Many of us have been following the drama of where to bury the Boston bomber who died in a shootout with police. No cemetery in Massachusetts will take the body, and it’s not an option to bury him in Russia. Finally, a Muslim cemetery in Virginia took his body, and Virginians aren’t happy about it. In this article, I learned that Muslims have a prohibition against cremation. Knowing that cremation is frowned upon by the LDS Church, I thought it might be interesting to come back to my series on the book Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie. Under the heading Cremation (it is the same in the 1958 and 1979 editions), Elder McConkie writes:
CREMATION. See DEATH, FUNERALS, GRAVES. Cremation of the dead is no part of the gospel; it is a practice which has been avoided by the saints in all ages. The Church today counsels its members not to cremate their dead. Such a procedure would find gospel acceptance only under the most extraordinary and unusual circumstances. Wherever possible the dead should be consigned to the earth, and nothing should be done that is destructive to the body; that should be left to nature, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Gen 3:19)
Even though McConkie says “The Church today counsels its members not to cremate their dead,” I thought it would be interesting to see what the church actually says. The Ensign from 1991 is softer on the topic than McConkie, but it does seem to agree with him on certain parts. The article emphasizes that this is not the official church position.
Where do Latter-day Saints fit into this picture? We reaffirm the perspective that the body is good and, as a creation of God, is to be respected. But as the Church has moved into nations other than the United States, there has been recognition that cultural practices differ. Generally, Latter-day Saints in the Western world have felt that nothing should be done which is destructive to the body. That should be left to nature. Church leaders have counseled that only in unusual circumstances or where required by law should cremation take place. 11
Ultimately, after consultation with the Lord and with priesthood leaders, the family must decide what to do. If the person has been endowed, some special instructions are available for the family from local priesthood leaders. Even if a body is cremated, a funeral service may be held if the ashes are buried or deposited in a mausoleum. 12
Where there is no overriding reason to cremate, burial is still the preferred method of handling our dead. In the end, however, we should remember that the resurrection will take place by the power of God, who created the heavens and the earth. Ultimately, whether a person’s body was buried at sea, destroyed in combat or an accident, intentionally cremated, or buried in a grave, the person will be resurrected.
I was surprised to see a pretty impressive history of cremation in the Ensign.
The earliest regular cremations in the Middle East seem to have been among the Hittites (c. 1740–1190 B.C.) 2 and the Philistines (c. 1200 B.C.) 3Even so, cremation was paralleled in both civilizations by the practice of burial. However, in Hindu and Greek thought, cremation pointed to the impurity of the body. Fire was seen as the vehicle of regeneration or rebirth. 4
In Asia, the custom received wider acceptance after the Buddha was cremated. Since he set the example, many Buddhist countries such as Indochina, Korea, and Japan practice cremation. 5 (Interestingly, cremation was not popular in China, probably because of the strong Confucian influence, which emphasized respect for one’s ancestors.) In Japan, the first recorded cremation was that of the monk Dosho in A.D. 700, an example which was followed by the Empress Jito in A.D. 704, which gave imperial sanction to the practice. Even so, cremation declined in medieval Japan.
In the West, cremation was common among the Greeks and the Romans. It was the mode by which the bodies of the Caesars were destroyed. 6
Among the Jews, cremation was generally not practiced. The Mishnah forbids cremation as an act of idolatry. 7 In those rare instances when cremation did take place, it was a sign of unrighteousness (see Amos 6:10) or of punishment due a criminal. (See Lev. 20:14, Lev. 21:9; Josh. 7:25.) 8
Christianity likewise opposed cremation. This reluctance to cremate can basically be traced to the Jewish and Christian belief that when God created the body and all other things, he pronounced them “very good.” (Gen. 1:31.) The body was God’s creation and, according to Christians, it would rise with the spirit in the resurrection. Thus, to cremate it would be an act of disrespect before God.
A change occurred, however, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The unsanitary conditions of many cemeteries in western Europe caused people to reassess the way they treated their dead. Movements recommending cremation began around 1860, and in 1884 a judicial decision legalized cremation in Britain. France legalized it in 1889, and today it is legal in more than three-fourths of the world’s nations. The reasons are widely known—cremation is hygienic, requires little land, and is appropriate to rapidly growing urban areas. 9 Today, 10 percent of the dead are cremated in the United States, 20 percent in Canada, and 60 percent in Britain. 10
So what is official church policy? Now that the Handbook of Instructions is available on the internet, here’s what it says.
The Church does not normally encourage cremation. The family of the deceased must decide whether the body should be cremated, taking into account any laws governing burial or cremation. In some countries, the law requires cremation.
Where possible, the body of a deceased member who has been endowed should be dressed in temple clothing when it is cremated. A funeral service may be held (see 18.6).
From my experience, funerals are unnecessarily expensive. Is it really necessary to spend over a thousand dollars on a coffin (and that’s according to the discount website Best Price Caskets)? Then you can spend $895-$7195 on a burial vault. Some cemeteries require a vault because if the coffin collapses under the weight of the dirt, the ground sinks. A vault keeps the ground level for mowing the lawn. But funeral homes will try to sell you on the idea that some vaults prevent moisture from entering the coffin. Is this really a good idea? It slows down decomposition. Do we really care if water gets in the coffin? I don’t. Of course funeral homes try to sell you a lot of services when you’re most vulnerable, and it can really add up.
Cremation on the other hand is generally less expensive. When I die, I don’t want my family wasting money burying me, and I’m open to the idea of cremation. What are your thoughts on cremation?