Cremation in Relation to Religious and Spiritual Traditions, Part I

by Maggie Thompson 


Image: Sinaia Monastery, Romania*


Part I of II

The Cremation Association of North America predicts that by 2025, 65.2 percent of deaths will result in cremation. Choosing cremation or a traditional burial is often linked to religious beliefs and practices, which evolve and change over time. For many religions and spiritualities, the idea of cremation may be either taboo or forbidden – so it’s important to be knowledgeable about the customs of your lost loved one as well as your own beliefs. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the Christian, Jewish, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, and Native American beliefs relating to death and cremation to get a better understanding of how religious and spiritual practices influence the prevalence of cremation in a society.

During the past century, the Christian world has come to a greater acceptance of cremation. Ashes are to be treated with the same reverence and dignity as earthly remains, making the choice to be cremated rather than buried an easy one. Protestant churches gradually approved cremation following World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic as a safe and acceptable way to be laid to rest. As cremation made its way into the Christian mainstream, modern crematoriums came to rise as a means of further differentiating Christian cremations from pagan rites of burning the body on a funeral pyre. However, within Christianity there are still differing understandings on whether or not a person should be cremated after death. Is cremation a sin? The answer to this question depends largely on which denomination you follow in Christianity.

  • The Eastern Orthodox Church forbids cremation (except in extreme circumstance) since it is considered a violent treatment of the body after death. In this case, cremation would be considered a sin and the body must be buried.
  • Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“LDS”) indicate that cremation is not encouraged, though the church provides instructions for properly dressing the deceased prior to cremation. Only under the most extraordinary and unusual circumstances would cremation be consistent with LDS teachings.
  • The Vatican of the Roman Catholic Church, in October 2016, published new instructions on burial of the dead and cremation, reiterating the long-held view that the Church is not opposed to the practice of cremation, though it continues to recommend that ashes be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places. The Vatican forbids keeping ashes at home. Although it is widely recognized that cremation ashes can be kept in a sacred place of honor such as in a display cremation urn, the Vatican does not condone this. Scattering ashes on land or at sea is also forbidden. Ashes may not be divided among family members, nor may they be preserved in mementos, in cremation jewelry or other objects.

Essentially, the new ruling from the Vatican seeks to remind the faithful to align decisions around death with the Christian significance of resurrection of the body. Guidelines are laid out to make decisions regarding death, burial and cremation clearer and easier for grieving family members to follow.

Other world religions observe the following practices:

  • Reform Judaism has little objection to cremation, although it normally favors burial. Orthodox and, to a large extent, Conservative Judaism severely frown on cremation. Historically, the Talmud comes to the conclusion that it is a religious obligation to bury the dead; cremation does not fulfill this obligation. The Talmud also states that mutilation of a corpse is forbidden. When a body is buried, decomposition of the body is a natural process, whereas in cremation the body is intentionally destroyed.
  • In Islam funeral rites and practices have been prescribed by the divine law, in accordance with the dictates of Allah. Burning the deceased is considered sacrilege and abhorrent and, therefore, forbidden according to Islam.
  • Regarding Buddhist funerals, most are cremated, following the example of the Buddha. Some Buddhist traditions say that at least four days should pass before the body is cremated, and that embalming should be avoided. When it comes to Buddhist death rituals and Buddhist funeral customs, generally the body should be left as undisturbed as possible in the interval between death and cremation or burial. With the acceptance of cremation in this tradition, the selection of a burial cremation urn, display cremation urn, the use of cremation jewelry, or the use of a scattering urn are also accepted.
  • Hindu funeral rites generally include cremation. Hindus believe that the soul is not strictly bound to one body but will actually reside in any number of bodies before reaching the final destination of freedom, or “mukti.” Thus, the role of cremation is to sever the ties of the soul to the body that it is leaving, freeing it to move toward mukti.
  • According to Native American beliefs about souls, a spirit never dies. Most tribes believe that the souls of the dead pass into a spirit world and become part of the spiritual forces that influence every aspect of their lives. Native American cremation and burial customs vary widely from tribe to tribe, often based on geographical location. In the past, some Plains and Pacific Northwest tribes practiced above-ground burials; tribes in the Mississippi River area built chambered mounds; Native Americans in the Southwest and Southeast used earthenware jars for cremation. Many of these traditions continue into the present.

In summary, the death of a loved one often brings up questions of spiritual values, traditions in one’s faith and moral obligations to the dead. Religious practices are the foundation for honoring and respecting the deceased, so taking into account any cultural or religious practices is essential when making final arrangements – this is important for both your lost loved one as well as your family, so be sure to examine the whole of your religious and spiritual beliefs thoroughly. Much like a will, the deceased may have special instructions following their passing. 

If cremation is chosen, OneWorld Memorials is a valuable resource, with products appropriate for many circumstances and religious preferences as well as helpful guides to assist family members during a difficult time. Visit our blog to stay up to date on the latest cremation news, practices and advancements.

Part II of this blog on religions and cremation will focus on urgent issues that arise due to religious beliefs and traditions as individually accepted and observed by the deceased and the survivors.

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.

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