In the United States, the popularity of cremation has steadily been growing for many years, eventually overtaking burial as the preferred method of dealing with the dead, however, not all states appear to favor cremation in the same way. Utah, in particular, is one of the US states that still lies heavily in favor of burial, and although social and economical factors play heavily in many people’s decisions to cremate or to bury, in the case of Utah it is believed that their predominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be the key influencing factor.
A brief history of cremation
Burning a body after death has been practiced for many centuries, with our earliest evidence for cremation dating back as far as 8000BC in China. With regards to regular cremation, the Middle East was practicing cremation from 1740BC, though this existed alongside burial as an equally preferential way to deal with the dead. In the West, cremation was also very popular amongst the Ancient Greeks and the Romans, and throughout the Iron Age and the Viking Period it was not uncommon for bodies to be burned instead of buried as it was believed that cremation would free the soul from the flesh. With regards to the ancient Jewish religion, cremation was always frowned upon, and as Christianity began to rise amongst the Ancient Greeks and the Romans in the West, they too began to favor burial practices. In Asia, cremation was not generally favored until after the cremation of Buddha, at which point cremation began to gain popularity. This upward trend for cremation in Asia has remained to this day with Japan now having the highest cremation rate in the world at over 99.9%. But where does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fit into all of this? Let’s take a close look.
Cremation and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
The Christian reluctance to cremate can generally be traced back to the Jewish and Christian belief that when God created the body and everything in it, he created it as “very good.” (Gen. 1:31.) and therefore it was to be respected even after death. By this notion, to cremate a body would, therefore, be disrespectful to God, and as such burial was used as the preferred way to treat the dead. These beliefs were upheld strongly for many years but began to change in the latter part of the 19th century when many European cemeteries became unsanitary causing people to take another look at the ways in which they treated their dead.
Today, although cremation is legal in the Church, the Church handbook still clearly states that they do not ‘encourage’ the practice, and that it is “the family of the deceased that must decide whether the body should be cremated.” In the event that a person must be cremated for whatever reason, then “where possible, the body of the deceased person who has been endowed should be dressed in temple clothing when cremated.”
This notion was echoed by associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, Roger R. Keller, who stated that The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still reaffirm that the body is‘ very good’ and is still to be respected, however, ultimately it is the family who should decide what to do with the body, and if there is no overriding reason to cremate then burial is still the preferred method to handle the dead.
Cremation and resurrection
Another of the reasons why burial was favored by The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was because of the belief that a person’s body should remain intact in order to be properly resurrected. This is now widely accepted to be an unrealistic view on death and is now upheld as an ideal because people have come to recognize that for some people, such as those who die in accidents, at sea, or in war, it may not be possible for their bodies to be buried in their intact states. For these people or those who have been cremated, it is believed that resurrection will take place by the power of God and a person will be resurrected as a whole regardless.
“Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost; but everything shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body. …” (Alma 11:44.)
Cremation as preference
Although the majority of Latter-day Saints around the world still prefer burial to cremation, there is an increasing number of individuals from the Church whose favor lies the other way around. For example, those who follow the Church in Japan, where cremation is essentially law. For these individuals, it is often felt that cremation is a cleaner alternative, a viewpoint that has been cultured through years of having cremation as their cultural norm leading to them favoring it over conventional burial practices regardless of the law. It is also believed that the younger generations who follow The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be changing their viewpoints on cremation, believing it just as sacred, significant, and appropriate as traditional earth burial. As time passes, and these younger generations build families of their own, it is therefore likely that attitudes to cremation will begin to change once more.
So do Latter-day Saints practice cremation?
The short answer to this question would be yes, Latter-day saints can, and do, practice cremation when it is appropriate for legal reasons or because of their own personal preferences. However, although attitudes to cremation may be changing, amongst the majority burial still remains the preferred way to deal with their dead and is still the method recommended by the Church.