Religion plays a vital role in many people’s lives, informing the values they hold and the choices they make. It can be particularly powerful when it comes to end-of-life decisions, as many religions take a strong stance on traditions such as last rites, funerals, and burials. Yet the question of cremation vs. burial isn’t always straightforward.
Individuals hold many different beliefs about cremation, which may or may not be based on their religion. Those who closely follow the teachings of a certain religion are likely to follow those teachings when it comes to cremation, while others may take a more flexible view. And many people, like atheists and agnostics, believe this decision is up to the individual to decide.
Views on cremation can also vary within the major religious groups. Within Christianity, there are many different denominations. Some denominations cremate and some don’t. Some religions don’t have official teachings on cremation but may encourage it or discourage it. And due to economic and environmental reasons, cremation traditions can also change over time. Many religions evolve, just like societies, and the practices they encourage or prohibit also evolve. Cremation and religion is a nuanced topic that deserves a thoughtful discussion.
This information has been reviewed by April Risteff, MS Psychology, and Religious Studies Educator.
What religions believe in cremation?
When it comes to religions that cremate, Hinduism is usually the first that comes to mind. In fact, Hinduism is the only religion that mandates cremation, which is known as antim sanskar, or last rites. It is usually performed within 24 hours of death or as soon as possible, due to the fact that Hinduism also doesn’t traditionally use embalming or other preservation tactics.
In Hinduism, cremation is a way of separating the physical body from the energies within the body, enabling the soul of the deceased to reincarnate. Cremation isn’t required for saints, holy men, and children because they’re considered to be pure and unattached to their physical forms.
There are a variety of funeral and burial practices in Buddhism, however, cremation is the most common. Buddhists believe that in the cycle of reincarnation, there is no connection between the body and the consciousness, or soul, after death. Because Buddhism already sees death as a transition into another form, cremation doesn’t conflict with any of its central teachings.
Buddhist countries have many cremation traditions, which can differ by sect. The family of the deceased will often witness the cremation, and sometimes there is a ceremony led by monks. After cremation, the mourning period continues for anywhere from a month to 100 days — the time in which rebirth happens.
Cremation vs. burial in religions like Protestantism sometimes depends on the denomination. There are seven major denominations — Adventist, Anglican, Baptist, Calvinist (Reformed), Lutheran, Methodist, and Pentecostal — with many smaller branches as well. Each denomination interprets the Bible slightly differently.
Most denominations are neutral on the subject of cremation, leaving it up to the individual to decide. This has resulted in a general acceptance of cremation among Protestants. In addition, Protestantism doesn’t dictate what can be done with the cremains: The family can keep them, bury them, or scatter them in a meaningful location.
What religions don’t believe in cremation?
Cremation isn’t permitted under any branch of Islam: Sunni, Shi'a, Sufism, Ibadi, or Ahmadiyya. While the Qu’ran does not mention cremation specifically, Muslim scholars have interpreted Surat Al-Ma'idah 5:31 to prescribe burial as the proper way to respect the dignity of the deceased.
“So God sent a crow scratching in the ground to show him how to bury his brother's corpse.”
Islam has one of the strictest beliefs against cremation among the major religions and has a long tradition of prohibiting the practice. All burial rites are prescribed by divine law, and there are strict practices to follow. Routine autopsies and embalming are also not allowed, although these rules are not as strict as the prohibition on cremation. If state or federal law requires embalming, it’s allowed, and if the death was suspicious, autopsies may also be allowed. Islamic law also states that the body should be buried as soon as possible, which often results in burial within 24 hours.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is another religion that doesn’t believe in cremation. The Church is a branch of Christianity in which cremation is strictly prohibited. The Church interprets what the Bible says about cremation to mean that the practice interferes with resurrection — as the body will no longer be in its original form. The Church will not allow funerals for cremated members unless cremation is required by law, there’s an epidemic, or the person was cremated against their wishes. However, many other Christian denominations interpret the Bible differently.
It’s interesting to make note of the Greek Orthodox denomination, one of the largest within the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox Church prohibits cremation, and until recently, it was also prohibited in the country of Greece, even if the deceased was not Greek Orthodox. In 2006, with rising demand for cremation from non-Orthodox citizens, Greece passed a law allowing cremation.
The Church of Latter-day Saints
The Church of Latter-day Saints doesn’t prohibit cremation, but it’s often discouraged, particularly in the West. Some leaders and members of the Church feel that cremation amounts to disturbing or destroying the body, which is a sacred temple. However, the Church also recognizes that in many countries, cremation is customary and that it’s sometimes required by law. The Church will still recognize funerals for cremated members.
The current interpretation of The Book of Mormon is that cremation does not affect the deceased’s ability to be resurrected because God is omnipotent. Official Church doctrine leaves the decision up to the deceased and their family, and members are encouraged to consult with their priesthood leaders.
What religions have evolving views on cremation?
Beliefs about cremation can evolve over time. Catholicism is a good example of this. Until 1963, Church doctrine strictly forbade cremation except in cases such as epidemics or natural disasters. But according to a statement by the Vatican in 2016, God can resurrect a body, even though it’s been cremated:
"The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased's body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life."
There is some nuance to the debate over cremation in the Catholic religion. Traditional burial is still strongly encouraged by the Church, although they recognize that there are other options. When the deceased is cremated, it should happen after the funeral mass so that the physical form can be present. The church also dictates that cremains be buried in the ground, not scattered.
Traditional Jewish law is clear that the deceased must be buried in the earth, not cremated, for several reasons. The body is considered the property of God, not the individual, and must be returned to God in its original form. Because humans were created in God’s likeness, any altering of the body is considered taboo. This is why tattoos are also prohibited, as well as routine autopsies.
However, as in some other religions, cremation vs. burial is sometimes left to interpretation, and those considering it are encouraged to speak with their rabbi. The Hebrew Bible and Talmud do not specifically forbid it, and those who practice Reform Judaism, in particular, are increasingly choosing cremation options.
Religious funeral and burial traditions have a powerful meaning for many individuals and can deeply inform whether or not they choose cremation. Talking with spiritual advisors as well as family members is always a good idea, but ultimately, the decision between cremation and burial is a personal choice that must be made with great thoughtfulness.