“And when Abraham rose from before the face of his dead, he spoke to the Sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and an alien in your midst, place in my possession a grave in your midst and I will burry my dead from before my face.”
This is the first recorded account of an actual burial in the Bible. God had spoken of burial to Abraham before (Genesis 15:15), but it was more of a passing reference than a description of how to treat the dead. Yet, here we have a specific account of the corpse of a loved one being placed in the ground (in this case, in a cave) and sealed up, “away from sight.” It should also be noted here that since the act of burying the body is casually spoken of with no explanation or divine fiat, it should be surmised that burial was the normal procedure for treating the dead.
It is significant to make note of this because here marks the basis for the Christian and Jewish traditions of burial. Because we anticipate a resurrection, we place the body whole into the ground for keeping until that time when Christ comes again to raise us all — believers to eternal life and unbelievers to eternal destruction.
In the west, the process of cremation has been becoming more popular within Christian circles and rarely is it asked, is this a good thing or is this not a good thing? Surely, the God who created the universe can raise a body from the ashes just as easily as he can raise a long dead and decayed corpse to life, but is that the right question to be asking?
The tradition of burning the bodies of the dead can be traced back to pagan sources, not to Judeo-Christian ones, and that ought to at least raise an eyebrow. The basis of this practice was the pantheistic view that all living things are part of the divine within creation and thus when one’s flesh is burned and returned to the dust of the earth, one’s physical essence continues as part of “Mother Earth’s” life-cycle. And while Christians who are seeking cremations certainly have not subscribed to this pagan way of thought, should we not be concerned about the symbolism that our acts communicate? Then again, perhaps this falls into the realm of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny where certain levels of “socially acceptable” paganism are incorporated into the Christian life…
So, where do we go from here? My counsel would be to think through the question of symbolism, because every action we take can either point others to God or away from God. Indeed, if one is cremated, one need not fear whether our God can raise that person from the ashes…indeed he can! And it should be noted that sometimes there is no other option but cremation (for example in island nations like Japan where there is not enough real-estate to establish large graveyards as we have here in America or where people’s bodies have been turned to ash by bombs). That being said, when we have the option, my suggestion is that the traditional Judeo-Christian model of burying our dead is the best model to follow. It communicates the dignity one has for the corpse as well as the hope of a resurrection far more clearly than through burning the body and burying a pile of ashes. And certainly, Christians ought not choose to scatter their ashes as that communicates an attitude that says, “I do not care about” or “I do not believe in” a resurrection. Such an attitude is not consistent with what we know from scripture to be true.
In the case of Abraham, a specific place for Sarah’s burial is sought out. This will be a place located in the land God promised to the people and that will be kept in memorial for generations to follow. May this model of Abraham guide us in our own model as well.