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5 Issues to Consider: Religion and Cremation, Part II

by Maggie Thompson



In Part I of this two-part series, we summarize the views of major world religions in relation to cremation. In this blog, we look at five issues that arise where religion and personal conscience intersect with cremation, along with two personal stories.

As the choice of cremation rises, so do the issues and conflicts around cremation. Consider, for a moment, these five situations:

  1. Your loved one was not religious and left no final directives. Do you have the right to memorialize him or her within your religious tradition?
  2. Your loved one was Catholic where traditional burials are essential to the belief in the body’s resurrection. You are environmentally conscious, and vehemently opposed to the environmental impact of casket burial.
  3. Your deceased parent requested cremation. The practice of cremation goes against your religious beliefs and loyalty to the church’s doctrine.
  4. Your loved one wished to be cremated and you have followed his directive. But keeping the ashes at home is important to you, and your religion forbids it.
  5. Your loved one requested whole body donation. Is this permitted?

I’ve personally encountered two of the above scenarios.

Planning a memorial service for a cantankerous cousin without directives

The caller identified himself as a police officer from Hyattsville, Maryland. He informed me that my husband’s cousin Sally was found dead in her apartment that morning. He was brief, with a thin veneer of sympathy. I was stunned, my voice shaking, as I called my husband Ron with this abrupt news.

Given Sally’s health challenges, her sudden death was not surprising. However, it was surprising to learn that she had no Will.  There was no immediate family to consult and only one friend from her work. In short, Ron became the executor of her estate.

It then fell upon us to decide what to do with her body. Sally had no religious affiliation. A cantankerous character, she had done a thorough job alienating her family, such that there was stipulation not to have her buried in the family plot. Cremation was an easy choice for us to make on her behalf. What to do with her ashes when they arrived on our doorstep took deeper consideration.

We wanted to lay her to rest respectfully.  In the absence of any directives, our most loving response was to honor her through our spiritual practices in the Episcopal Church. We decided to place her ashes in the memorial garden at Christ Church in Montpelier, Vermont. Led by our priest, we had a simple committal ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer. The memorial concluded with Ron playing “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” on his trumpet in tribute to Sally’s lifelong affection for teddy bears. Yes, this was a unique resolution to the unexpected situation of Sally having no end-of-life plans, but it felt meaningful.

Since I recently began writing for OneWorld Memorials, I’ve become aware of the variety of burial urn choices, including a teddy bear cremation urn, so fitting for Sally. Also had I known about the option of eco-friendly scattering butterflies or scattering hearts, I would have chosen yellow butterflies to flutter down around and into Sally’s spot in the garden. OneWorld Memorials’ customer Arlene said, “They are so beautiful and delicate and perfect to add beauty and peace to a ceremony.” 

Whole body donation and cremation

Here's my second story. The ashes of a dear friend, Ruth, are also buried in the memorial garden at our church. Her committal took place a year after her death. Consistent with her social consciousness and religious practices as an Episcopalian, Ruth donated her whole body to the medical school at the University of Vermont. Our earlier blog on whole body donation provides information on this valuable service. Ruth’s family respected and supported her wishes. They understood the process and that there would be no cremation urn at her memorial service. Additionally, her ashes would not be available for burial until approximately a year later.

When whole body donation is chosen, an alternative memorial such as a memory lamp is an option for families to use in the intervening months between the death and the receiving of ashes. This particular scenario and others like it lead to the issue of keeping ashes in the home.

Are keeping ashes at home okay?

Customers have asked, “Is it bad luck to keep ashes at home?” Ultimately this is a personal perspective with no documentation to support the good or bad luck factor. Anecdotally you'd probably hear stories going both ways. On a physical level, there is no harm in keeping ashes of your loved one at home and so it all comes down to how you and your family feel about doing it. Our article, “Countless Ways to Care for Cremated Ashes,” provides many ideas for your consideration.

Alternatively, if burial is chosen, there are many attractive urns for ashes, including biodegradable cremation urns and burial urns to reflect the aesthetics of the deceased. 

Memorial gardens for cremated remains are being established more frequently on church grounds and in cemeteries to lessen the environmental impact of traditional burials. Being good stewards of the earth is a value held by many faith traditions.

The Center for Natural Burial estimates that a 10-acre cemetery contains:

  • 1,000 tons of casket steel
  • 20,000 tons of concrete for the vaults, and
  • enough wood from coffins to build over 40 homes

These powerful statistics illustrate the ecological value of cremation. However, the choice of cremation or traditional casket burial is, in most cases, more strongly determined by the religious practices of the deceased and the deceased’s family. (See Part I of this blog) When religious belief is in direct conflict with memorial decisions or social conscience, searching for guidance and an answer takes considerable thought and soul searching.


Maggie Shopen Thompson, MFA, is a freelance writer and writing workshop facilitator in Montpelier, Vermont. She has had experience as a caregiver for her mother many years ago, and for her husband and daughter during their recent cancer treatments and recoveries. She is a contributing author/artist in Healing Art & Writing – using creativity to meet illness, curated and edited by Patricia Fontaine, published in August 2016.