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How to decide between burial or cremation

Since ancient times, religion, tradition, and local custom have been the primary factors in determining whether people of various cultures cremate or bury the dead. In early U.S. history, cremation was all but unknown, and virtually all funeral services concluded with in-ground burial of the body. Prior to the late 18th century, corpses were typically wrapped in shrouds before they were placed in the grave, rather than contained in caskets.

The first U.S. crematories, which were established in Pennsylvania in the 1870s and 1880s, were quickly followed by cremation facilities in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York. By the early 1900s, cremation had come into common practice, and the numbers of crematories and cremations rose rapidly.

What is more common today - burial or cremation?

Today, as in the early 20th century, burial is the most common method for the disposal of human remains in the U.S. Cremation is rapidly gaining favor, however, with an annual cremation rate of 28% reported for 2003 and a prediction that the cremation rate will have risen to 43% by 2025, according to figures from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA).

If you're planning your own funeral or planning a funeral service for a loved one who left no final wishes, there are a number of issues to consider in choosing between burial and cremation. The following are factors that typically influence such a decision:

  • Respect for the body. Some people believe that respect means allowing the body to decay naturally, rather than hurrying the process along via cremation, while others view cremation as a sign of reverence.
  • Environmental concerns. Advocates of both burial and cremation claim environmental concerns as one reason for their preference. Proponents of burial point out that a significant number and amount of pollutants are released upon burning a body, while those who favor cremation cite the toxicity of embalming fluids and the lack of biodegradability in traditional caskets and vaults. Burial advocates counter that natural or "green" burials are generally considered to be more environmentally sound than cremation.
  • Viewing the body. Viewing the body is part of the traditional funeral ritual in various cultures and religions. In many cases, people don't consider cremation because of a commonly held misconception that no viewing takes place prior to cremation. The fact is, both burials and cremations may occur with or without a visitation or funeral service, which may be held at home, at a funeral parlor, or at the graveside, and which may or may not include the presence of the body.
  • Physical location. Many people who choose burial find comfort in knowing that their loved one is laid to rest in an identifiable grave where they can visit. Some are unaware, however, that inurned, cremated remains can be buried in a crypt or niche in many cemeteries. For others, keeping the cremation urn at home or scattering the ashes at sea or in a favorite location is preferable to burial in the ground.
  • Religious beliefs. Among Eastern religions, cremation is required for Hindus and Buddhists. While Sikhs do not prohibit burial, they prefer cremation for cultural reasons.

    Traditionally, the Jewish religion has frowned on cremation. Today, although some Reform Jews accept the practice, burial is still preferred. Islam forbids cremation.

    Beliefs vary among Christians. Although many still believe that cremation is forbidden by the Catholic Church, church laws on cremation were amended in the 1960s, lifting the ban and requiring burial of the cremated remains, rather than scattering or keeping them at home.

    The Lutheran, Methodist, Salvation Army, and Seventh-Day Adventist churches also permit cremation, while Baptist and other fundamentalist Christian denominations, along with the Eastern Orthodox Church, do not.

    Christian Science, Church of Scientology, Society of Friends (Quakers), and Unitarian Universalism are among the other churches that allow cremation.
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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Funerals: everything you need to know section helpful too.

For biodegradable and more traditional cremation urns, we recommend Richard Lamb New Traditions Funerals.

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