Most Christians through the centuries have wanted to be buried after death with a ceremony that proclaims the message of resurrection; that ceremony, containing various rites and traditions, has come to be known as “Christian burial.” There are other options besides burial for Christians to consider; cremation, though not considered as “traditional” as burial, is becoming more popular.
Christian burial is not an explicitly biblical term. The Bible doesn’t give instructions on how a body should be handled after death. In the cultures of Bible times, burial in a tomb, cave, or in the ground was the common way to dispose of a human body (Genesis 23:19; 35:8, 19; 2 Chronicles 16:14; Matthew 27:60–66). The most common mode of burial in the Bible was to place the dead in above-ground tombs, for those who could afford it. For those who could not afford it, bodies were buried in the ground. In the New Testament, above-ground tombs were still reserved as burial places for the wealthy. This is why Jesus, who had no earthly wealth at all, was buried in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:57–60).
Today, obeying the laws of the land regarding corpses is a significant consideration. Laws vary from country to country and, in the U.S., from state to state. Because Christians are to obey the government authorities, laws regarding the disposing of a body must be followed. Then there is the question of Christian burial vs. cremation. Neither is commanded in the Bible, but neither is prohibited. The fact that Jews and early Christians practiced burial exclusively is enough to persuade some people to choose burial today. And the fact that the only times the Bible mentions the dead being burned are in the context of the wicked being punished for their offenses (Leviticus 20:14; Joshua 7:25) also prompts some to reject cremation. But, again, Christians today have no explicit biblical command for or against cremation. In the end, it is best to leave that decision to the family of the deceased.
The method used to dispose of a body is not nearly as important as the truth behind the concept of Christian burial: that the body is no longer housing the person who has died. Paul describes our bodies as “tents,” that is, temporary abodes. “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1). When Jesus returns, Christians will be raised to life, and our bodies will be transformed to glorified, eternal bodies. “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:42–43).