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Religion often plays an important role when determining how the body of the deceased will be cared for after death. When it comes to cremation, some religions mandate cremation while others forbid it, and sometimes the religious views are up for debate.
What is Cremation?
Cremation is the process of burning a deceased’s body at very high temperatures until there are only brittle, calcified bones left, which are then ground into ashes. The ashes can then be scattered over a sentimental place, kept in an urn, or incorporated into memorial objects for loved ones to keep near. Cremation can be a funeral or post-funeral rite and used as an alternative to the interment of an intact dead body.
The opinions of various religions on cremation largely depend on that religion’s views on what happens after death.
Christianity has multiple sects and even more denominations. There are Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Protestants, to name a few. Their views on cremation vary, but most are changing and adjusting as cremation becomes increasingly popular.
With their belief in the resurrection, Christians used to frown upon cremation because they believed a body was required for resurrection. There are a few passages in the Bible that mention burial but do not state that cremation is forbidden.
Eastern Orthodox churches still forbid cremation, citing the need for a body for resurrection. Greek Orthodox churches will not grant funerals to those who have chosen cremation.
Catholics previously forbade it, but it is now more widely accepted and they will still allow for Requiem Mass either with a body that is slated for cremation or with the cremated remains. However, Catholics still prefer a whole-body burial as opposed to cremation. Protestants are largely neutral on cremation, although some of the more conservative denominations strongly prefer whole-body burial to cremation.
Orthodox Jews strongly forbid cremation, as Jewish law says that remains should be buried in the earth as quickly as possible. The preference is a burial on the day of death, but generally within a couple of days if necessary. They do not embalm the body and it is placed in a plain wooden casket to allow the body to decompose naturally. They believe that the body and soul will be reunited after death, and therefore the body is sacred. Exceptions are made for those not raised in the Jewish faith.
Some reform Jews are open to cremation and will allow members to still be buried in a Jewish cemetery after cremation. They may still require the use of a coffin.
Cremation is mandated for Hindu followers. They believe that the body is an offering to Agni, the Hindu god of fire. The cremation process comes with a prayer to purify the deceased and lead them to a better life. Their belief in reincarnation assumes that with the body gone, the soul is free to move on to its next form instead of lingering around loved ones who are still alive.
Those of the Hindu faith who live in India have their ashes scattered over the Ganges River. Those not in India may arrange transportation of said remains to the Ganges, or it is also now common to use other rivers as Hinduism grows in the United States and other countries.
Exceptions to cremation apply to holy men, saints, and children. Holy men and saints are believed to already have a lesser attachment to the body, and it is believed that children are the same. Because of their lesser attachment, the idea is that they can pass on more easily to the next phase of their existence.
Cremation is strongly forbidden for followers of Islam. They consider it to be an unclean practice and forbid any involvement with it. Even if they are just attending a service for a friend or loved one, they may not be part of the cremation process or state their acceptance of it in any way. Burning the body is considered a form of mutilation and forbidden by Allah. Exceptions are made when there is an epidemic and the health of the living is at stake.
Embalming is also not permitted, except where mandated by law. Muslim followers are to be buried quickly, preferably within a day of death.
Buddhism isn’t a religion, per se, but more of a set of beliefs created by the Enlightened One, Siddhartha Gautama. Guatama was cremated so many Buddhists prefer cremation as well. There is no stipulation on burial versus cremation, but due to the belief in reincarnation, Buddhists prefer cremation as it separates the soul from the body in the quest for enlightenment.
If cremation is chosen, Buddhist monks or family members will perform the last rites on the day of cremation. The Three Jewels, the Precepts and contemplative verses are said either at the crematory or prior to cremation. After cremation, the remains can be scattered, kept by the family or enshrined.
Mormon (Church of Latter-Day Saints)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons, have different beliefs on the body than Christians. They believe the body and soul are inextricably tied together, which means they prefer whole-body burial over cremation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints advises avoiding cremation, except where required by law, although it is not prohibited either. They do not believe it hinders resurrection, and should a member of the faith choose cremation, they may still have a traditional LDS funeral or memorial service.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, better known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, differ from Christians and Mormons alike. They believe in a spiritual resurrection rather than a physical one, which means a body is not required for resurrection. This means that they do not have any stipulations on whether a person is cremated or has a whole-body burial. They advise families to make a decision that is right for them based on local customs and laws.
Faith can play a very important part of how the body treated after death. It is always advisable to consult with your faith leader if you wish to adhere to your faith’s specific rites and rules regarding the disposition of you or your loved one’s body after passing.