“Do Latter-day Saints practice cremation?” Ensign, Aug. 1991, 62–63
Roger R. Keller, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. It is true that many peoples practice cremation as a way of dealing with the bodies of their dead. It is an ancient practice.
A common philosophy in some cultures where the dead are cremated is that there is a basic opposition between the spirit and the flesh. The body is often viewed as something from which to escape. The body, it is thought, imprisons an immortal spirit, which needs to rise above the material world to realize its true destiny, or the body may be viewed as part of an illusory world. In either case, the body is sometimes considered of little significance. In some cultures, it is believed that the spirit is not released until the corpse is burned completely to ashes. In this case, fire is viewed as a purifying and liberating agent.1
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.)3 Even 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
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.
No clearer picture of God’s restorative powers can be found than Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (see Ezek. 37), in which he sees the bones gathered together and clothed with sinews and flesh by the power of God. Nothing that is done to the body will in the end prevent the purpose of our Lord from being fulfilled. Our bodies and our spirits will finally be reunited in the resurrection of the dead.