Why Christians Bury the Dead

Tualatin Plains Presbyterian Church and cemetery, Hillsboro, Oregon (Daniel Rice, 2020).

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain (John 12:24).

Nowhere in the Bible are directions given for the human body at death; however, both Judaism and Christianity have primarily practiced burial.

Death occurs when God removes the spirit from the body (James 2:26). The first mention of body care after death concerns Abraham and his wife Sarah (Genesis 23:19; 25:9-10). The patriarch of faith and his wife were buried in a natural cave, although we’re not given a reason. This practice was still in use at the time of Jesus and the early Church.

In the New Testament exists a symbolism in Christian burial. The body is likened to a grain of wheat falling into the ground, buried, then springing to new life. The death of the body is also pictured as sleep, because the body looks asleep. It’s also referred to as a tent or a temporary dwelling (2 Corinthians 4:13; 5:1, 4).

These illustrations make the body more significant than a mere “shell”, for God promises to awaken or resurrect every body from death. When Jesus returns, the Bible says the bodies of His followers will be reunited with their spirits and rise from the grave (1 Corinthians 15:42-43, 51). At the end of the age, remaining bodies with be reunited with their spirits and judged (Revelation 20:12-13).

Early Christians were buried in koimeterion. This Greek word is the basis for our English word cemetery, and literally means “sleeping places”. Cemeteries were often located next to church buildings for three reasons.

Historically, Christian death rituals were held in buildings of worship from at least the mid 500s AD. It was convenient to have a burial place close by. These cemeteries were both pictures of the shared rest Christians had in the hope of the resurrection, and the unity of believers in both life and death.

For many centuries, local congregations were also the practical center of Christians’ lives on earth. People worked somewhere and then slept and ate at home. Most everything else, from worship, to water baptism, to marriage, celebrating holidays, and burial occurred , and most everything else occurred at the local assembly building.

Why Christians Don’t Have Temples or Shrines

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China (Daniel Rice, 2019).

God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands (Acts 17:24).

Most world religions have shrines and temples where followers go to speak to, to worship, or perform rituals to their god. The place is considered to be holy and a special meeting place with the deity. Christianity has no shrines or temples for worshipers to visit.

Christian prayer and worship are not restricted to any certain place or time. Christians don’t believe that one place or location is more holy or gives the worshiper more influence than any other location or time.

The God of Christianity is described in the Bible as One who cannot be contained in or by a temple or any other locale. He created all things in the universe, and since everything belongs to Him, His greatness cannot be contained by anything He created.

Christians do gather in buildings to worship, but that is for convenience from weather and other conditions. The building has no bearing on the Christian’s devotion or God’s response. He requires no rituals to get His attention or favor. The God of the universe hears and answers His child when standing on a crowded street corner, alone in bed before falling asleep, or in a group with other Christians.

God teaches in the Bible that He lives within His people. Each Christian is the temple of God. He indwells each of His people equally, without prejudice or partiality.

Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Why don’t Christians have temples or shrines? Because every Christian is a temple to the God who has loved them, taken away their sins, and given them an eternal inheritance in His presence in Heaven, through Jesus.

EE Hewitt (1851 – 1920)

Not long after E. E. Hewitt became a public school teacher in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she developed a spinal injury after an angry student beat her with his personal chalkboard. The pain was intense and Eliza was forced to quit her job. She spent six months in a full body cast, becoming a recluse in her own home.

During the following years, Eliza was often unable to even leave her bed. Despite the pain she felt a dire need to help the congregation she was part of, Calvin Presbyterian Church. She met this desire by writing short poems to teach to Sunday School students.

Her cast removed, Eliza was cleared by her doctor to take a short walk. She headed for a local city park where the fresh air and sunshine overwhelmed her. Her heart rejoiced and upon reaching home wrote,

There is sunshine in my soul today, More glorious and bright
Than glows in any earthly sky, For Jesus is my light.

O there’s sunshine, blessed sunshine, When the peaceful happy moments roll:
When Jesus shows His smiling face, There is sunshine in the soul.

Her poems caught the attention of John R Sweney, a professor of music at the Pennsylvania Military Academy. With Eliza’s permission, Sweney and his friend William J Kirkpatrick published her poems after adding music.

Though her back improved, it remained a constant problem throughout her life. With improvement, Eliza began teaching the Bible to children in her church Sunday School and a home for orphans. At one point more than 200 young students sat in her class each Sunday.

Eliza became a close personal friend of hymn writer Fanny Crosby.

Hewitt’s poems focused on Jesus and were often published under the name Lidie H Edmunds. She didn’t want to be recognized for her work, but insisted her Saviour and Lord be honored.

Some of her hymns include: My Faith Has Found a Resting Place, When We All Get to Heaven, Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, More About Jesus, and Sunshine in My Soul.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will rest in hope (Psalm 16:9).

Sunshine in My Soul – EE Hewitt (1887)

There is sunshine in my soul today,
More glorious and bright
Than glows in any earthly sky,
For Jesus is my light.

O there’s sunshine, blessed sunshine,
When the peaceful happy moments roll:
When Jesus shows His smiling face,
There is sunshine in the soul.

There is music in my soul today,
A carol to my King,
And Jesus, listening, can hear
The songs I cannot sing.

There is springtime in my soul today,
For when the Lord is near,
The dove of peace sings in my heart,
The flowers of grace appear.

There is gladness in my soul today,
And hope and praise and love
For blessings which He gives me now,
For joys “laid up” above.

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:4)

He Must Be a Saint

Gilbert was in his 80s when we first met. He was a gentle man who laughed often. He’d break out in laughing tears when I sang his favorite ditty, Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come out Tonight. A pastor for his whole adult life, he was very supportive for me as a young pastor. We often talked of traveling around the western US, stopping in small towns of a few hundred people and encouraging pastors with our labor of any sort; his experience and my enthusiasm.

In 2005 he was diagnosed with cancer which spread quickly throughout his body. The sores on his back made it impossible for him to sit or lay for any length of time. He lost control of his bladder and bowels. He couldn’t, and didn’t want to eat until his body was simply bones draped in loose skin. Medication stopped combating the pain. Yes, he moaned and winced with pain, yet he never complained about his illness nor asked Why me?. He was dead less than 2 months after being diagnosed.

Gil withheld his condition from his family and his congregation until nearly the end. His wife and I were the only ones who knew how bad things were.

After his death, Gil’s wife told people the extent of his pain and suffering. They’d often say something like, He was such a saint for going through all that. I know what they meant, but Gil wasn’t a saint by virtue of how he suffered or handled his suffering. Nor is sainthood conferred by a bishop or pope.

To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours … (1 Corinthians 1:2).

The word saint means one who is holy, called apart, sanctified, separated for a godly purpose. It’s a term the Apostle Paul used of every Christian in the Greek city of Corinth, all who had called on the name of Jesus as Saviour. Simply, sainthood isn’t a title, or being sinless, it’s the state of everyone who has been born again through faith in Jesus.