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Spirituality

Cremation or Burial: Does it Matter to the Soul?

Deanne LaRue | Updated May 24, 2021

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Deanne LaRue | Apr 20, 2017

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Sadly, a family member of mine just passed away, leaving behind a wife and kids. Everyone is distraught—so what happens next?

Now the family, like so many others around the world, faces a major decision: cremation or burial? When a loved one passes away—which happens, sooner or later, to everyone—we quickly begin a journey into the known or unknown wishes of the family or the deceased. Of course, many families never talk about these issues, so they’re forced to make a quick decision. As we scan for help online, ads like these blaze across the screen:

A funeral is supposed to let you say goodbye to your loved ones, not to your savings account.

A man seated on a log by a burning fire with the caption… “No fuss.”

When I saw the cost of the funeral I nearly died.

These advertisements, designed to persuade us to cremate the bodies of our deceased loved ones, remind us that cremation may cost less and be easier to arrange than a burial in a cemetery. Because of those material factors, cremation has become a growing cultural trend in the US and other parts of the world. In fact, the number of cremations in the US almost doubled in the past 15 years, according to data from the Cremation Association of North America. In 1999, 25% of all deceased Americans were cremated, and in 2014 that percentage rose to 47%. At that pace in the United States, cremations should reach a full half of all deaths by 2019.

Let’s Talk about an Uncomfortable Subject: Burial Versus Cremation

In many cultures, death is definitely an uncomfortable subject for most people to think about. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture; it’s personal and rarely discussed. But it’s a reality for everyone, so let’s talk about it.

In our family, as we surveyed ads and considered our options, I was so surprised to learn that everyone in my husband’s family wants to be cremated, even my mother-in-law, a devout Catholic. I thought the Catholic Church didn’t permit cremation—but a quick online search showed me that the Vatican lifted the ban on cremation in 1963.

So when friends began offering condolences and inquiring how they could help, I decided to survey their opinions. I asked: “What would you choose for yourself, cremation or burial?” Many said cremation, except two who were undecided. That surprised me again, because most religions, especially in the western world, have opposed cremation for a very long time. I decided to do some research and educate myself a little.

Is Cremation Bad For the Soul?

I knew that some—but not all—followers of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Faiths practiced cremation and have done so for a long time. But I learned, after some searching, that the majority of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith—encourage burial over cremation.

In traditional Judaism, I learned, cremation was outlawed for centuries. Because of the doctrine of resurrection (in Judaism and Christianity both), Jews believed in leaving the deceased in their natural state rather than altering the body in any way. Jewish teachings say the body is sacred—the temple of the soul—and so Halachah, Jewish law, unequivocally says that the dead must be buried in the Earth.

In historical Christianity, especially in the earliest centuries of Catholicism, cremation was also forbidden, and thought of as one of the most sacrilegious of all acts. In fact, the Christian king Charlemagne made cremation a capital crime in 789 AD. Although cremation has become an accepted practice among some modern Christians during the past century, traditional Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox church and many Protestant denominations still avoid it, believing that it contravenes the concept of the resurrection.

Islam forbids cremation and considers it “haram”—an unclean practice and a sacrilege. Islamic law prescribes specific funeral rites, including washing the body and treating it with the same respect and honor given to a live person. As most religions do, Muslims believe that human consciousness survives death, and that the soul is aware of the body’s treatment and burial.

RELATED: The Survival of the Soul After Death

The Baha’i Faith also encourages its followers to avoid cremation, for many reasons—including ones that have to do with maintaining the balance of nature and its cycles:

The body of man, which has been formed gradually, must similarly be decomposed gradually. This is according to the real and natural order and Divine Law. If it had been better for it to be burned after death, in its very creation it would have been so planned that the body would automatically become ignited after death, be consumed and turned into ashes.

But the divine order formulated by the heavenly ordinance is that after death this body shall be transferred from one stage to another different from the preceding one, so that according to the relations which exist in the world, it may gradually combine and mix with other elements, thus going through stages until it arrives in the vegetable kingdom, there turning into plants and flowers, developing into trees of the highest paradise, becoming perfumed and attaining the beauty of colour.

Cremation suppresses it speedily from attainment to these transformations, the elements becoming so quickly decomposed that transformation to these various stages is checked.

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Comments

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  • Bob Stevens
    Oct 19, 2020
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    This article only talks about the dead body, which very materialistic. What difference does it make to the soul whether the body is buried or cremated?
    • Deanne LaRue
      Nov 3, 2020
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      There is more info in another article here
      https://bahaiteachings.org/rather-buried-cremated/
      For example, this elemental human body hath come forth from the mineral, the vegetable and the animal worlds, and after its death will be entirely changed into microscopic animal organisms; and according to the divine order and the driving forces of nature, these minute creatures will have an effect on the life of the universe, and will pass into other forms.
      Now, if you consign this body to the flames, it will pass immediately into the mineral kingdom and will be kept back from its natural journey through the chain of ...all created things. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Wisdom of Burying the Dead.
      Read more...
    • Deanne LaRue
      Nov 3, 2020
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      Hi Bob, the short answer is the body is formed gradually, so it must decompose gradually. The Bahá’í Universal House of Justice says in a letter, "Cremation suppresses it speedily from attainment to these transformations, the elements becoming so quickly decomposed that transformation to these various stages is checked...As at the time of death, the real and eternal self of man, his soul, abandons its physical garment to soar in the realms of God, we may compare the body to a vehicle which has been used for the journey through earthly life and no longer needed once the destination has ...been reached."
      Read more...
  • Jose Melendez
    Jul 7, 2019
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    Thank you for your input.i was confused myself but i realized what you said made sense ...God bless you
  • Aashiesh Agarwaal
    Mar 29, 2019
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    Cremation has higher significance in the disintegration process of the deceased body. Theosophy gives an interesting explanation to the practice of cremation over other ways of handling the dead physical body.
    Besides the cost differences, cremation allows the bodies to decompose must swifter than through burial. Here’s why this is so important –https://thespiritconsciousness.com/2019/01/22/death-practices-cremation-burial/
    • Deanne LaRue
      Nov 3, 2020
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      Shoghi Effendi published in Star of the West, Volume XI, No. 19, page 317 this: "The divine order formulated by the heavenly ordinance is that after death, this body shall be transferred from one stage to another different from the preceding one, so that according to the relations which exist in the world, it may gradually combine and mix other elements, thus going through stages until it arrives in the vegetable kingdom, there turning into plants and flowers, developing into trees of the highest paradise, becoming perfumed and attaining the beauty of color. Cremation suppresses it speedily from attainment to ...these transformations, the elements becoming so quickly decomposed that transformation to these various stages is checked."
      Read more...
  • Karen Mallory
    Apr 26, 2017
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    I'm studying this option, located in metro Atlanta, Georgia.
    http://miltonfieldsgeorgia.com/faqs.php
  • Bernacio Thandi
    Apr 22, 2017
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    Thank you for a beautiful article
  • Deborah Hauth Crumbaker-Oldham
    Apr 21, 2017
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    My mother is not a Baha'i but she has never opposed the Faith. She is 85 years old and in failing health in a nursing home. She has included in her will that she be cremated. My father was cremated by his second wife and his ashes placed in a grave with her first husband. That has caused me no end of grief as he has no real place of his own. My youngest sister has POA over my mother's wishes and has said she will do as Mom wants. How do I deal with this? Will my parent's souls ...not progress because of this? Your article only caused me more pain and gave no answers about the effect on the soul.
    Read more...
    • Hooshang S. Afshar
      Apr 22, 2017
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      Abdul-Baha has advised also on such topics as diet and smoking cigarettes, etc. There is no law against cremation. In the above quote He states a preference for the gradual transformation of body to natural elements.
  • Apr 21, 2017
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    I have recently become perplexed by a particular Baha'i-related question.
    Since our Holy Writings tell us that, after death, the human body "must ... be decomposed gradually," how are we to handle our departed loved ones who are not Baha'i? In the absence of compelling legal requirements that dictate burial requirements, do we follow, say, their "I want to be cremated" earthly desire or do we follow our own knowledge of what the Manifeststion of God for this day advised for burial?
    I, for one, am glad I will not have to make that decision for me, but my ...heart aches for those who have to make the decision for their departed loved ones.
    Read more...
  • Apr 20, 2017
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    There is a new method, that is created by a Swedish organisation: http://www.promessa.se/show-your-interest/ and it should be useful for Bahais too!
  • Enoch Larry Cox
    Apr 20, 2017
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    I've ran across a pamphlet discussing
    placing the body in a pod and planting a tree in the dirt on it so that the nuterients from the decomposing body fed the growing tree. Is this acceptable?
    • Margaret Sanford
      Mar 5, 2018
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      Some meditation using both Science and Religion topics on the development of the soul and body may prove useful. Recent discussions calling attention to physical changes that can be transmitted to succeeding generations illuminate how spiritual practice can change patterns from spiritual practice to generational change. Cremation causes sterilization of acquired generational spiritual progress leaving a blank which has to begin from the beginning to transmit progress to succeeding generations. To me that is severing a whole strand of human progress. Similar loss occurs to a family's spiritual knowledge when the last speaker ceases to transmit ideas to following ...generations. Generations of learning are discarded. Fire can destroy much.
      Read more...
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