rotted: thus the body in the sepulchre is like the trees which in winter hide their verdure with a deceptive dryness.”
In 374 or 375 AD Jerome wrote an account of Paulus the Hermit. Paulus died AD 341, of which Jerome wrote, "Then having wrapped up the body and carried it forth, all the while chanting hymns and psalms according to the Christian tradition." Like Minucius Felix, Jerome's account indicates burial as the practice of early post-apostolic Christians. Further he recites a funeral procession that includes singing or chanting.
We may not be bound by these customs – but how much better to bind ourselves to our forefathers in the faith than the customs of an increasingly ungodly society?