For decades in the United States, traditional burial was the expected method of treating the body after death. Now, as families increasingly choose cremation, many religious authorities are revisiting their policies on cremation as part of their respected funeral rites. Each religion takes its own approach to the subject, always with a goal of providing the utmost respect to the person who has passed.
As a general rule, cremation is not preferred in the Jewish tradition. However, in recent decades, rabbis in the Reform and Conservative persuasions of Judaism have decided to accept the cremated remains of faithful members to be buried in Jewish cemeteries. This is not necessarily true for Orthodox Jewish authorities, virtually all of whom refuse to officiate at a burial for cremated remains.
In Islam, the tradition is to bury the body soon after death. Those who interpret the divine law say that, since there is no example of cremation from the time of the Prophet Adam until the Prophet Muhammad, cremation may not be used as an acceptable form of burial. As such, it remains forbidden with other forms of dispensing the body’s remains after death that do not include burial of the whole body.
There are a few religions in which cremation has always been the default option, and Hinduism is one of the best known. Almost everyone in the Hindu tradition is cremated, according to the Vedic texts. Hindus, who do not believe in bodily resurrection, believe that burning the body quickly after death allows a faster release of the soul. There are a few exceptions to the rule. Infants and young children are typically buried, as are the bodies of enlightened souls.
Starting with the burning of the body of the Buddha, cremation became the tradition for Buddhists worldwide. Although burial is acceptable, cremation is considered the standard method for treating the body.
Scholars in the Roman Catholic Church have been debating cremation for centuries. For some, cremation admits a refusal to believe in the resurrection of Christ. For others, it is merely a method of treating the body and does not connote disbelief in the resurrection or in eternal life. As of 1963, the Roman Catholic Church permits cremated remains in its churches and cemeteries, with a preference for keeping the body whole for the funeral liturgy.
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not permit cremation because Byzantine Canon law forbids it. Church scholars believe that cremation denies the acceptance of the physical body. As a result, cremated remains may not be buried in Eastern Orthodox cemeteries, with few exceptions for local laws or during epidemics. In these cases, the cremation may occur after the funeral service.
Although each Christian sect develops its own rules, most are accepting of cremation as a choice for individuals and families. For example, the Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Anglican/Episcopal churches all permit members to make their own decisions. Some sects, such as the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) express a strong preference for traditional burial.