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Sociologists, philosophers and other intellectuals often write of the value of religion in our lives. Certainly, our religious beliefs give us a moral framework for living in community; but how do religious views on cremation shape the way we care for ourselves (and others) at the end of life?
Certainly many individuals have strongly held beliefs about cremation. And sometimes these opinions are a reflection of their spiritual beliefs and their commitment to follow the guidance of their faith regarding cremation. If you are concerned (or simply curious) about the relationship between religion and cremation we urge you to read further.
Scholars argue there are twelve major religions, but in this discussion of religion and cremation we're going to limit ourselves to five: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Despite the fact this article can offer only a short overview of the primary religious perspective on cremation found within each; you'll still see how religious views on cremation can affect the willingness of an individual to choose cremation over burial; as well as that of an entire community.
In the online article, "How Cremation Works", author Michelle Kim details the viewpoints on cremation commonly held by Hindu, Christian, Judaic, and Islamic faiths (see the full article citation in the Online Sources below). Many of the observations you'll read here come directly from this insightful article; however there are additional sources and resources for your review in the concluding source sections.
Mahayana Buddhist traditions for dealing with physical remains evolved over time, and include the cave burial practices of third century C.E. monks, followed in the 5th century by their forest burial. Mummification of religious notables was practiced, but by no means commonly. Sky burial, the practice of exposing the body with the intention of offering it to hungry birds and animals–as the final act of compassionate generosity on the part of the deceased–is a practice among Tibetan communities. What remains afterwards is collected, and either reverentially cremated or placed in a sanctuary. Despite the fact the spiritual founder of Buddhism, the Shakyamuni Buddha was cremated; cremation among Buddhists is acceptable but not mandated.
"Hinduism", Ms. Kim writes, "is unique among the world's major religions in mandating cremation." She goes on to tell readers this is because "cremation is believed not only to dispose of the body in this life but also to usher the soul into the next world or its rebirth into the next life."
Followers of Islam disavow cremation. In fact, they are given strict guidelines for the treatment of the body after death; one of which is the proscription to bury the body "within the day of the death".
Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, discredit (or completely prohibit) cremation; but some followers of Liberal or Reform Judaism have been more willing to accept cremation as an alternative to traditional casketed burial.
In the online article, "Cremation Continues to Expand", the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) noted there were two North American population groups who were less inclined to choose cremation, one of which includes members of the Baptist faith. Other Christians also see cremation in a negative light. Ms. Kim tells readers followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church find cremation unappealing because it is "a departure from the belief in resurrection". She also informs readers that Mormons (members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints), "strongly support burial over cremation, although the church allows cremation in cultures where it's customary."
How is this widespread belief in resurrection related to Biblical scripture? In the online article "What Does the Bible Say about Cremation?", Mary Fairchild tells readers, "there is no specific teaching in the Bible about cremation", however the sacred text does include passages which promote the common belief that "one day the bodies of those who have died in Christ, will be resurrected and reunited with their souls and spirits". This belief reinforces the need for traditional casketed burial across the spectrum of Christian denominations; however according to Ms. Kim, Protestants have historically been more open to the idea of cremation and even advocated for burial reforms at the turn of the century.
What of the Catholic perspective on cremation? In 1960s, the leaders of the Catholic faith, Kim states, "relaxed canon law and declared cremation was permitted. In fact, a Requiem Mass can be held with a body that would be cremated or, upon permission of the local bishop, with the cremated remains."
Cremation: a Deeply Personal Decision
Without doubt, there are many factors involved in the cremation decision, including strongly-held religious beliefs. To explore other factors, we suggest you read Cremation Facts, The Process of Cremation, and Making the Decision. If you still need support, we invite you to speak with your clergy person, or call us at 212-473-2220 to further explore the issues involved in choosing cremation over traditional burial.
Kim, Michelle, "How Cremation Works", HowStuffWorks.com, 31 March 2009, accessed 2014
Wikipedia, "Cremation", accessed 2014
Fairchild, Mary, "What Does the Bible Say about Cremation?", About.com, accessed 2014
Wikipedia, "Sky Burial", accessed 2014