Cremation and Religious Beliefs: Origins, Interpretations, and History

by Kristal Borjas April 02, 2021 6 min read

Many historians trace the practice of cremation back as far as Ancient Greece, 1000 BC, where soldiers, having passed away on the fields during battle, had their bodies burned so the cremated remains could be returned to their families for proper burial rites. 


Across history, many different religions and cultures have their own process of cremation and their own customs regarding the cremated remains.


Some cultures, like those in Ancient Scandinavia, believed that when a body was cremated, it allowed the spirit to be released from the flesh, allowing the spirit to move to the afterlife. In other cultures, cremation was deemed a necessity. During the plague in the mid-17th century for example, the bodies were cremated to help contain the spread of infection. 


In this article, we explore some of the most common religions across the globe and look at how each of them incorporates cremation, what cremation signifies, and its appropriate use. 


Christianity

As the most highly populated religion across the planet, Christianity’s history with cremation is slightly convoluted. This is especially true when the various branches of Christianity are taken into consideration, like Catholicism, Protestantism, along with the various other denominations. There has also been a changing practice of accepting cremations due to evolving beliefs in a more modern era and more relaxed restrictions from the church.


Previously, the Roman Catholic Church had placed a ban on cremation, mandating that bodies be buried. Currently however, the Vatican allows for the cremating of members of the church without issue. 


This stipulation released by the Vatican also requests that once a body has been cremated, the remains should not be scattered or kept within the home, but rather, they should remain on sacred burial grounds like a cemetery. In fact, many Catholic cemeteries are increasing their number of columbarium niches to accommodate more cremated remains. They also typically require the ashes to be left in a dignified and respectful container, which is the cremation urn. 


Similar to the Catholic Church, Protestant churches and Lutheran churches also accept the cremation of bodies within the church, as does the Church of England. However, both Eastern Orthodox Churches and Pentecostal churches require bodies be buried and actively forbid the process of cremation.


Although the churches have their own practices to dictate and mandate what can and cannot be done with the remains of a member, many families still elect to do what is right for them and their loved ones, even if the practices don’t quite align with the beliefs of the church. 


Islam

Islam is the second-highest populated religious practice on Earth, following Christianity. Like Christianity, there are more schools and branches within the religion of Islam; however, they tend to align rather closely. 


Muslims follow a strict practice of saying farewell to those who have passed through the form of mourning and preparation rituals. Since the rituals are to be followed, the religion of Islam does not condone the practice of cremation, which disallows the rituals to occur. 


There is the special, collective bathing of the deceased, followed by adorning the body in white cotton or linen, a series of funeral prayers, and burial with the head of the deceased facing towards Mecca. This is followed by a period of mourning. Since there is such importance placed on the body being positioned correctly, the religion forbids the act of cremation. 


Hinduism

Traditional Hinduism practices predominantly follow cremation practices as part of the funeral rites of those who have passed away. One of the most notable figures in the religion, Mahatma Gandhi, was cremated on a funeral pyre in 1948. 


In Hinduism, the practice of cremation is called Antyesti, which translates to “the last sacrifice.” Followers of this faith believe that the body is made up of five elements, which include air, water, fire, earth, and space. When a body is cremated, it not only releases the spirit, but the elements are returned into the universe. It’s a cyclical process. 


As with any other religion, certain sects, regions, cultures, and castes may have their own specific ritual ceremonies, and they may vary from one another. However, for the most part, the practice includes having the deceased cleansed, wrapped in white cloth, marked on the forehead with a Tilak, and placed on a funeral pyre with feet facing southward. Most often, this ceremony occurs alongside a river or other body of water. The ashes are often released into the body of water. 


Judaism

Judaism is one of the religions that more firmly prohibits the practice of cremation. Although, technically, most followers identify that there is not an explicit rule that prohibits the practice, it is not the preferred practice for most families. 


Jewish law does mandate that all bodies are treated with dignity and respect and that they are not to be defiled. This is often interpreted as a reason not to cremate a body since the act of cremation can be considered a way of defiling the body. Jewish law also requires that the body decompose naturally.


In more recent history, many Jewish families believe that cremating a loved one’s remains is too reminiscent of the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews were murdered and often cremated at the concentration camps. Because of the horrors, many prefer a traditional burial instead. 


With a burial and funeral service, the process, known as interment, requires that a body not be embalmed to allow it to decompose naturally, and the body is placed into the ground during a funeral ceremony. 


As with many religions, some Jewish families, those who are less orthodox, elect to have a loved one cremated, whether to allow for a personalized ceremony, to save on expensive costs, for health reasons (as during the pandemic) or simply for personal reasons. 


Buddhism

As a religion, Buddhism views death as more of a significant transitional moment, as one is simply moving through lives, and upon death, individuals face a rebirth. It is a cycle of life that is at the core of some who follow in that faith. Because it is the act of death and rebirth that are important, the process of handling the remains of the deceased have two options. Both traditional burials, as well as cremations, are acceptable among most Buddhists. 


In fact, Buddha himself was cremated. Cremation is a widely accepted practice among most Buddhists, and it is often considered the preferred practice. The actual funeral practices themselves may vary among different groups, sects, or families, but the core principles are always present; that of paying homage to someone’s death and of welcoming the rebirth they will enter.


When a follower of the faith is cremated, they may be cremated with meaningful items or memorabilia that carried significance to them or in their life. The remains are placed in a cremation urn, which is often buried in a familial burial plot. 


The Role of Cremation Urns

Among those religions that do not prohibit the practice of cremating the deceased comes the importance of the cremation urn itself. 


Cremation Urns are often viewed as sacred, symbolic, and meaningful. Religions often require that the remains of a loved one be entombed in an urn for ashes so that they can be stored or buried with dignity and respect, which are essential in most religions. Even for those who aren’t from a religious background, the preference for having a special and sacred location for the cremated remains of a loved one is absolutely essential. 


Even some of the earliest cultures practicing cremation utilized some form of cremation urn to house the ashes of the deceased. Although they may have been more in the form of traditional pottery urns, given the purpose of housing ashes, they carried the same meaning and symbolic nature. 


Cremation urns allow for various cultures and religions to conduct formal burial ceremonies or rites for loved ones without a traditional burial. With so many cultures and religions preferring the practice of cremation as part of their funeral rites, cremation urns in one form or another became the means by which they could house those remains. 


Pottery urns from 7000 BC were found in China to have housed the ashes of the deceased, as well as in ancient European history. Urns were used to house the cremated remains of the deceased and kept for storage and remembrance. More decorated pottery urns that were used for cremation remains are also traced back to more recent periods, as much as 3000-5000  BC.


Over centuries, they became increasingly more symbolic and decorative, and ornate in nature and design. The varieties and types of cremation urns and containers increased. They became less functional and more symbolic, as families now choose to personalize them and take extra care in deciding which cremation urn is ideal for their family. 


A Long History, Since Changed

The increasing acceptance and preference for cremation over traditional burials of an embalmed body contribute significantly to modern trends. Some families elect to take religious considerations when deciding the best approach for their family, although they may also consider financial burdens, ease of access, burial costs, and the wishes and preferences of a loved one when it comes time to decide what is the best approach for a recently deceased loved one. 


Whatever you and your family decide is best, it helps to know what information is out there, what religions view with regards to the practices, and to select what approach is the best fit for their loved ones. 


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