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Cremation and Religion

For as long as the practice of cremation has existed, it has provoked much debate. Cremation and religion is a subject of much attention through the ages, and in this article, we will explore some of the fascinating angles of this topic.

Historical evidence suggests that cremation has been commonly performed since before 800 B.C., and so cremation and religion has been a consideration since even before modern historical artifacts were compiled. Both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey make reference to the act of cremation, and even indicate the practice to be a way of honoring one's dead. This mirrors the customs of the Greeks in ancient times. During battle the Greeks would incinerate their dead on the battlefield in an effort to prevent their enemies from ravaging the bodies of the fallen. In the midst of a heated battle the Greeks would call a temporary and mutual truce with their enemies so that they would be able to gather their fallen soldiers and give them the appropriate entombment. This included cypress trees placed at the site of the funeral pyre, the blood of animals being poured into the fire, trophies of the enemies being thrown into the fire, and the bones being washed in wine. These ceremonies were performed prior to the removal of the remains of the dead. As time continued, the funeral pyre came to denote valor, virtue, and military glory.

At the most basic level it is said that man was made in “God’s image and likeness.” Therefore in many religions it is an offense to the Lord to damage the body in any way. However the death and resurrection of Christ was truly the defining point for the practice of cremation. It was at this time that ground burials became the traditional form of burial. Earthly burials were established as the social custom due to the fact that it served as a symbol of the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible reiterates this idea when it is stated, “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground,” and must therefore return to the earth. According to Deuteronomy 34:6, God selected burial at Moses’ death. Deuteronomy also states, “You shall bury him on that day.” From the fifth century C.E. and on, cremation and religion have continued to be a controversial topic.

When Christianity became the official religion choice of the Roman Empire, ground burial became the sole method of disposing of bodies throughout Europe. This may be the first time in which the relationship between cremation and religion became antagonistic. Cremation was rejected by the Christian church due to its association with pagan societies of Greece and Rome. Throughout the Bible cremation is referred to as being reserved for idols, criminals, enemies, or heretics. It is interesting that an act performed on idols as a form of worship was the same act imposed upon those who were to be damned for all eternity. In 1886 the Roman Catholic Church officially banned cremation, calling for excommunication to members of the church that participated in the process. This practice continued on all the way through World War II. Cremation and religion continued to sever connections throughout this time in part because of the method of bodily disposal employed by Adolph Hitler. The deplorable acts inflicted upon the Jewish population during the Holocaust further discouraged the use of cremation as an acceptable social custom.

Prohibiting cremation has been a practice of Jewish belief since ancient times. Jewish law is explicit regarding the question of cremation and religion: the dead must be interred in the earth. As a matter of fact, after the Holocaust and the known mass cremations which occurred in the concentration camps, many of the surviving family members would go the areas where their loved ones were “cremated” and gather their ashes so that they could be taken to be buried at a traditional Jewish cemetery. So fixed are these beliefs that Jewish laws of mourning cannot even be observed after the death of someone whose body has been cremated. While the Jewish faith opposes cremation as a form of disposition, other religions glorify the act. Since the beginning of recorded time, Hindu and Buddhist faiths have mandated the use of cremation. The underlying belief of these faiths is that the life force that is basic to the human existence is not confined to this one life, but undergoes many transmigrations throughout many lives. The Eastern belief of karma, which is the idea that merit is accrued during the extent of one’s life and the actions one takes during that life will carry on to the next, is a common belief of the Hindu and Buddhist religions. These religions also carry the belief that the body is but a vehicle that contains the “self” or soul while it exists in this life. Once the soul leaves the body it is returned to the gods. So cremation served as a method of freeing the soul, separating flesh from bones, and presenting the body as a last sacrifice to the gods. In essence, cremation became a fitting vehicle for expressing the temporary existence of bodily life, and the eternal reality of spiritual life.

Throughout time, the topic of cremation and religion has continued to elicit heated debate. Many religions recognize cremation as a valid and acceptable social custom, while other religions find cremation to be improper and objectionable. Each religion validates their beliefs by a long existing history that is of great significance to the basis of their traditions. It stands to reason that cremation is a personal choice, and will continue to be at the core of one of the most important decisions that can ever be made. For those who are left to make that choice, it is best that these ideas are considered.

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