A Biblical Theology of Burial

Over the years, numerous people have asked me what the Scriptures teach about burial versus cremation. Yesterday, I happened to be speaking with the owner of a funeral home who said, “People just aren’t dying like they used to.” Immediately thinking, “He can’t mean that people aren’t dying at the same rate as they used to, ” I thought, “he must mean that they are opting for cremation over burial for economical purposes.” This was precisely what he was suggesting. In fact, he told me that there are even cremation services that are advertising on television now. You can get a $999 special at one such place in the area. So, the question remains: What, if anything does the Scripture say about burial? The answer might surprise you.

The earliest account we have of burial has to do with Abraham and his immediate family. Having givenAbraham promises of blessing and inheritance–which were all dependent on the coming of the Redeemer–the Scriptures reveal to us that all of God’s dealings with Abraham have–in some sense or another–to do with the prospect of redemption. God promised Abraham land, but–contrary to the opinions of many–this was a promise of the inheritance of the New Heavens and the New Earth that believers get in union with Christ. Abraham actually never inherited any of the land. He did, however, become heir of all things in Christ. The promise, the Apostle Paul tells us, was that Abraham and all his spiritual offspring would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13) through the righteousness of faith.

The Genesis narrative helps us understand that the promise was not ultimately about the land of Israel, since Abraham never inherited any part of the land of Israel except for a burial place that he bought for himself, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah (Gen. 23; Gen. 49:31). The purchase of the burial place was actually an act of faith. Abraham was hoping for the bodily resurrection that God promised. S.G. Degraaf captures the theological significance so well when he notes:

It should be noted that from the very beginning of Genesis 23, Abraham speaks of “my dead,” and the Hittites likewise speak of “your dead.” Abraham clings to Sarah in faith even after she has died, just as we cling to our dead in Christ. Moreover, he loves her earthly appearance and wants to see it restored. That’s why he seeks a burial place for her in the inhabited world and does not bury her somewhere out in the fields. For believers, the grave is a symbol not only of humiliation and downfall but also of the part they play in history here on earth and even of their ultimate glorification along with the earth. Because he believed in the resurrection of the dead, Abraham buried Sarah. For him her grave was a guarantee that his seed would inherit the land and possess it forever. One day Sarah and her children would be glorified there. Still, the path to that everlasting inheritance passes through death. For Abraham there was no avoiding this part of the journey, this dying to everything in order to receive everything. The path all believers have to travel (including Abraham and Sarah) is the path Christ faced, for He passed through death to gain His everlasting inheritance.1

The hope of the resurrection is further highlighted in Joseph telling his brethren to take his bones up from Egypt to the promised land when they entered in 400 some years later (Gen. 50:25 and Heb. 11:22). What good would it do Joseph’s bones to be in the promised land if he was dead? Joseph was teaching the Israelites that there was a greater promised land, and that one day he would be raised up–body and soul–to inherit the New Heavens and the New Earth. This is also what the writer of Hebrews tells us was true of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob before him:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God…These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Heb. 11:8-16).

Burial as an act of faith is also seen in the Jewish burial acts recorded in the Gospels. Perhaps the most instructive–apart from that of our Lord’s– is that of Lazarus. When Jesus came to Mary and Martha about the death of their brother, He said to them, “Your brother will rise again.” Mary and Martha responded by saying, “Lord, we know that he will rise on the last day.” Jesus then corrected their misunderstanding about who He was by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The point, however, is that Mary and Martha embalmed their brother and gave him a proper burial in hope of the resurrection on the last day.

The most significant of all burials in the Scriptures is that of our Lord Himself. The Spirit of Christ through the Psalmist had prophesied that His body would not see corruption (Ps. 16:10-11; Acts 2:22-39). This is because Jesus was uniquely the Holy One of God. When the apostle John tells us that Nicodemus brought 75 to 100 pounds of costly spices, it was to intimate that God was preserving the body of Jesus for His resurrection. Additionally, the prophet Isaiah had prophesied that Jesus would be buried with the rich in His death because He had done no wrong, nor was there any deceit in His mouth (Is. 53:9). If it had not been so, then Jesus would have been thrown on a trash heap, with those wicked men with whom He had been crucified. His body would then have been burned. Burning a body was a sign of disrespect and judgment. In the Old Testament, God often sent judgment on wicked men and women by having them burned (Lev. 10:1-2; Num. 11:1; Num. 16:35; Deut. 32:21-24; Ps. 21:9; etc.). Jesus was the Holy One and so His body was given a respectful burial.

The burial of Jesus also teaches us that our sins were put away from the presence of God. We, like Him, have died, been buried and risen spiritually. The burial of Jesus is one of the often overlooked redemptive-historical elements of our salvation. Our sins were representatively put away from the presence of God in burial. This secures for us the hope of the physical resurrection on the last day. We must not miss the solidarity that we have with our Lord by virtue of our union with Him.

…see the rest of the post at the Christward Collective.

1 Response

  1. Rufus Lee

    I’ve been wondering about this myself lately–thanks for the edifying discourse. Augustine agrees with you (and my pastor, essentially, and me) (City of God Book I, Chapter 13): “…such pious offices (burying the dead) are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the resurrection.”

    Now I’m wondering if there has ever been a time in the history of the city of God when God’s people practiced cremation…

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