Christian death and burial - some FAQs

by Reverend Canon Dr Dominic Black

Why were people buried facing east? 

In the ancient statement of Christian faith, the creed, that is usually proclaimed every Sunday as part of the service of Holy Communion, Christians say, ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’

There is a natural human sadness when someone we loves dies, but the Christian dies in the hope of the resurrection to everlasting life - it is the Passover to eternal life. Because of this, St Paul reminds the believers at Thessalonica not to grieve like those that have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). During the Eucharistic prayer at Holy Communion the congregation say, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ As the sun rises in the east so the Son of Man will come again in Glory from the East (Matthew 24.27)

In anticipation of this happening, Christians have buried the dead facing east, ready to greet Jesus when he comes again. Most church buildings, including Hull Minster, also face east for this reason.

Interestingly, priests were thought to be buried facing west, so that they faced the risen congregation, ready to administer communion.

Why are people cremated instead of being buried? Does Christianity have a view on this?

Today cremation is accepted by all mainline churches, being cheaper than burial it has become more common than burial. The first crematoriums were built in the UK in the 1880s largely driven by secular campaigners, but Cremation didn’t become common until the late 1960s.

For most of the church’s history, Christians were buried rather than cremated. Cremation was uncommon for Christians other than in times of war, plague and famine. The reason for this was two-fold; a respect for the human body inherited from Judaism, as made in the image of God, and the Christian's belief in the resurrection of the dead.

In the Apostles Creed, traditionally recited at Baptism and in the Anglican tradition at Mattins and Evensong (Morning and Evening prayer), Christians proclaim

‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’. At a burial the body of a Christian is committed to the earth in the hope that the seed of the earthly body will rise in glory on the day when Christ will come again' (1 Corinthians 15.42-44).

The practice of cremation was seen, and sometimes was, a denial of this doctrine.

Christians believe that it is not only humanity but all creation that is waiting for Jesus to return (Romans 8.22) when this earth will pass away (Mark 13.321) and there will be a new creation when God is all in all (Isiah 65.17; 66.22; 2 Peter 3.10-13; Revelations 21.1-5).

Unlike the raising of Lazarus (John 11.38-44) where life is restored to a corpse, Christians believe that Jesus’ resurrection body was a foretaste of the new creation. We see this in the resurrection accounts where even those who are very close to Jesus do not immediately recognise him (see especially the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24.13-32). Christians believe that at the resurrection our humble bodies will be similarly transformed into resurrection bodies (1 Corinthians 15.35-44; Philippians 3.21). The language of the resurrection of the body speaks of continuity and discontinuity.

Can you explain 'earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust'? Does it come from the Bible?

The book of Genesis - the first creation story (Genesis 1.1- 2.3) - says that God created Adam (humankind) in his image, male and female (Genesis 1.27). The second account (Genesis 2.4-25) tells us that God formed the human from the dust of the earth. As the flower of the field we are passing through this life, all of us are made of the stuff of the earth and will return to it (Job 14.1-2).

‘We brought nothing into the world and we take nothing out’ (1 Timothy.7).

Modern science also speaks of this truth, all the complex elements in our bodies were formed in the stars.

But in hope of the life to come Christians believe that this material universe will be transformed when Jesus comes again in glory. The Bible speaks of Jesus as the second Adam, the man of heaven whose image believers are being recreated in (1 Corinthians 15.45-49). This transformation Paul says will be completed ‘in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet’ (1 Corinthians 15.51-55).

The Committal prayer at the Funeral service is still in use today.

We have entrusted our brother/sister (name) to God’s mercy,

and we now commit his/her body to the ground:

earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust (Job 14.1-2)

in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life

through our Lord Jesus Christ,

who will transform our frail bodies

that they may be conformed to his glorious body,

who died, was buried, and rose again for us.

To him be glory for ever.

All   Amen.

Common Worship 2000

What is heaven?

In the Bible, the word 'heaven' is used in two ways.

The Hebrew and Greek words used in the Bible translate into English as heaven ‘the heavens’ or ‘heaven’ and often simply refers to the sky (Genesis 14.19; Matthew 5.18; Luke 13.19). The sun traces its course across it (Psalms 19.4-6) or the windows of heaven might open through which rain descends (Genesis 1.8; 7.11). In English we might still say ‘the heavens opened’ meaning we had torrential rain.

The other way the word heaven is used is as the dwelling place of God. Jesus taught his first disciples to pray, ‘Our Father in heaven’ (Matthew 6.9), this prayer called the Lord’s prayer is used daily. There are many examples of this use, all of which describe the place where God resides.

  • The ‘heavens are telling the glory of God (Psalms 19.1) reminding human beings of their scale (Psalms 8.3-4; Job 38.33).
  • The God the God of heaven looks down upon the earth (Deuteronomy 26.15; Jonah 1.9; Ezra 1.2).
  • God is not alone but surrounded by angels (Nehemiah 9.6; Mark 12.32).
  • Yet heaven and earth cannot contain God (Jeremiah 23.24; 1 Kings 8.27; Ephesians 4.10).
  • At his ascension Jesus passes through the heavens to sit at the right hand of God (Lukek 24.1; Acts 1.9-11; Heb 4.14; 7.26; 8.1).

Jesus makes a way for the believer to enter heaven. Heaven is the ultimate destination of believers, a better country (Hebrews 11.16) their true home (John 14.1-4) ‘an inheritance… kept in heaven’ (1 Pet 1.4).

But heaven is not a literal place, it is fundamentally about relationship with God. It is a spiritual place where they are ‘away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5.8). Christians are already sharing in the worship of heaven and tasting of the heavenly banquet in Holy Communion. In this sense, believers have already begun, even in a limited way (1 Corinthians 13.12) to participate in the life of heaven as we already sit with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2.6) for our ‘life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.1-4).

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