Stewardship in Death

If we have a truly Christian philosophy which is rooted in Scripture, then we have a distinctive view, which is different from that of the world, on every subject. Obviously this pertains to the matter of death. Our view of death, its significance and what it introduces is radically different from that of unbelief.

When we come to the actual fact of death, does the behavior of Christians in general differ from that of the world? No doubt in several respects it does. For example it is probably true that at many Christian funerals there are significant messages which set forth the truths of the Word of God, rather than the usual pious-sounding platitudes of a eulogy. Furthermore in recent years it has become customary for many Christians to request that in lieu of flowers gifts be made to some worthy Christian organization. This latter custom reduces, to some extent, the great amount of sheer waste which occurs in conjunction with most funerals.

Is there a Difference?

By and large, however, the general Christian practice with regard to funerals and disposal of body does not basically differ from that of the world of unbelief. We find. in general. the same type of very expensive funeral and burial which has been the custom in our American society. (It is refreshing to find some people concerned about this, even from a non-Christian viewpoint, when they write about the high cost of dying.) We find, as part of these funerals. the same type of “viewing” which is, in my judgment, cruel and almost sadistic. We find in the funeral and burial the same effort to make the body such that “it looks just like him,” to place it (often in new clothes) under satin or velvet in a lovely casket, and bury it in a pleasant green cemetery or memorial park as they are now euphemistically called.

Should Christian practice, however. be different? After all, there are many aspects of life where our outward practice is very much like that of the world and properly so, even though we have a different philosophical understanding thereof. Is there anything wrong with the type of practice described above? Is burial required by Scripture? If not, is it to be preferred? Is cremation or some other use of the body forbidden by Scripture? If not, are there reasons for favoring them? In brief, are there Scriptural principles which should bear upon Christian practice in the matter of death?

Does Scripture Require Burial?

In his very fine book, Immortality, Loraine Boettner sets forth a view which is probably favored by many Christians and particularly by many Reformed readers of this journal. In dealing with the question of burial or cremation, he says, “In the final analysis it is no doubt correct to say that the manner of disposal is not a matter of vital importance.”1 Then, however, he argues in favor of burial. “Certainly under normal conditions we show much more respect for the bodies of our loved ones if they are tenderly laid away in the earth, under the coverlet of green, in the posture of rest or sleep, and in as good a state of preservation as possible.” He concludes that the practice of cremation “is anti-Christian and should have no place in the practice of the believer.”2 Surely Boettner is contradicting himself, for if a matter is anti-Christian then it is a matter of vital importance.

The reasons submitted by Boettner in favor of burial are that cremation is symbolic of violence and destruction, the condemnation due for sin, that God himself buried Moses and that it was the practice of the saints of God in Old and New Testaments, as well as Christ’s own example.

Now I submit that these are not adequate reasons in favor of burial. If we want to follow Scriptural example, why do we not have longer periods of mourning with the hiring of professional mourners? Why do we not place bodies in caves or sepulchres above ground as much as this was done in those days (often a common sepulchre for more than one body)? Why do we use coffins when they did not? Why do we not embalm as they did? The Hebrew and early Christian custom is not necessarily the preferable one for us. Even Jesus’ example in burial does not make it preferable. If so, why not execute the way Jesus was executed? Why not eat the food he ate? Why not dress as he did? The matter of burial was simply the social custom of that age in that part of the world. It is no more preferable for us than is their diet, their manner of dress, the way they wore their hair, the way they mourned with sackcloth and ashes, the way they washed feet, the way they greeted each other, the’ way they dined, the way they travelled, or any other non-principal custom of the society.

As for Boettner’s argument regarding the significance of fire, we must remember that fire in Scripture also symbolizes God’s glory, God’s protective presence, and refinement. So it is utterly arbitrary to single out the destructive aspect of fire to argue against cremation.

Does Scripture Condemn Cremation?

What, then, should determine the Christian attitude and practice in death? Is it simply a matter of personal taste? Should we conform to the generally prevalent social custom of our society? Are there any Scriptural principles which we must consider which bear on this matter?

My answer is that just as the basic Scriptural principle of stewardship has bearing on all of life (in the use of money, time, talents, material possessions, etc.), so also it has bearing in death as well. To some extent Boettner recognizes this when he says that “Christians should avoid the ostentatious show so often seen in modern funerals, and should spend only a modest amount that will in nowise impoverish those who remain behind.”4 In our present society, however, even a so-called modest funeral ($1000–$1500?) would consume a significant amount of money badly needed by a great many Christian families (or the church or other part of the Kingdom of Cod if there are no needy survivors). It is highly questionable, to say the least, that this is good stewardship. Boettner’s recommendation of modesty is commendable, but it may be virtually impossible in our society.

For the sake of stewardship, then, I submit that cremation would be far less expensive and would free a very substantial amount of money for either survivors or the work of God’s Kingdom. This monetary aspect is important, just as it is in life a signi6cant part of stewardship in caring for our own, especially in view of the fact that almost nobody is so well-insured in the Christian community that there is no need of 6nancial aid. It is obvious when the main wage-earner dies, but even when the wife precedes the husband in death there is often considerable cost involved in hiring housekeeper, babysitter, etc. If the manner of disposal of the body is not a matter of importance in terms of Scripture, then the Christian should seriously consider the economic consequences of his manner of disposal in relation to his responsibility as a faithful steward. There are other related considerations as well, in view of the believer’s corporate responsibilities as a member of society, especially in relation to his environment. For example, is the setting aside of large tracts of land in or around urban areas for cemeteries socially desirable in view of increasing population and increasing land needs for the living?

A Better Way

There is an idea which, I submit, is better than mere cremation and which more faithfully applies the principle of stewardship. It is that which we have done in our family, namely, will our bodies to medical science. I realize that squeamish people tend to react emotionally and strongly to the thought of someone working on or with a cadaver, but do these people ever think about how pleasant it would be to open a casket? There is absolutely nothing degrading about such intended use of the body. Boettner’s view is not the Scriptural view when he is so concerned about showing respect for the bodies of loved ones through burial. I suggest that there is no more respect in the thought of a decaying body or a skeleton than in the thoughtful and purposeful use of the body to advance medical science and contribute to the preservation of life in others. Willing the body to medical science is of benefit to mankind and the cause of life in general. It is evident to me that this shows more respect than flushing many of the major organs down a drain and leaving the rest to decay.

Of course, with respect to monetary stewardship, this is the most faithful use of the body in its disposition, for there will be no cost to the family whatsoever. In my case, for example, the Anatomical Board of Pennsylvania is to be contacted at my death, and they will handle matters. I am sure similar agencies exist in most states if others are interested.

Survivors will not only have no expenditures at all, but will also he spared the burdens of funeral arrangements, agony of viewing, and burial. They could then have a fitting memorial service of some type in the church, possibly requesting that in lieu of flowers gifts be made to church or Christian school or some other Christian work. (Maybe the church should request that gifts be made to the needy family that survives.)

Rather than being preferred, then, burial as practiced in modern America is not to he preferred by the Christian (except, perhaps, unusually affluent ones). Cremation (or some other inexpensive manner of disposal) would for most Christians be an application of the Biblical principle of stewardship. The most faithful application of this principle would be to will the body to science, benefiting not only the family and the Kingdom of God, but also mankind and life in general . As stewards. we should faithfully use our bodies in death as well as life.

1. Loraine Boettner, Immorality, Grand Rapids, 1956, p. 50.

2. Ibid, pp. 50–51

3. Ibid, p. 54

4. Ibid, p. 55

Mr. Verno, a graduate of Westminster Seminary, is professor of mathematics at Westchester College, PA.