Over the last 40 years, changing demographics and attitudes about religion have played a major role in the increasing popularity of cremation at the end of life. Although America was once a country with a large Christian majority where burial in the earth was the norm, cremation is now the choice of more than 40% of Americans, as compared to only 3.5% just 50 years ago.
What changed? Immigration from parts of the world where other religions, such as Islam and Hinduism have resulted in some changes to American customs. Yet this is probably not the most important factor.
American’s attitudes about religion and the role it plays in their decision-making at the end of life have also changed. Since the 1960s, there has been increased interest in religions such as Buddhism. To an even greater extent, however, more and more Americans no longer have strong religious preferences at all.
In this series, we have covered many of the major world religions’ attitudes towards cremation and beliefs about death. A brief overview of the religions we have covered include:
Judaism and Cremation
For thousands of years, Jewish law has held that burial in the ground was the only acceptable option for the Jewish faith. Today, although the Jewish religion still generally discourages cremation, Reform Judaism has begun to be more accepting of the practice. If a person chooses to be cremated, most Reform Jewish cemeteries today will allow their remains to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, although often they stipulate that the cremains must still be buried in a coffin. Orthodox Judaism, however, remains strongly opposed to cremation.
Christianity and Cremation
Like Judaism, Christianity throughout most of its history has been opposed to cremation. However, in recent times cremation has become more acceptable within most of the mainstream Protestant churches, as well as Catholicism. These changes have happened for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that cremation is no longer understood by these churches to impede resurrection. Burial is still the preferred practice, but cremation does not stand in the way of an individual receiving a church funeral or being interred in a church-owned cemetery.
However, although cremation is growing in popularity among Christians, some sects of Christianity, such as the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, retain more historical views of resurrection and do not consider cremation to be an acceptable practice for a Christian.
Islam and Cremation
Of all world religions, Islam is probably the most strongly opposed to cremation. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, there is little diversity of opinion about it. Cremation is considered by Islam to be an unclean practice. Muslims are forbidden to take part in the act of cremation in any way, including witnessing the event or even stating approval of it. This disapproval is based on beliefs that the body after death should be treated with the same respect as it was in life, the belief that some part of the body may be necessary for resurrection, and the belief that the body is required for mourning as a reminder that death comes to all.
Mormons and Cremation
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, generally known as Mormons, have some unique beliefs about the body. Unlike most of mainstream Christianity, LDS members believe that the body is inextricably tied to the soul. Because of this, they are generally advised to avoid cremation unless it is required by law. However, Mormonism does not prohibit cremation; it is not seen as a hindrance to resurrection, and cremation does not preclude Mormons from receiving an LDS memorial service or funeral.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Cremation
Members of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, differ from many other Christians in that they believe in spiritual rather than physical resurrection. They do not believe that they will have a body if they are resurrected. Because they believe a physical body is not required for resurrection, the faith does not have any prohibitions against cremation. Members are advised to consider local customs and laws, then make the decision that is right for their family.
Buddhism and Cremation
Buddhism is a set of teachings or practices that are based on the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha or the “enlightened one,” who lived in India more than 2,500 years ago. Buddhism isn’t a religion in the sense of requiring a belief in a creator god, or indeed, any god. Buddhism does not require Buddhists to follow a prescribed set of funeral practices; many Buddhists choose cremation because the Buddha was cremated but burial is also permissible.
Hinduism and Cremation
The Hindu view of the body and soul is that the soul is inherently pure, but it must have a body in which to live. The body is prone to desires and attachments that keep it bound to the mortal world. At death the soul leaves one body and enters another, a process which will happen many times until the soul, perfected, achieves “mukti” or union with the Source. This process is called reincarnation and is the basis for Hinduism’s close association with cremation. Cremation encourages the soul to leave the body and more toward mukti.
Atheism and Cremation
Atheism is the fastest growing “religion” in America according to Pew Research, and is a major factor in cremation’s increasingly popularity over the last 40 or so years. Atheism isn’t actually a religion at all; atheists do not believe in god, or gods, nor do they believe in souls, supernatural beings or life after death in any form. However, they may have other beliefs that guide their life and decisions. In general, atheists cannot be said to have set beliefs about cremation or burial and will typically make these decisions based on their own needs and concerns.
If you or a loved one is considering cremation, we at Neptune Society encourage you to consider carefully your own position on the subject, discuss your options with your religious leader, and make the choice you believe is right for you and your family. For more articles in this series, please see our religion and cremation article archive.