On these occasions, one expects a sermon devoted either to the gospel itself or our urgent need to consecrate ourselves to the gospel and its proclamation. Worthiest of subjects indeed! I considered both in thinking about my text and subject for this evening. But I chose what I suspect many of you will, at least at first, think is another theme, even a relatively minor theme. In fact it is closely connected both to the gospel and its proclamation. It is a theme one scarcely ever hears preached, though it is common enough in both the teaching and the illustration of the Bible.
I chose it for several distinct reasons.
- It is a subject I believe that ought very seriously to be considered in our day and it is not being so considered, very much to the detriment of God’s people and to the witness of the church to our modern culture.
- It concerns a practice in which we are dramatically diverging from the tradition of 2000 years of Christian practice and several thousand more of the practice of the church in the ancient epoch. We are diverging but without careful consideration of what we are doing.
- It is a subject of intense practical importance to God’s people and I was reminded of that importance several times of late.
- It is a practice that, sooner or later, must bear on the conviction with which we maintain our theology of salvation as the restoration and renewal of the entire human being, body and soul.
- Finally, one does not often get a chance to preach to preachers and church leaders and when one does there is an opportunity not only to encourage them from some text of Holy Scripture, but to influence the way in which they influence their congregation.
- Finally, I suspect this may be the last time I see a number of you in this life and I thought it appropriate to speak apropos our meeting again on the great day.
v.1 After Eve, Sarah is the first woman of importance to occupy the stage in Genesis. Here we have a woman of heroic proportion and the NT is careful to call attention to her faith and to her role as the Mother of Israel. Twice, through the cowardice of her husband, she was trapped in a foreign king’s harem. The last two chapters have highlighted Abraham’s affection for his two sons. Now we learn that, though he had failed her and betrayed her on several occasions in their life together, Abraham loved his wife deeply.
v.3 “rose from beside” indicates that what is being described here are the conventional rites of mourning that Abraham performed for Sarah in the presence of her body.
v.4 “Alien and stranger” is a technical description of Abraham’s status in Canaan. He was an immigrant, a resident alien, with some standing but limited rights. It would be something like having a “green card.”
The term Abraham uses here for what the NIV translates as “burial site” is an important part of the meaning of the chapter. What he asks for literally is a “holding for a grave” or a “possession of a grave.” It is the same term used in 17:8 and 48:4 for the eternal “holding” or “possession” of the Promised Land by the descendants of Abraham. Abraham doesn’t simply want a place to bury Sarah, he wants to own the site!
v.6 The flattery and the silence regarding Abraham’s proposal to purchase the land for the burial site is their way of encouraging him to remain a landless immigrant. He can bury his dead, certainly, without having to buy the land.
v.9 Abraham’s reply, mentioning a specific name and the offer of full payment for the land, no quibbling over the price, makes clever use of the fact that, while a group may resent an intruder, an individual owner may welcome a buyer.
v.11 What is this offer of the land for free mean? Well, it is really a politely masked offer to sell.
v.13 Abraham wants ownership, nothing else.
v.15 This way of speaking can still be found in the Near East today. In Damascus, when a purchaser makes a lower offer than can be accepted, he is answered: ‘What, is it a matter of money between us? Take it for nothing, friend, as a present from me; don’t feel under any kind of constraint!” Of course, nothing of the kind literally is meant at all. Some years ago a traveller reported this happening to him in Hebron itself. “In our excursions we had noticed a fine grey horse belonging to the Quarantine inspector. Mr. Blaine, my fellow-traveller, had appeared to wish to buy the animal. It now made its appearance in our tents. We inquired the price, and our astonishment may be conceived, when the…Turk offered us the animal as a present. Mr. Blaine declared that he by no means intended to take it as a present, when the Turk replied: ‘What then are [25 pounds sterling] to thee?'” [In Wenham, p. 129]
v.16 It is difficult to know for certain, but the price probably indicates an extensive and impressive burial ground, fitting for the mother of a nation.
v.18 The details of the property (the mention of trees is characteristic of Hittite land transactions) and the mention of witnesses is all intended to attest to a fully secured contract. The land belongs now to Abraham free and clear.
v.20 We read in 49:29-32 that later Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah and Jacob were buried here as well.
Sooner or later we come to every issue and every subject of importance in Holy Scripture. And we have come to an important issue here. It may not be what most readers of this text would think to consider or think very necessary or important to consider, but if this part of God’s Word, this theme and this practice is not preached from time to time, and especially when it appears before us in a text of Scripture, it will be too late when time comes to act on what we are taught here.
The primary significance of this history is what it is said to be in Hebrews 11:9,13. Abraham and Sarah lived as pilgrims in the world. They did not own the land of Canaan, and, much more important, they did not yet possess the heavenly country of which Canaan was a sign and seal. They lived by faith in the eventual fulfillment of promises they never saw the fulfillment of in their own lifetimes. But they did believe. They knew what God had told them would, in due time come to pass. They died in this faith and so, the author of Hebrews tells us, are among those who will receive what was promised to them — the better country, the better resurrection, the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. They saw the better country and greeted it from afar.
It was this faith that Abraham was demonstrating in his determination to purchase a holding in the Promised Land in which to bury his dead. He was embodying his faith that both the Promised Land itself would one day belong to his family and that the greater land of promise would also eventually belong to him and his true descendants, his descendants in faith. By burying Sarah in the Promised Land he was acting out both his faith in God’s promise concerning the two lands, the one below and the one above, and his faith in the resurrection of the dead – which, you remember, he also demonstrated in the matter of the almost-sacrifice of his son Isaac, as the author of Hebrews also tells us.
Now, perhaps we couldn’t make too much of Abraham’s example, perhaps we couldn’t argue, as I am about to argue, that is it an example for us to imitate and a summons for us to answer, except for the fact that what Abraham does is done right through the Bible to the very end. The attention paid to the believing dead as an embodiment of Christian faith in their future, faith in the promises that Christ has made regarding their resurrection and eternal life, is a prominent feature of the practice of the faith in the Bible. Abraham buried Sarah and he buried her in such a way as to embody his faith in her eventually receiving all that had been promised to her, that she would, someday, place her own foot in the Promised Land, both Canaan and Heaven itself.
And that example needs to be carefully considered again in our day, because this historic, age-old custom of the Christian church is falling away in our time. Another practice is replacing Abraham’s on a scale totally unprecedented in Christian history. It is a part of our faith and a practice of our faith that no one is thinking much about, or, at least, is not thinking biblically and theologically about in our thoughtless and decadent age. I am speaking, you will have guessed, about the practice of burying the dead.
Cremation as a means of disposing of a human body is rapidly becoming the norm in our West Coast culture. Upwards of 50% of the dead are now cremated every year on the West Coast of the United States (and, I expect the number is at least as high in Canada).. Those are the facts. And they would not disturb me overmuch except for the fact that cremation is coming to be accepted among Christians as proper, even, in some cases, as the preferred method of treating their own dead. We are told that it is cheaper, as it is, and that it is not right to burden the bereaved with a large bill for burial. We have been taught to worry that land for new cemeteries is simply not going to be available to us any longer, that existing cemeteries are filling up and that, therefore, we must find a different way of treating our dead. Some even like the idea of being able to scatter Uncle Henry over his favorite fishing hole or Aunt Mary in the rose garden she loved so much. Don’t you swallow this hogwash! We are Christians. The Bible speaks to this issue clearly and emphatically, in a way the Christian church has had no difficulty understanding for thousands of years. It is not Christian thinking that lies behind the growing popularity of cremation; it is paganism, pure and simple.
Now, having stated that point so strongly, I must say something else. Listen to me carefully, brethren. I do not blame individual Christians who have, in the past, made the decision to cremate a loved one. My brother-in-law was cremated. I have, I believe, thankfully talked my sister out of doing the same for herself when she comes to die. I didn’t blame her. She’d never thought seriously about the practice. No one told her to think again or even raised a question in her mind. She’d never heard a sermon on the subject; never read a book. I blame the Christian ministry entirely. Christians can be forgiven for not having thought about this or for assuming that such a practice would be proper, because their ministers have either been silent in regard to the issue or have actually encouraged them to consider the practice. I have in my files an article by a minister of one of our conservative Presbyterian and Reformed Churches that argues that cremation is an entirely proper practice for Christians. I am well aware, and gladly so, to know that some of you have considered the issue with your people and have preached against cremation. Nor do I want anyone to think that the cremation of a Christian somehow affects his or her future blessing. Obviously many Christians have been burned to death on martyrs’ stakes or have died at sea or have decayed to nothing in deserts and battlefields. God is able to raise the dead! That is not the issue. The issue is what is right for us to do, what practice is in keeping with our faith, what way of treating our dead conforms to what we believe about them and about their future. I’m not preaching to the dead but to the living and to those who will die.
The arguments for cremation are, in fact, very like the arguments for abortion: they amount to a case for making it easier for the living. Burials are too expensive, too land-intensive in the same way that pregnancies can be so very inconvenient and bring babies into the world that parents cannot afford, and the like. Well, then, we may notice this analogy as well. Miscarriage is not abortion. What happens when a mother miscarries – as when a martyr is burned or a Christian sailor is lost at sea – is not at all the same thing morally as an abortion. What happens to us is not the same thing as what we ourselves choose to do. The fact that God does not need an existing body in order to resurrect the dead is no argument that we should burn the bodies of our loved ones when they have died.
Let me then give you reasons why Abraham’s practice is not reported to us in the Scripture simply as an historical detail but, rather, as an example for us to imitate.
1. First, the practice of burial has the support of Holy Scripture from beginning to end but cremation does not.
This is very striking and all the more because God’s people, throughout the entire course of the history covered in the Bible itself, were rubbing shoulders with cultures that practiced cremation. But the patriarchs buried their dead, so did Israel, and so did the church in the new epoch. Every statement regarding the dead in the Bible assumes this practice. Christ was buried and we were buried with him. Jesus said, “Those who are in their graves will rise to live…” Statements that characterize death as a sleep assume burial. They are simply incompatible with cremation, which is not in fact or appearance “sleep,” but complete and utter destruction and dissolution.
Now, you will hear folk argue that, in fact, cremation does appear in the Bible and that, therefore, the practice does have biblical support. And, to be sure, cremation does occur in several instances. The first is that of Achan, whose sin at Jericho brought Israel to ruin at Ai, and who, with his family, was stoned to death in the Valley of Achor, and then their bodies burned. Here cremation is clearly a sign of divine judgment and ruin. A similar instance of cremation as a sign of damnation is found in Josiah’s burning the bodies of the idolatrous priests on their altars (2 Kgs. 23:20). It is precisely that significance – as an emblem of hellfire – that makes it so inappropriate for God’s people when they die and why it is not used otherwise in the biblical history.
The other instance is that of Saul, who after being killed in battle, was taken by his enemies to Beth Shan where his body was hung up on the city wall that his enemies might gloat. The men of Jabesh Gilead, whom Saul had years before rescued from their enemies, went at risk to themselves, stole the body of Israel’s king – or what was left of that body after some days hanging in the Near-eastern sun – burned it, and then carried the bones home where they were buried. Cremation in that case was not a matter of disposing of the human body, but of necessity. What could be carried back for burial was carried back. Interestingly, the Chronicler only mentions Saul’s burial, not the burning. Eventually, as you remember, the body was exhumed and reinterred in the family grave.
If you interrogate Holy Scripture to learn how Christians ought to treat their dead, there is one answer given and one only: their bodies are to be buried or entombed. This, we may say, is the exegetical argument for burial and against cremation.
II. Second, the practice of burial attests to the biblical doctrine of man and the greatest argument against cremation is the Holy Scripture’s emphatic declaration of the personhood of the body.
The reason we are against abortion is that the Bible teaches us that the fetus is a person; not a person-to-be, not a potential person, but a person, already a moral, a spiritual being, already having begun his or her journey from this world to the next. The baby in the womb is referred to in the Bible with personal pronouns. It is not an “it,” it is always a “he” or a “she.” The baby is a person, a person already bearing the image of God. Each baby in the womb is a masterwork of the Creator, as we read in Psalm 139. Each one is fearfully and wonderfully made.
But the Bible even more emphatically and more often refers to the dead human body as a person! It is not what used to be a person; he or she is not what might become a person again. He is a person. She is as she lies in the grave a person. What does the Bible say? “…they who are in their graves will come out…”; “…he rested with his fathers”; “…we will not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…” and other texts like those. The personhood of the body is also the burden of those texts, a number of them, in which the dead are said to be sleeping, a striking and obviously significant description of death. One who sleeps will someday wake up. That is the point of that metaphor and so it also powerfully asserts the personhood of the body. Personhood, in other words, attaches to the entirety of man, not to his soul only. The body is the person as well as the soul and both are the objects of Christ’s redeeming love.
Indeed, as I noted before, it is not too much to say that cremation is an attack on the personhood of man in very much the same way that abortion is an attack on the personhood of man. In each case the attack comes at the most vulnerable point on the continuum of life: in the case of abortion on the person while still in the womb; in the case of cremation on the person after death when the body lacking the soul no longer ceases to maintain the functions of life. It is no surprise whatsoever that abortion and cremation should appear together in modern culture. They are the inevitable consequences of a loss of human identity in our culture. But Christians cannot share that loss of identity and should not act as if they do!
Again, people will point out that the body will disintegrate in the grave over time. There is no preventing its return to dust. But cremation is an affront to the personhood of the body as well as to the fact that each body is God’s own work, his greatest work of creation. To destroy it by fire is not, is never our place. He may destroy it by fire or in some other way, but we may not. Cremation is as different from the decay of the body in the grave as abortion is different from miscarriage. This, we may say, is the theological argument for burial and against cremation.
III. Third, the practice of burial attests the Christian hope of resurrection, the practice of cremation is an affront to that hope.
The personhood of the body, its value and significance, is confirmed by the Bible’s doctrine that it is the self-same body that will be raised alive and transformed in the day of resurrection. This point is emphasized repeatedly in Holy Scripture and in the creeds of the church and represents one of the great distinctives of Christianity among the religions and philosophies of the world. This hope of resurrection for the self-same body that died is given expression in the Bible’s habit of referring to the dead as “sleeping.” The point is made even in cases where it would seem to us that no body any longer exists to be raised to life again. At the last day, we read in Rev. 20, “the sea shall give up its dead.”
But contemporary Christians have lost touch with this great hope. Again and again I hear believers speak as if our hope were the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body. When I worked for a mortuary during my seminary years I noticed how often people would take comfort in the fact that one’s loved one was in heaven. “That is not Uncle Henry,” they would say as they stood beside the open casket, “Uncle Henry is in heaven.” Well, to be sure, if Uncle Henry was a faithful believer in Christ, his soul is in heaven upon his death. But that sentiment as it was expressed is Gnosticism, not Christianity. That body is and remains Uncle Henry, whether Henry is a Christian or not, and that selfsame body will awake and appear alive in the world on the day of resurrection. It is one thing to destroy by fire what used to be Uncle Henry; it is another thing altogether to destroy by fire Uncle Henry himself! His body and no other will rise on the last day, and Paul is careful to say, along with the rest of the Scripture, that the life of his soul in heaven without his body is by no means the full salvation Christ has promised him. No, the soul groans, even in heaven, longing to be clothed with its immortal body, Paul says in striking language in 2 Cor. 5. The believer’s hope in the Bible is not death – that is an interim blessing – but the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The view of death that permeates the practice of cremation is deeply unbiblical.
It is very important to realize that the religions that practice cremation as an article of faith, such as Hinduism, always do so in the service of a principle that elevates the spiritual – the soul – over the physical – the body. Salvation is conceived of as the deliverance of the spiritual part of man from the physical part. That is exactly what Christianity does not do and will not do. Our bodies will rise again just as our Savior’s did after he died on the cross for our sin. The salvation God proclaims and Christ procured for us is the salvation of our whole man, leading to the transformation of our whole man, body and soul, that very same body and soul which first began life in the womb of our mother. This, we may say, is the eschatological argument for burial and against cremation.
IV. Fourth, burial has the unqualified support of the entire history of Christianity in the world: cremation has always been rejected as not an acceptable practice for Christians.
The unbelieving emperor, Julian the Apostate, who sought to restore paganism to first place among the religions of the Empire, thought that Christianity’s triumph was due principally to three things: Christians’ benevolence to the poor, their honesty, and their treatment of the dead. In other words, they embodied before the world a new hope that the rest of mankind did not have. Their practice was to wash the body, sometimes to embalm it, to wrap it in linen and then, in the presence of ministers, family, and friends, to commit the body to the grave with prayer and singing. It was a powerful testimony to their reverence for life and their hope of resurrection. They did not fear cremation or other ways in which the body might be destroyed: it was the fate of the martyrs, after all. They knew that God could restore bodies which had been cremated or some other way destroyed. But they did not make the mistake of supposing that the manner of disposing of human bodies was therefore immaterial. Indeed, they did other things to embody their hope in the resurrection. They buried their dead with their heads to the west and their feet to the East so that when Jesus came again in the East, they could stand up to face him and not have to turn around! Most cemeteries still today bury on an east/west axis, with the head to the west, though I have discovered that most funeral directors no longer know why. What is more they often buried the dead with their shoes on, as an illustration of their expectation that we would rise to walk and to live again as human beings.
Here is Augustine in The City of God [I, 13]:
“…the bodies of the dead are not…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. And therefore to the righteous of ancient times the last offices were piously rendered, and sepulchers provided for them, and obsequies celebrated; and they themselves, while yet alive, gave commandment to their sons about the burial, and, on occasion, even about the removal of their bodies to some favorite place. 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.”
For nearly 2,000 years this has been the Christian Church’s universal custom. For what reasons now do we overturn that tradition, rooted as it clearly is in the practices that are illustrated and commended to us in Holy Scripture and expressing as it so naturally does the very hope in resurrection that Abraham was expressing in his purchase of a burial plot in Hebron. This, we may say, is the historical argument for burial and against cremation.
Concerns about available land for cemeteries are misplaced. There is plenty of land and many ways to make burial grounds go much further than they have in the past. The director of the cemetery where my father and sister are buried told me that they had room enough to bury in that cemetery until the Second Coming of Christ. And, while it is certainly responsible to think about how much money should be spent for a casket and burial, let us make sure that we are not, in that concern, masking a worldliness that quibbles over several thousands for the burial of a human being but does not hesitate to spend many, many thousands more for a new automobile. These are not the real question.
Can we cremate our loved ones to the glory of God? That is the one and only question. Can we be true to our Christian faith and cremate our loved ones when they have died? Chesterton raised this point in a series of debates on cremation vs. burial that he conducted with George Bernard Shaw years ago. The point he made with his characteristic wit was that the treatment of the dead cannot help but express our beliefs concerning life and death. It is an act too fraught with judgment concerning what human beings and human bodies are not to convey such judgment to our children, to our fellow Christians, to the bereaved, and to the culture as a whole. It certainly has for a long time in Christianity and it does in other religions. He contended against Shaw that if one wanted to return to paganism, thinking it for some reason a better idea to destroy the body by fire than to lay it in a grave, then at least one should do as the pagans do and make the destruction magnificent. He wrote a poem to this effect meant to point out the absurdity of turning this most sacred of all acts into an empty, entirely unceremonial and unsymbolic act of mere utility or convenience.
If I had been a heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky.
But Higgins is a heathen,
And a richer man than I;
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.
Abraham went to the pains he did to embody his faith that all the promises that God had made to him and to his family would come to pass in due time. Sarah would set her own feet on the Promised Land. The Scripture teaches us to do the same. It is the Bible’s way, the Christian way to see the better country and welcome it from afar.
May it be the happy lot of each of us to be able to walk through the quiet of a cemetery and see the place where we will lie, where, in Christ, we will sleep in peace, and consider what it will be like on the great day to stand to our feet again and welcome to the earth the King of Kings