What Happens to Our Bodies When We Die?
How to Decide What to Do with Your Body When You Die
Note to Readers:
In this disconnected world, I am trying a new format in the hopes of deepening community. I hope you see this as an informative and encouraging newsletter written from me to you. Feel free to respond directly to me or to comment below with any thoughts, questions, or stories.
Have you ever thought about what happens to your body when you die? Or, have you ever had to make a decision about what to do with a loved one’s body after their death when you didn’t know their wishes? (This is a real, not rhetorical question — I’d love for you to answer by replying to me, or sharing in the comments. Your answers help me know how to help you!)
When my dad died, I could only guess what he wanted us to do with his body, because he had never expressed his wishes to me, even though he had lived for two years with a terminal illness. He didn’t tell me, and though I wondered about it, I didn’t dare ask. After all, I didn’t want to seem morose.
Since my dad’s death, I’ve discovered that there can be peace, hope, even joy from considering what to do with our body when we die. In our Organizing Your Life and Legacy workshop, we’ve reached the chapters that ask us to express our wishes about organ donation, body donation, burial, cremation, funerals, memorial services, etc. Workshop participants are discovering that not only can they have these hard conversations but their loved ones are thanking them for doing so.
So, how do we decide, especially about what to do with our bodies when we die? It helps to understand what our bodies mean to God and what the Bible tells us about what will happen to our bodies after death.
The Biblical Story of Our Bodies
Creation, Fall, and Redemption of Our Bodies
The place to begin is, of course, in the beginning. As we look at how God created Adam and Eve, we see how much our bodies matter to God. As Sam Allberry points out, God formed Adam from the dirt and then breathed life into him: “Your body is not fundamentally a soul that has been shoved into the nearest lump of flesh, as if any old body would do” (Allberry, 42). We are more than merely spirit. We are only wholly human in both spirit and body.
Because of sin, our bodies will decay and die. But God refused to allow death to be the end of the story. He sent his Son encased in human flesh, with hair that needed to be combed and arms that hugged his mom and eyes that cried wet tears. Jesus died a bodily death for our sins, breathing out his last breath while nailed to a cross.
But instead of remaining in the grave, Jesus rose from the dead, body and soul. He walked the earth again, visiting his disciples, talking with Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and Peter and John and many others. The risen Jesus looked somehow different, because his friends didn’t always recognize him immediately. He was super-natural — he could appear in rooms without walking through the door. And yet, he was still himself. His voice was the same. He had scars in his hands and his side. After walking the earth for forty days, he didn’t die again, he ascended to heaven, where he remains, in his resurrected body, awaiting the day he will return to earth to establish the new heavens and the new earth forever.
Our Resurrected Bodies: What Are They Like, and When Do We Get Them?
We’re not Jesus, but Jesus’ resurrected body gives us a glimpse of the future of our bodies. Paul tries to explain the resurrected body to the Corinthians, who like many of us are confused about how a dead body can become alive again. Paul uses various analogies to explain that the resurrected body is both like the mortal body and unlike it. Imagine a half-inch pumpkin seed planted in the ground; several months later, it becomes a large orange pumpkin on a vine. The seed must “die,” but in its death, it is transformed. Although our dead bodies will decay, they will one day be transformed, “in the twinkling of an eye,” when Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 15:52). Our resurrected bodies, like Jesus’ will bear resemblance to our current bodies—they will be recognizable but different, because they will no longer be subject to decay and death.
Now that we know we’re going to have a resurrection body, we wonder— when will we receive it? How does that work? According to the Bible, not immediately after our death. The sequence seems to be, we die, and our bodies decay. And yet, if we are in Christ, our souls go immediately to be in the presence of God in heaven, or Paradise, as Jesus calls it, when he tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). We will for a season enjoy the presence of God and of other saints who died before us. But we will be awaiting the final day of full resurrection.
On that day, “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). In the day of Jesus’ return, there will be quite a scene, as the “dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) and “this mortal body [will] put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). Those who are still alive when Jesus returns will join in this great cloud of glory, and we will all dwell together with God in the new heavens and the new earth (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Revelation 21:1-5). In that day, we will wear our resurrection bodies happily, and we will serve God with our hands, our feet, and our hearts.
How does a resurrection body guide our decisions about what to do with our body immediately after we die?
In the 21st century, cremation has edged out burial as the favored choice for disposal of the body after death, partly because it is significantly less expensive. Christians may wonder, is cremation a biblical option? Timothy George responds, “While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation” (Cremation Confusion, Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/may21/27.66.html). Others argue strongly for burial, observing that it points more clearly to the future of the resurrection body. As most people realize, the body will decay, whether by fire or by oxidation. Whichever direction you choose, the main thing to remember is that our bodies matter to God, that he will one day transform our mortal bodies, making them into immortal bodies. What a wonderful future awaits those who are in Christ!
More Resources to Help You Number Your Days
Organizing Your Life and Legacy Workshop: We will be running another 12-week workshop beginning in 2022. Contact me now to put your name on the waiting list for that workshop. If you’d like to do it now, I also offer private coaching to assist you. Contact me for more information.
The FAQs: What Christians Should Know about Cremation : Gospel Coalition article about burial and cremation.
Cremation Confusion by Timothy George. Christianity Today article about burial and cremation.
Walking Each Other Home as a Compassionate Caregiver: An encouraging 25 minute conversation with Karen Hodge about being a compassionate caregiver and caring for compassionate caregivers.
What about you?
Thanks for reading this edition of Numbering Your Days — it’s readers like you that make this fun for me.
I’d love to know — have you thought about the hard questions of what to do with your body after death? Have you had discussions with others? You can leave a comment or message me directly.