Dharmic faiths: While the Abrahamic religions prohibit cremation or prefer burial over cremation, the Eastern religions (i.e.Dharmic faiths) such as Hinduism and Buddhism mandate the use of cremation. In these religions the body is seen as an instrument to carry the soul in that birth. As an example the Bhagavad Gita quotes “Just as old clothes are cast off and new ones taken, the soul leaves the body after the death to take a new one”. Hence the dead body is not considered sacred since the soul has left the body. Hence, the cremation is regarded as ethical by the Eastern religions. In Sikhism, burial is not prohibited, although cremation is the preferred option for cultural reasons rather than religious.
According to Hindu traditions, the reasons for preference of destroying the corpse by fire over burying it into ground, is to induce a feeling of detachment into the freshly-disembodied spirit, which will be helpful to encourage it into passing to ‘the other world’ (the ultimate destination of the dead). This also explains the ground-burial of holy men (whose spirit is already ‘detached’ enough due to lifelong ascetic practices) and young children (the spirit has not lived long enough to grow attachments to this world). Hindu holy men are buried in lotus position and not in horizontal position as in other religions. Cremation is referred to as antim-samskara, literally meaning “the last rites”. At the time of the cremation or “last rites” a “Puja” is performed. A “Puja” is a Hindu prayer to assist the spirit to transcend into the after life.
In Christian countries, cremation fell out of favour with the people. The Catholic Church’s discouragement of cremation stemmed from several ideas: first, that the body, as the instrument through which the sacraments are received, is itself a sacramental, a holy object; second that as an integral part of the human person, it should be disposed of in a way that honors and reverences it, and many early practices involved with disposal of dead bodies were viewed as pagan in origin or an insult to the body; third, that in imitation of Jesus Christ’s burial, the body of a Christian should be buried; and fourth, that it constituted a denial of the resurrection of the body. Cremation was not forbidden because it might interfere with God’sability to resurrect the body, however; this was refuted as early as Minucius Felix, in his dialogue Octavius.
Cremation was, in fact, not forbidden in and of itself; even in Medieval Europe cremation was practised in situations where there were multitudes of corpses simultaneously present, such as after a battle, after a pestilence or famine, and where there was an imminent danger of diseases spreading from the corpses. However, earth burial or entombment remained the law unless there were circumstances that required cremation for the public good .Beginning in the Middle Ages, and even more so in the 18th Century and later, rationalists and classicists began to advocate cremation again as a statement denying the resurrection and/or the afterlife,although the pro-cremation movement more often than not took care to address and refute theological concerns about cremation in their works. Sentiment within the Catholic Church against cremation became hardened in the face of the association of cremation with “professed enemies of God”. Rules were made against cremation, which were softened in the 1960s. The Catholic Church still officially prefers the traditional burial or entombment of the deceased, but cremation is now freely permitted as long as it is not done to express a refusal to believe in the resurrection of the body.
Until 1997, Catholic liturgical regulations required that cremation take place after the funeral Mass, so that, if possible, the body might be present for the Mass – the body was present as a symbol, and to receive the blessings and be the subject of prayers in which it is mentioned. Once the Mass itself was concluded, the body could be cremated and a second service could be held at the crematorium or cemetery where the ashes were to be interred just as for a body burial. The liturgical regulations now allow for a Mass with the container of ashes present, but permission of the local bishop is needed for this. The Church still specifies requirements for the reverent disposition of ashes, normally that the ashes are to be buried or entombed in an appropriate container, such as an urn (rather than scattered or preserved in the family home, although there are Catholics who do this anyway). Catholic cemeteries today regularly receive cremated remains and many have columbaria.
Protestant churches were much more welcoming of the use of cremation and at a much earlier date than the Catholic Church; pro-cremation sentiment was not unanimous among Protestants, however. The first crematoria in the Protestant countries were built in 1870s, and in 1908 the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, one of the most famous Anglican churches, required that remains be cremated for burial in the abbey’s precincts. Scattering, or “strewing,” is an acceptable practice in many Protestant denominations, and some churches have their own “garden of remembrance” on their grounds in which remains can be scattered. Other Christian groups also support cremation. These include the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On the other hand, some branches of Christianity still oppose cremation, including some minority Protestant groups. Most notably, the Eastern Orthodox Churches forbid cremation. Exceptions are made for circumstances where it may not be avoided (when civil authority demands it, or epidemics) or if it may be sought for good cause, but when a cremation is willfully chosen for no good cause by the one who is deceased, he or she is not permitted a funeral in the church and may also be permanently excluded from liturgical prayers for the departed. In Orthodoxy, cremation is a rejection of the dogma of the general resurrection, and as such is viewed harshly.
Judaism has traditionally disapproved of cremation (which was the traditional means of disposing the dead in the neighboring Bronze Age cultures). Traditionally, it has also disapproved of preservation of the dead by means of embalming and mummifying, a practice of the ancient Egyptians. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the Jewish cemeteries in many European towns had become crowded and were running out of space, cremation became an approved means of corpse disposal amongst the Liberal Jews. Current liberal movements like Reform Judaism still support cremation, although burial remains the preferred option.
The Orthodox Jews have maintained a stricter line on cremation, and disapprove of it as Halakha (Jewish law) forbids it. This halakhic concern is grounded in the upholding of bodily resurrection as a core belief of “mainstream” Judaism, as opposed to other ancient trends such as the Sadduccees, who denied it. Also, the memory of the Holocaust, where millions of Jews were murdered and their bodies disposed by burning them either in crematoria or burning pits, has given cremation extremely negative connotations for Orthodox Jews. Conservative Jewish groups also oppose cremation.
Since the organization of the Church in 1830, Latter-day Saints have been encouraged by their leaders to avoid cremation, unless it is required by law, and, wherever possible, to consign the body to burial in the earth and leave the dissolution of the body to nature, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19). President Spencer W. Kimball wrote, “The meaning of death has not changed. It releases a spirit for growth and development and places a body in…Mother Earth” (p. 45). In due time the mortal body returns to native element, and whether it is laid away in a family-selected site or buried in the depths of the sea, every essential part will be restored in the Resurrection: “Every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame” (Alma 40:23).
To understand the LDS feeling about cremation, it is essential to understand the doctrine of the Church regarding the body. In a General Conference Elder James E. Talmage, an apostle, stated, “It is peculiar to the theology of the Latter-day Saints that we regard the body as an essential part of the soul. Read your dictionaries, the lexicons, and encyclopedias, and you will find that nowhere, outside of The Church of Jesus Christ, is the solemn and eternal truth taught that the soul of man is the body and the spirit combined” (CR, Oct. 1913, p. 117).
As a rule, the Parsis strongly forbid cremation, as it defiles the fire, symbol of all that is sacred. Burial is also disavowed, for similar reasons, and the traditional method of corpse disposal is the exposing of the bodies to vultures in “Towers of silence”. However, some contemporary figures of the faith have opted for cremation. The former Queen lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who was a Parsi-Zoroastrian, was cremated after his death. In addition, Rajiv Gandhi received a well-publicized cremation with full Hindu Vedic rites, on a sandalwood pyre, though he had a Parsi father.
According to Feminist interpretations of the archaeological record, cremation is the usual means of corpse disposal in Patriarchal religions, the rising smoke symbolizing the deceased’s spirit ascending to the domain of the Father deities in the heavens, while Matriarchal religions are speculated to have favoured interment of the corpse, often in a fetal position, representing the return of the body to Mother Earth in the tomb which represents the uterus. Of modern Neo-Pagan religions, Ásatrú favours cremation, as do forms of Celtic Paganism.
Other religions that permit cremation
Ásatrú, Buddhism, Christianity (containing Church of Ireland, Church in Wales, United Church of Canada, Lutheranism, Methodism, Moravian Church, Salvation Army, Scottish Episcopal Church), Christian Science, Church of Scientology, Hinduism (mandatory except for sanyasis, eunuchs and children under five), Jainism, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Sikhs, Society of Friends (Quakers), and Unitarian Universalism all permit cremation.