Cremation and St. Augustine on Why Christians Bury Their Dead

|

In The City of God, Augustine gives reasons why Christians should bury their dead. His points are helpful for navigating the sensitive question of cremation. In this article, I first explain why those whose Christian loved ones have already been cremated do not need to worry or be ashamed. Then, I argue that, despite this fact, burial better reflects fundamental Christian beliefs, while cremation may reflect pagan ideas about the body and salvation. Finally, I offer a few practical suggestions for those who are considering cremation for financial reasons.

The Cremated Will Be Raised

In Chapter 12 of Book I of The City of God, Augustine writes that in times of carnage, it may be impossible to bury the bodies of the faithful. The church should not doubt their final salvation; in the end, nothing can prevent the bodily resurrection of the faithful.

First, Augustine draws on Jesus’s promise to his disciples, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:17–18). Since many persecuted Christians have had their hair burned off, cut off, or plucked out, Augustine assumes that this passage is fulfilled by the future resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42). In the end, every hair on our head will be restored: “for the faithful bear in mind that assurance has been given that not a hair of their head shall perish, and that, therefore, though they even be devoured by beasts, their blessed resurrection will not hereby be hindered” (City of God 1.12).

Augustine also draws on Luke 12:4: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.” We should not fear what men can do to our bodies, whether in life or in death. It is not as though our persecutors can hinder our final resurrection by preventing the burial of our bodies. Augustine assures, “There are indeed many bodies of Christians lying unburied; but no one has separated them from heaven, nor from that earth which is all filled with the presence of Him who knows whence He will raise again what He created” (City of God 1.12).

Whether a Christian’s body has been dismembered and strewn across the earth, or burned to ashes and scattered into the sea, nothing can prevent God from resurrecting his creation on the last day.

To Christians, “it has been promised that the flesh itself shall be restored, and the body formed anew, all the members of it being gathered not only from the earth, but from the most secret recesses of any other of the elements in which the dead bodies of men have lain hid!” (City of God 1.12). Whether a Christian’s body has been dismembered and strewn across the earth, or burned to ashes and scattered into the sea, nothing can prevent God from resurrecting his creation on the last day (Rev. 20:13). Final resurrection is the miracle of an all-powerful God; it does not depend on our bodies being preserved in a casket.

Burial Better Reflects Christian Beliefs

Although we do not need to fret or be ashamed if our Christian loved ones have already been cremated, it would be wrong to assume that this settles the question of whether or not cremation is a good practice for Christians. Minucius Felix, one of the earliest defenders of the Chrisitan faith, spoke for the church when he wrote, “we do not fear any loss from any mode of sepulture, but we adhere to the old and better custom of burial.” Burying our dead honors Christ because it reflects Christian beliefs better than cremation.

After assuring his readers that nothing can prevent the resurrection of the dead, Augustine immediately continues in Chapter 13 to give “Reasons for Burying the Bodies of the Saints”:

Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as His organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing! For the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man’s very nature.

Unfortunately, many Christians still think of the body as just “an extraneous ornament or aid.” In nearly every Christian funeral that I have attended, someone has remarked, “That body is just a shell; the real ‘them’ is up in heaven with God.” I have written elsewhere on this deeply troubling and semi-Gnostic mindset which likely explains the quickness of Christians to embrace cremation. If the body is “just a shell,” an extraneous ornament or aid, then why not save a few thousand dollars and cremate it?

However, if we understand that the body is “part of man’s very nature”; that this nature was assumed by Christ and sanctified by his incarnation; that the bodily incarnation was part of God’s plan to redeem our physical bodies as well as the whole physical creation; and that the burial of Christ’s body and his bodily resurrection on the third day is at the heart of our faith, as confessed in the great Christian Creeds; then our treatment of the body after death takes on weighty theological significance.

Burying our dead honors Christ because it reflects Christian beliefs better than cremation.

Augustine appeals to the great care with which the Old Testament saints buried their dead and prepared their own burials. He also cites the apocryphal book of Tobit, in which God is pleased by the burial of the dead. More importantly, he explains Jesus’s own attitude towards the careful burial of his body, despite the fact that he would be raised in a short time:

Our Lord Himself, too, though He was to rise again the third day, applauds, and commends to our applause, the good work of the religious woman who poured precious ointment over His limbs, and did it against His burial. And the Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly cerements, and see to its burial. These instances certainly do not prove that corpses have any feeling; but they show that God’s providence extends even to the bodies of the dead, and that such pious offices are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the resurrection. And we may also draw from them this wholesome lesson, that if God does not forget even any kind office which loving care pays to the unconscious dead, much more does He reward the charity we exercise towards the living. (City of God 1.13)

Although “cremation was the normal practice of Greeks and Romans,” for whom the goal of a spiritual person was to escape the confines of the body and ascend to God in a nebulous realm above, historian Timothy George explains that “the early Christians insisted on burying their dead. Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means ‘sleeping places,’ reflecting belief in a future resurrection” (1 Cor. 15:51). From the beginning, Christians rejected a Platonic and Gnostic over-spiritualization of salvation, and this position was made concrete in their commitment to burial over cremation.

Financial Concerns

We honor Christ when we seek to reflect our beliefs in the way that we care for the bodies of the dead. Admittedly, even those who would prefer to bury their loved ones are sometimes swayed by financial concerns. Cremation is significantly cheaper than burial. However, a simple burial with a modest casket is only a few thousand dollars more than an average cremation. Here are a few suggestions for how Christians can help one another to compensate for the difference:

  1. Start preparing for your funeral at a young age. My wife pays a few dollars for her life insurance policy, and her burial costs will be completely covered.
  2. Reassure your parents or grandparents that they do not need to choose cremation over burial for your sake (i.e., so that you can get more of an inheritance).
  3. Ask for the church’s help. Ideally, churches could set aside a fund to help with the funeral expenses of church members. I greatly appreciate John Piper’s proposal to this end. Caring for a dead member of the body is the responsibility of the whole church, not just the loved ones of the deceased. Piper writes, “My proposal … is that Christian churches be willing to help families financially with simple, Christ-exalting funerals and burials, so that no Christian is drawn to cremation because it’s cheaper. I’m not thinking mainly of a line-item in the budget, but of a segregated compassion-fund that church members may give to regularly or as the need arises. Grieving families could quietly approach the overseer of that fund and make it known that they have a need, and all could be handled quietly and carefully between the family and the funeral home.”

Please think long and hard before you cremate your loved one. While the cremated will be raised, burial better reflects Christian beliefs about the body and salvation.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.