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Americans have choices not only about how to live and what religion to embrace but they also have choices regarding their own deaths. Such choices as below -- and above -- ground burials and cremation are examples of the kinds of decisions many Americans now contemplate. Cremation is now becoming more popular as an alternative to below-ground burials. What is the basis of this trend?
Cremation is a process of incinerating deceased bodies and turning them into their basic chemical compounds into a color that appears like bone fragments and is in the form of dust. Generally the crematorium burns the bodies at between 1,600 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a practice that has become accepted in American society. There are various reasons people choose this method.
Some people choose cremation because they are scared and repulsed by the thought that their bodies would decay inside a box under the ground. Others find it an acceptable alternative based upon the prices funeral homes charge for burial. A cremation procedure can cost 50 percent less than a full burial of a body. When one contemplates the costs of preparing the body for display, choosing the casket, using the funeral chapel, the funeral home staff, the expenses of buying a grave and the purchase of a monument it becomes clear why the price of burial leads people to a less expensive alternative.
I have found that except for strict adherents to religious doctrine where cremation is forbidden or discouraged, people will find alternatives based upon economics and follow the trends of secular society. Choosing this alternative proves that a combination of both rational and emotional components contribute to this decision about how best to treat the body of the deceased.
How do America's most well known religious movements view cremation? When it comes to Judaism, the Orthodox and Conservative prohibit it because the tradition of Judaism teaches that the deceased should be treated with the utmost reverence. There is even a ritual in traditional Judaism for washing the body and putting it in special ritual garments before burial. Showing respect for the body itself is a value that reflects the greater idea of revering God's creation. In addition cremation, according to rabbinic opinion, prevents the resurrection of the dead. Today Progressive Judaism takes the position of preferring the traditional burial practice but allows for cremation. Rabbis like myself may use their own discretion before agreeing to perform burial ceremonies after a cremation. Others in the Jewish world reject it not so much on faith doctrine grounds but because the idea of putting Jewish people in an oven is reminiscent of the Nazis and their practice of burning the deceased in ovens after they gassed them to death. Even within religious movements there are different interpretations.
Islam forbids cremation and holds the same view toward respecting the human body as does Judaism. Roman Catholicism discouraged cremation for a variety of reasons that relates to the idea that the body is a holy object too through which sacraments occur. Catholics also believed that cremation would interfere with the potential and promise of resurrection of the body. Today Catholics permit cremation and have set up clear boundaries from a theological perspective that must be followed in order for the church to sanction a funeral mass. Protestant Christianity has been much more welcoming to Cremation as far back as the 19th century. Eastern Orthodox churches also forbid cremation and that could very well reflect the Muslim cultures where these Christian denominations exist.
Eastern Religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism all mandate cremation. These religions, in various ways, see the body as an instrument to carry the soul. Hindus believe that the soul is to be detached from the body and must go forth into another destination. In the past it was the practice to have outdoor funeral pyres for cremating the body. Today in India there are crematoriums.
In our diverse religious landscape America represents the blending of many traditions in not only funeral rites but in any life cycle event. I respect diverse religious practices but there is nothing wrong with holding firm to traditional practices as well.
Obviously people do have choices about how best to face death for themselves and for their loved ones. The decision whether to cremate or not should reflect an informed decision from consulting one's religious heritage and how best to preserve a loved one's memory for their progeny in the future.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.