The Religious and Denominational Viewpoints on Burial vs. Cremation
This article will address this topic from the viewpoint of different major religions as well as the viewpoint of different major denominations within Christianity. There are hundreds of religions and denominations, so we will stick to the most well-known and recognized. There are a lot of in depth and frankly confusing articles on the topic of religion and burial vs. cremation.
In this article we aim to keep it simple by organizing the major religions and denomination according to:
Table of Contents
Let’s jump in and explore these options. And, again, all of these options can be planned for and paid for in advance to take the burden of finances and decision making off your family’s shoulders so you ensure you get what you want.
Religions and Denominations that accept Burial and Cremation.
Most religions and denominations fall into this category. Today, most have relaxed their views to where cremation is just as acceptable as burial.
Before getting into this section, a note on Christianity and Cremation. While there are denominational viewpoints on burial vs. cremation, from a purely scriptural standpoint, most all Biblical scholars agree the Bible neither endorses nor opposes cremation. In fact, 1 Corinthians 15:35-55 maintains it is the spiritual body that is allowed to enter heaven. “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; …it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
Further, many believe if the interment (burial) of a body after death was prescribed in Christianity, then it would have been expressly written in the Bible. Since it is not, then cremation is permissible.
However, pundits or proponents for burial in Christianity will often point to the fact that prophets in the Old Testament were buried, as were Jesus and his disciples. Thus, so as they did, so it should be. Additionally, some traditionalists still maintain the entire body needs to be present for resurrection, although this is not from scripture directly, but rather man’s derivative interpretation of scripture. And, finally, with the older and more established denominations, the finger still points to the Paganistic roots of cremation.
But again, and more recently, these traditional and conservative beliefs in burial over cremation have been relaxed in most all denominations given to the fact that even in burial, the body will undergo a process of decomposition. So, if a body can be resurrected that has been in the ground for hundreds, or even thousands of years, so too can a body be resurrected that has been cremated. Thus, cremation is now an acceptable practice across almost all denominations of Christianity.
Protestants and Cremation
There are many denominations that are considered Protestant.
- Church of Christ
While some congregations within each of these denominations may differ in their beliefs regarding burial vs. cremation, each of these Protestant denominations as a whole are accepting of both cremation and burial.
Reform Judaism and Cremation
Similar to the fact that there is no clear-cut prohibition of cremation in the Bible, for Reform Judaism, there is no clear-cut prohibition in the literature of Jewish law (or halachic literature). So, as opposed to the conservative views of Orthodox Judaism, Reform Judaism is accepting of cremation.
Jehovah's Witnesses and Cremation
Either burial or cremation is ok. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the spiritual body instead of the physical body. Thus, the spiritual body has no limitations and can be given a new body when restored back to life. This springs from the belief that Jesus was spiritually resurrected, not physically resurrected, after his death.
Denominations within Christianity that Accept Cremation with Restrictions.
Catholicism and Cremation
Clearly, the Catholic denomination is one of the oldest and most influential across the globe. For some of the reasons outlined in section 3 of this article, since 1963, cremation is now accepted in the Catholic church. However, it does come with restrictions. The funeral service must be performed with the actual body before cremation. And, after cremation, the remains should not be scattered. The belief is that the scattering of remains separates the body and restrict its resurrection.
Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Cremation
In Latter Day Saints (or LDS) teachings, it is believed that nothing should be done to the body that is destructive in nature. That should be left to nature itself, thus LDS favors the natural decomposition of the body. However, the church recognizes that not all countries and municipalities are the same. Some places may require cremation. In others, burial may be way too expensive. Therefore, the church says it should be left to the family and their individual circumstances, especially if the law requires it or financial obligations necessitate it. In summation, burial is strongly favored and encouraged, while cremation is generally discouraged unless circumstances necessitate it.
Religions that Encourage Cremation and Why?
There is a difference between encouragement and acceptance. And, due to that nuance, there are really only a couple of mainstream religions that you could say “encourage” cremation. These are Hinduism and Buddhism. Both are born out of the Asia subcontinent and have similar roots and beliefs. Similar to Judaism being the forefather to Christianity, Hinduism is the forefather of Buddhism. There are differences, but also many similarities in beliefs.
It should also be noted that while Hinduism and Buddhism encourage cremation, neither expressly discourages burial.
Hinduism and Cremation
In Hinduism, cremation is encouraged for a few reasons. 1) For its reincarnation or rebirth, cremation provides physical assistance to the soul or spirit as it ascends into the afterlife. 2) The physical body can become attached to earthly possessions and passions. Thus, cremation helps the soul, (only the soul is inherently pure) to detach itself from the body. And 3) cremation assists in the disposal of physical remains.
Buddhism and Cremation
Buddhism, similar to the reasons for Hinduism, also encourages cremation. However, in addition, probably the most important reason is the example of its spiritual leader, Gautama Buddha. He was cremated on a funeral pyre, and many choose his example of cremation as the right or proper way.
Religions that Prescribe Burial (prohibit cremation) and why?
While this list is not exhaustive, here are four of the most notable religions/denominations that prescribe burial:
- Orthodox Judaism
- The Greek Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Church
- Pentecostal Christians (a Protestant Christian denomination)
Islam and Cremation
Of the four, Islam not only believes in burial, it advocates that cremation is an unclean practice, known as ‘haram.’ Cremation is so staunchly opposed in Islam that members of the Islamic faith are forbidden to even talk about it or participate in a ceremony where cremation has taken place. So, imagine two friends, one Islamic and one Christian, and the Christian friend has passed away. In this scenario, the Islamic friend would be forbidden from attending his friend’s memorial service because this would be seen as an act of approval of the cremation.
Why does the Islamic faith believe this so deeply? It is based on a fundamental respect for the body and ultimately the resurrection. Islam believes a body should be treated with the same reverence and respect after life as it was regarded while living. You wouldn’t destroy or alter a body while it was alive, so the same respect must be paid to the decedent. This even goes as far as the process of embalming. In Islam, it is forbidden to embalm a body after death. Because of this, Islam believes a body should be buried within 48 hours after passing.
Regarding resurrection, Islam believes that the whole body or at least part of the body may be necessary for resurrection. While a part of the soul may leave the body after death and enter into heaven, upon resurrection, the body and the soul are reunited.
Orthodox (or Conservative) Judaism and Cremation
As one of the oldest practiced religions dating back several millennia, Jewish law has prescribed burial as the only acceptable practice for the deceased. Back in biblical days and before, tombs and shrines where often built inside caves and covered with large stones, or rock structures were erected as burial shrines. Whether below ground or above, Orthodox Judaism prescribes burial for the following reasons.
Judaism has long been against Pagan rituals and religions. And many Pagan religions subscribed to the practice of cremation. Therefore, dating back thousands of years, cremation rituals can be equated to Pagan rituals in Orthodox Judaism.
Further, Orthodox Judaism does not consider you the owner of your own body. It considers your body to be the property of God. Thus, cremation would be the destruction of God’s property.
Equally as significant, and as opposed to many other religions, Orthodox Judaism believes the soul does not immediately ascend into heaven. Instead, the soul leaves the body over time. Thus, cremation would not only desecrate the body, but also a part of the soul.
And finally, relatively more recent history plays a role in the Orthodox Judaism belief for burial as well. During the Holocaust, thousands of Jews were exterminated via cremation by Nazi Germany. Beyond religious traditions, burial in Orthodox Judaism pays tribute to those who did not receive a proper and traditional burial during World War II.
As opposed to Orthodox Judaism, Reformed Judaism is accepting of cremation. This will be explored more in section 3 with Religions and Denominations that Accept Burial and Cremation.
The Greek (and Eastern) Orthodox Churches and Cremation
The religious viewpoints on cremation according to the Greek Orthodox Church of America are rather straightforward. According to the Church, cremation is said to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. Their viewpoints insist that the body be buried rather than cremated. This is done so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. If a person of this faith has chosen to be cremated, the Church will not grant a funeral (either at a funeral home or in the sanctuary) for the deceased. There does not seem to be much grey area here.
Pentecostal Christians and Cremation
According to the Bible, Jesus died, was buried and was resurrected. Thus, as Jesus did, so too must I. Pentecostals look to early Christian figures as the way towards resurrection. Therefore, Pentecostal Christians believe not only in the scriptures and teachings of Jesus, but also in his actions and the actions of his disciples. If burial is the way they did it, then this is the right way. Thus, burial is the righteous way and cremation is, by default, the forbidden way.