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Burial or Cremation?
“And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.” (Exodus 13:19)
Burial or cremation? Which should we practice? In other countries, cremation is far more common than burial. And it has become very common in our country for people to cremate the bodies of the dead, rather than go to the time, trouble, and expense of burying them. But I am frequently asked, “Should believers be cremated?” Does the Bible give us an answer?
No, the Word of God does not give us a clear, definite answer. There are many things that are matters of indifference, things we may do or not do, as we think best for the glory of God. And we must always be content to allow our brethren to make their own determination about such things. — “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand...Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:4-5).
Still, I am often asked, “Should a believer be cremated or buried?” While the Scriptures do not give any commandment in the matter, the burial of our bodies is more consistent with the faith of the gospel than cremation. Our Lord was buried. We confess our Savior and our faith in him by a burial, in believer’s baptism. There is an obvious connection between burial and our faith in Christ.
That which Moses did with Joseph’s bones must have been very conspicuous to the nation of Israel, as they made haste and left the land of Egypt. They left the land in haste, not as slaves secretly escaping from their captors in the night, but as slaves who had completely conquered, spoiled, and dispossessed their captors, in an open display of triumph and victory. As they left the land of captivity, we are told that…
Why did he do that? In the 11th chapter of the Book of Hebrews, God the Holy Spirit tells us that it was an act of faith. Joseph made his brethren swear to carry his bones out of Egypt by faith. Moses carried his bones out of Egypt by faith. And Joshua buried his bones in Canaan by faith. Moses’ action was an act of faith, faith in the resurrection of Christ our Redeemer, and of the resurrection of God’s elect in, with, and by him. His faith, like our faith, was precisely the same faith that Job confessed (Job 19:25-27).
We read in the Book of Genesis that Abraham buried Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, in the land of Canaan; and when he died, Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the same tomb (Genesis 23 and 25). And in Genesis 50, Joseph had his father, Jacob, embalmed, spent forty days mourning him, and obtained special permission from Pharaoh to carry his body up to Canaan. There he buried Jacob with Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 49:33-50:13).
“And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.” (Genesis 49:33)
“And Joseph fell upon his father’s face, and wept upon him, and kissed him. And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father: and the physicians embalmed Israel. And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of those which are embalmed: and the Egyptians mourned for him threescore and ten days. And when the days of his mourning were past, Joseph spake unto the house of Pharaoh, saying, If now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, My father made me swear, saying, Lo, I die: in my grave which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me. Now therefore let me go up, I pray thee, and bury my father, and I will come again. And Pharaoh said, Go up, and bury thy father, according as he made thee swear.” (Genesis 50:1-6)
“And his sons did unto him according as he commanded them: For his sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field for a possession of a buryingplace of Ephron the Hittite, before Mamre.” (Genesis 50:12-13)
No doubt many, as they watched this procession, must have thought, “Why all this bother? Why all this expense? The man is dead. Don’t they know that his body is going to rot and decay and return to the dust? Doesn’t Joseph know that the body is just a shell, not the man?”
Joseph knew all that, and more. Joseph did what he did to honor his father, whom he dearly loved. Joseph embalmed his father because embalming was an indication that the one whose body was dead was really very much alive. The Scriptures do not tell us that; but that was the reason the Egyptians embalmed their dead and built great pyramids for their kings. And our Lord Jesus tells us plainly that the death of the body is not, for God’s elect, death at all, but the beginning of a better life (Psalm 116:15; John 11:25-26; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Joseph embalmed his father in hope of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:29; Acts 9:36-37). When Paul speaks of the baptism of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29, the word baptism is used there as it is when the Scriptures speak of washing cups and pots and tables (Mark 7:4-8). The Apostle asserts that the reason for the practice of washing (embalming the dead) is the hope of the resurrection. Christ has redeemed our bodies as well as our souls. Surely, if the Lord Jesus Christ has redeemed the bodies of his elect, it is altogether proper for us to treat the bodies of the dead with the utmost respect and honor.
Joseph in a Coffin
That is what Joseph did for his father. He embalmed him and buried him in the land of Canaan, believing the Word and promise of God, that he would live again in resurrection glory. In Genesis 50:22-26, God the Holy Spirit tells us that Joseph’s last act as he was leaving this world was to secure his burial in the land of Canaan.
“And Joseph dwelt in Egypt, he, and his father’s house: and Joseph lived an hundred and ten years. And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation: the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were brought up upon Joseph’s knees. And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:22-26)
The Book of Genesis, the book of beginnings, closes with Joseph in a coffin. All God’s dealings with Israel recorded in those 50 chapters, all the promises made to the patriarchs, and the glories of God’s servant Joseph end with “a coffin in Egypt.” For 300 years Israel was left with nothing but a mummy and a word of promise. The elaborately embalmed body of Joseph lay in a coffin, probably on public display somewhere in Goshen for 300 years! For three centuries, that silent “coffin in Egypt” preached its mighty message. What did it say?
First, it was a silent reminder of mortality. The shriveled, colorless lips that lay in that coffin, wrapped with linen, had left as their last utterance, “I die, but God will surely visit you.” No man is necessary. No mere mortal is indispensable. God’s Israel will survive the loss of the strongest and wisest. God lives, though a hundred Josephs die. Joseph died…
“And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.” (Exodus 1:7)
So, life springs side by side with death. There are cradles as well as graves. But the fact is, you and I must soon die (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4; Psalm 90:12).
Second, that “coffin in Egypt” was a herald of hope. Joseph’s bones, lying in “a coffin in Egypt,” perpetually declared, God will bring you out of this place. That is precisely what the Scriptures teach us about the burial of God’s saints in the earth (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58).
Third, that “coffin in Egypt” was a preacher of patience. No doubt, hope deferred for 300 years had made many hearts sick and caused many fainting Israelites to ask in unbelief, “Where is the promise of his coming?” But, for all those years, the silent coffin laid before the children of Israel proclaiming, “Though the vision tarry, wait for it.” Surely, we need the same lesson.
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless.” (2 Peter 3:9-14)
Fourth, that “coffin in Egypt” was a pledge of possession. It proclaimed, “Canaan is yours and you shall possess it!” And, as we bury the bodies of God’s saints in the earth, we bury them with the joyful knowledge that believing sinners are “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ,” possessors of eternal life (Romans 8:16-24).
Moses and Joseph’s Bones
Let me show you the connection between Moses and Joseph’s bones.
“Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.”
Why does the Spirit of God tell us that Moses carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt? It is certain that Moses did not personally, physically carry that coffin containing Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Yet, our text declares that the carrying of Joseph’s bones out of Egypt was specifically the work of Moses. Why?
Moses represented the law of God. Joseph was typical of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead, because the law, death, had no more claim upon him. Joseph also represented God’s elect who have been brought out of the bondage of sin and death because God’s holy law has no claim upon us, since Christ has put away our sin (1 Peter 4:1-2).
Joshua and Joseph’s Bones
But Moses, the law, could never give Joseph and Israel the possession of the land of Canaan. That was a work that had to be done by another. Joshua 24 gives us one more sweet point of delight in the connection between Joshua and Joseph’s bones.
Joseph’s bones were buried in Canaan with Joshua’s, after the Lord God fulfilled every promise he had made to Abraham and the nation of Israel concerning that land (Joshua 24:29-32).
“And it came to pass after these things, that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being an hundred and ten years old. And they buried him in the border of his inheritance in Timnathserah, which is in mount Ephraim, on the north side of the hill of Gaash. And Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the LORD, that he had done for Israel. And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph.” (Joshua 24:29-32)
So it shall be with you and me. As Joshua brought Joseph’s bones into Canaan and laid him to rest with himself in the land of promise, so the Lord Jesus Christ, our great Joshua, shall give us rest in the land of God’s promise. Our ever-gracious God, who cannot lie, has promised, “They shall enter into my rest” (Romans 6:4-6; Hebrews 4:1-11). We bury our dead in the comfort and joy of knowing that their bodies rest in peace in the earth and their souls rest from their labor in heaven in anticipation, and in the confident hope of that day when body and soul shall be forever reunited in resurrection rest with Christ.