Cremation vs. Burial
Amos 2:1 says God is judging Moab “because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.”
So just as the Ammonites desecrate the beginning of life, Moab desecrates the end of life.
I want to zoom in on this because I was forced to think about cremation when my daughter died years ago. My research led me to this very verse. It’s not a topic that is dealt with often. One of the advantages of working through Scripture book by book and passage by passage is that you are forced to consider things you normally wouldn’t.
I do think this is worth considering given our modern context. Cremation is increasingly popular, and many funeral directors are being put under financial pressure to recommend it. It is not an issue without consequence. Let me tell you, when someone dies and you don't get to see their dead body, it prevents a good deal of closure. And when you see a lifeless body, you know that there is more to life than the physical.
So I want us to consider cremation vs. burial for a moment. Also, I know this will be a sensitive subject because some of you have cremated your loved ones. I want you to know that my mother and I were forced by circumstance to have my younger brother, Wayne, cremated. It was not ideal. I wasn’t happy about it. So I am one of you. Given the ability and opportunity, I think you should always choose burial. There are occasions where that choice isn’t an option.
I am agreement with the deductions Calvin makes in his commentary on the passage. It’s a long quote but helpful. He says:
"To dig up the bodies of enemies, and to burn their bones, — this is an inhuman deed, and wholly barbarous. But it was more detestable in the Moabites, who had some connection with the people of Edom; for they descended from the same family; and the memory of that relationship ought to have continued, since Abraham brought up Lot, the father of the Moabites; and thus the Moabites were under an obligation to the Idumeans. If then any humanity existed in them, they ought to have restrained their passions, so as not to treat so cruelly their brethren. Now, when they exceeded all moderation in war, and raged against dead bodies, and burnt the bones of the dead, it was, as I have said, an extremely barbarous conduct. The meaning then is, that the Moabites could no longer be borne with; for in this one instance, they gave an example of savage cruelty. Had there been a drop of humanity in them, they would have treated more kindly their brethren, the Idumeans; but they burnt into lime, that is, into ashes, the bones of the king of Edom, and thereby proved that they had forgotten all humanity and justice. We now understand the Prophet’s meaning."
The burning of a body is desecration of the body. We've lost the category of desecration. But it's still on the law books under another name. Here's the Ohio Revised Code on Abuse of a Corpse…
The burning of a body is desecration of the body. We’ve lost the category of desecration. But it’s still on the law books under another name. Here’s Ohio Revised Code of Abuse of a corpse:
(A) No person, except as authorized by law, shall treat a human corpse in a way that the person knows would outrage reasonable family sensibilities.
(B) No person, except as authorized by law, shall treat a human corpse in a way that would outrage reasonable community sensibilities.
(C) Whoever violates division (A) of this section is guilty of abuse of a corpse, a misdemeanor of the second degree. Whoever violates division (B) of this section is guilty of gross abuse of a corpse, a felony of the fifth degree.
I like that even the Ohio law emphasizes both what would outrage the family and the community. It shows that both societal and individual “sensibilities” matter.
Now, instead of drilling in deeper on the issue of cremation, let’s consider the biblical norm: burial. Here is a brief case for burial over cremation.
First, the positive example of Scripture makes it clear that burial was the ideal among that saints throughout the ages.
Abraham went to great lengths to bury Sarah (Gen. 23). One of Jacob’s main concerns is that he be buried not in Egypt but along side his fathers (Gen. 47).
It is notable again the measures that Joseph takes to honor his vow to bury his father according to his particular request (Gen. 50). Joseph echoes his father’s request and has his bones carried out of Egypt for burial (Jos 24:32). So all of the patriarchs made burial a priority. This priority runs throughout Scripture with the most significant case being the burial of our Lord.
Second, there is a command to bury in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a passage Paul cites in Galatians. It reads:
“If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.”
This passage clearly is using the hanging on a tree as a public deterrent against such terrible crimes but not to point it desecrates the body. Calvin says, “Moreover, that they may take more careful heed in this matter, he declares that the land would be defiled, if the corpse should be left hanging on the cross, since such inhumanity pollutes and disgraces the land.”
Third, it seems clear to me that the lack of a burial in Scripture is connected to extreme judgment. For example, there was the warning the prophet gave to Jeroboam in 1 Kings 13:
“O altar, altar, thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and on you he shall sacrifice the priests of the high places who burn incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’”
This prophecy is fulfilled in 2 Kings 23:20: “And he slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars, and burned men's bones upon them, and returned to Jerusalem.” Note that the burning of the bones were part of God’s judgment. We see something similar with God’s extreme judgment of Jezebel (2 Kings 9:10): “The dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her.”
This same idea is often applied in war where God’s judgment is being carried out by God’s people against a pagan nation. You can see this in God’s judgment of the Philistines under the lead of David:
“This day the Lord will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel…”
Generally speaking, it is judgment to have a body desecrated and spread amongst the earth. It’s not something believers should choose. Burial is the ideal and biblical norm.
It is visible testimony to coming resurrection of the dead. In a sense, each tombstones cries out, “All will rise again!” My mother’s tombstone reads: “Until the Resurrection.”
From my sermon notes on Amos 1 & 2.