Deciding between burial or cremation is about as intensely personal a choice as one will have to ever make. But that does not mean it has to be a difficult choice – just an important one.
For many people, cremation is an automatic choice. Those who follow many of the ancient traditions of the East – such as Hinduism, for example – take for granted, almost from birth, that death will always mean cremation upon a – sometimes elaborately huge – funeral pyre. But the opposite is also true of other religions, such as the Jewish faith. For orthodox Jews, death is always followed by a traditional burial in a carefully crafted wooden coffin. Cremation is never an option for people serious about this faith.
Among the various branches of Christianity, the choice between burial or cremation is not nearly as settled. The Catholic Church, for example, has allowed the practice of cremation since the mid 20th century. But many traditionalists in the church still discourage it informally. And, even when it is practiced among Catholics, rigid rules continue to be enforced. Cremation ashes may not, for example, be separated under modern Catholic law. This means that it is impermissible under Catholic doctrine to scatter a deceased person’s ashes in more than one place. Likewise, dividing the ashes into more than one container is also not allowed.
Protestant churches also allow cremation formally but, in practice, burial remains the top choice for many protestant families. This is not necessarily a phenomenon of religion, however, but a cultural factor. While none of the protestant faiths take a formal stand against cremation – or even attempt to limit its practice as Catholic law does – many protestant families express a desire to preserve a body for as long as possible after death. For this reason burial in elaborate, steel caskets – often with rubber gaskets designed to keep dirt and water at bay for as long as possible – is a popular choice among those of protestant faiths. Unfortunately, for those wanting to preserve a body by such a means, experts say that burial in a, supposedly, air-tight container can often, ironically, speed up the process of decomposition.
For many who are uncomfortable with the thought of decomposition, cremation can be an automatic choice no matter what religion is involved. Cremation can also be a good choice for those who are concerned about environmental factors; the thought of cutting down trees, or producing steel, to build a casket that will only be buried is grotesque for many people in this day of “green” consciousness. But, on the other hand, the thought of a body burning down to ashes is disturbing to many others, and, for them, burial may seem to be the most natural choice. Whatever the decision, whether it is burial or cremation, experts in psychology and family counseling say that the choice should not be made lightly – or without careful consideration of all involved. The deceased’s wishes should be paramount, the experts say, but, in cases in which the deceased’s wishes are unknown (or when they conflict with the desires of family members) careful deliberation and discussion – all presided over respect and love – should ensue before a decision is made final.