Religious acceptance of cremation is a determining factor for many when considering the final disposition for themselves or a loved one. There are many religions, and even more sects, all with attitudes that range from cremation being the preferred method to actually being a forbidden practice.
This article is meant as an overview of some of the major religions and their public views on cremation
While cremation is not preferred among most Christians, it isn’t entirely a forbidden practice. While some of the more conservative denominations may assert that by looking at specific content in the Bible it does shy away from the practice of cremation, passages in the Bible seem to simply support the idea of burial over that of cremation.
For instance, in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 34:6 implies that God chose burial for Moses after he died. Other passages discuss how God will raise up the bodies of those decomposed. For many Christians, the question is then, “How can God raise up a body if the body doesn’t exist due to cremation?”
While the Bible does not specifically forbid cremation, many Christian believers view the idea of cremation as a matter of the conscience and an individual’s choice. The numbers would suggest that more Christians are embracing the practice of cremation.
Throughout most of its history, the Catholic Church has opposed cremation and has consistently taken a very strong stance against the practice, to the point of excommunicating those who participated in or authorized the cremation of another member of the faith. This idea changed in 1963, when the church lifted its prohibition on cremation, so that it is now acceptable for a person of the Catholic faith to be cremated; however, entombment or burial still remains the preferred method for laying the body to rest.
Based on the Church’s belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Catholic faith holds that there is an eternal future for the body and the soul. Should a person be cremated, Catholics believe the cremated remains are to be regarded, and given the same treatment, as that of the deceased in a casket. If the deceased is to be cremated, certain observances must be followed to hold the funeral Mass. The church strongly urges that the full body of the deceased be present during the funeral rites, and cremated only after the rites are completed.
Generally speaking, although there may be an indicated preference for burial in some of the more conservative denominations, Protestant churches as a whole are neutral toward cremation, and neither condemn nor commend it for members of the Protestant tradition.
If a person is cremated, the remains may be kept by the family, enshrined in a columbarium or urn garden, or scattered at sea.
The Christian Protestant tradition embraces many denominations. Many of these denominations were founded as a result of differing beliefs in how various aspects and passages in the Bible should be interpreted. One may naturally expect that going forward, this holds true for the question of cremation as well.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America strongly opposes the act of cremation. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of the purpose for which God has made and ordained the body.
The church insists that the body be buried so that the natural, physical process of decomposition may take place. The church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary or at the funeral home or other places, to persons who have chosen to be cremated.
Jewish law takes a strong stance on cremation. Traditional Jewish law strictly forbids the cremation of anyone, requiring burial instead. The Jewish belief is that a body and soul will be reunited after death; therefore, a body is considered sacred and must be buried upon death.
There are exceptions to the rule. If someone has not been raised in the Jewish faith, or if they are cremated against their will, Jewish law allows for a proper Jewish funeral and burial to be given to the cremated remains.
According to Jewish law, the remains of the deceased must be buried in the earth. This should happen as soon as death occurs, ideally on the same day of passing, but at least within a day or so. Embalming of the deceased is not performed, as the intent is for the body to be returned to dust from where it came. After preparation for burial, the deceased is buried in a plain wooden casket, usually pine, without any metal, to help facilitate natural decomposition.
Cremation, for those of the Muslim faith, is forbidden. Islamic followers oppose cremation and prefer to bury their dead as quickly as possible–preferably within the day of death. Embalming is also not permissible, except where required by law.
As one of the few religions where cremation is viewed as an acceptable practice, Buddhists do not see cremation as being in conflict with the tenets of the religion.
Most Buddhists believe that life and death are part of a cycle of reincarnation, where the ultimate goal is to release the deceased person from all desires and notions of self, and to reach a state of enlightenment.
If the body is to be cremated, Buddhist monks or the family will perform the last rites on the day of cremation. These rites include chanting of the Three Jewels, the Precepts, and some contemplative verses. This ceremony can be performed at the crematory prior to cremation. Once the cremation has taken place, the remains may be kept by the family, enshrined in a columbarium or scattered at sea.
Hinduism actually mandates cremation, called antim-sanskar (last rite) for the disposition of a believer’s earthly remains.
Cremation presents the dead body as an offering to Agni, the Hindu god of fire, accompanied by a prayer to purify the deceased and lead them to a better life. Cremating the body also helps detach the subtle body from the gross body and enables the subtle body to pass on, instead of lingering around loved ones who are still alive.
In India, after a traditional Hindu cremation, the ashes are traditionally dispersed in the Ganges River in India. For the other Hindu believers around the world, if the cremation takes place outside of India, the family may arrange with various companies for shipment of the cremated remains to India, to be immersed in the Ganges River. Alternatively, Hindus are using other rivers as acceptable substitutes for the Ganges River.
While cremation is the traditional choice for someone of the Hindu faith, saints, holy men and children are exempted from the requirement to be cremated. Saints and holy men are considered to have already achieved a degree of holiness and detachment from the body. Instead, they are buried in the lotus position. Children are also considered to have less of a detachment to the body as well.