What do various faiths say about cremation vs. burial of remains? I know in some places like the United Kingdom cremation has become very common, maybe even surpassing ground burial.
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
Cremation (high-temperature burning that turns a corpse into ashes and bone fragments) is indeed by far the majority practice in the U.K. today. It’s also on the upswing in the U.S., where the National Funeral Directors Association posts these statistics: As recently as 2005, families chose cremation with 32.3 percent of deaths, rising to an estimated 48.5 percent for 2015 and a projected 71 percent by 2030.
One reason for the shift is cremation’s lower cost, currently a median $6,078 compared with $8,508 for burial (with vault). The NFDA says other reasons for cremation’s growing popularity are “environmental concerns, fewer religious prohibitions, and changing consumer preferences such as a desire for less ritualized funerals.”
Advocates of cremation say it’s sanitary, makes better use of land particularly in cities, and the “cremains” can be portable if preserved in urns rather than scattered. Non-religious arguments on behalf of burial are continuation of tradition acceptable to all family members, and the permanent site always available to visit for reflection (though cremated ashes can also be preserved at one location such as a columbarium).
Turning to the religious aspect, cremation is customary in both Hinduism and Buddhism, religions that believe the dead person will be reborn into different human bodies or other species over countless lives. In the highly disputed suttee tradition, some Hindu widows would immolate themselves alive on a funeral pyre after their husbands’ bodies were burned up. Under pressure from Christian missionaries, British colonialists outlawed this practice in 1829 and independent India continued that policy, though occasional immolations still occur.
Cremation has also been commonplace among traditional tribal peoples. However, throughout history monotheists (believers in the one God) rarely practiced cremation except in emergencies like battlefields or plagues. This is especially so with those who believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead in the afterlife.
In biblical times the Jews preserved corpses but, as with Jesus, often buried them in caves or tombs instead of the ground. Burial was the norm carried on by Christianity and then Islam. A modern-day Jewish shift was hastened in 1892 when the U.S. conference of liberal Reform rabbis decided it was proper to officiate at a funeral that involved cremation.
Both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity had a strong aversion to cremation. Preservation of relics was one part of this. The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, which is neutral on the issue, notes that cremation is never mentioned positively in the Bible. Also, “early Christians rejected cremation and preferred burial because Jesus himself was buried and because Greek philosophy looked down on the physical creation and thought that only souls, not bodies, survived death. The Christian burial of bodies was viewed as a way to proclaim the belief that our bodies will be raised from the dead.”
Cremation became legal in Italy in 1874, Britain in 1885, and France in 1887. In that era, the practice was associated with defiance against Christianity or the church, which led to strong negative decrees from the Vatican. As late as 1926, the Vatican’s doctrine office declared cremation “a barbaric custom” that is “repugnant to the natural sense of reverence due to the dead.”
However, the Vatican softened that attitude in 1963. A new decree said those who chose cremation would no longer be refused the sacraments before death or denied a requiem Mass after death, unless the choice was made for anti-Christian motives. Yet preference for burial remained in place. Catholic policy was formalized in the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law:
“The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (1176, 3).
The Canon Law Society commentary explains that “the Church has never been against cremation as such but discouraged it because of the reasons people used to justify it” such as “sectarian spirit, hatred of the Catholic religion or the Church, or a denial of Christian doctrine. Funeral rites are not to be performed at the place of cremation.” The ashes are to be kept reverently in a receptacle, not scattered.
Protestants have generally preferred burial also, but usually not as any absolute, and in modern times they increasingly accept cremation. For instance, the conservative Missouri Synod considers cremation choice “a matter of Christian freedom,” though it discourages the scattering of the ashes. The more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has no such opposition to scattering.
As the morticians’ mention of “less ritualized funerals” indicates, cremation can involve rather perfunctory observances, unlike traditional funerals with cemetery burials. French anthropologist Louis-Vincent Thomas wrote that in modern times “many practices are simplified or omitted,” whereas traditional rites have a soothing effect. This “dangerous cultural void” is “probably irreversible,” he thought, but “perhaps disquieting for the psychic equilibrium” of those who mourn.
A Protestant pastor once told the Religion Guy about being asked by a parishioner to conduct last rites for a distant relative from out of state whose cremated ashes were sent back home for the funeral and permanent emplacement. When he entered the funeral home’s parlor to begin the service the ashes stood there still wrapped in the brown paper package in which they had been shipped.