What about cremation?
July 1972

“What about cremation?” New Era, July 1972, 34–36

“What about cremation?”

Answer/Brother Spencer J. Palmer

I personally prefer that the bodies of the departed dead be buried in the earth, in graves, rather than cremated by fire (a practice common among Hindus and Buddhists), or left in sacred “towers of silence” so that the corruptible flesh can be stripped clean by vultures (as advocated by Parsis of Zoroastrianism), or disposed of by other means. I prefer this because I am a western man prejudiced in favor of my own traditions. But from the Latter-day Saint point of view there is more to it than this.

From ancient times, the Lord’s people have preferred the practice of burial of the dead. In the scriptures it is the unvarying ideal. This tradition most nearly symbolizes the gospel teachings of death, burial, and resurrection—the atonement of Christ—and of baptism by immersion, as Paul suggests in Romans 6. The bodies of the dead are an essential part of the eternal soul. They are sacred tabernacles of the spirit. Out of respect for the dead, their grave sites should be chosen wisely and should be properly maintained. But I see no justification for Confucian theories of geomancy, for thinking that certain surface configurations (topography) are essential considerations in choosing burial sites of the dead. Neither is there any reason to think that the dead spend their time trying to punish, regulate, or reward their living kin on the basis of how well they care for them at death and after. Graves are not religious shrines. The body is ideally put away in a likeness of its coming forth from the grave, but the life and personality of the dead is neither in nor hovering about the grave. The spirits of the dead go to a place called paradise, a world of spirits, awaiting the day of resurrection.

I find meaning and satisfaction in Joseph Smith’s idyllic view of death and the resurrection once expressed in a funeral address:

“The place where a man is buried is sacred to me. This subject is made mention of in the Book of Mormon and other scriptures. Even to the aborigines of this land, the burying places of their fathers are more sacred than anything else. …

“I believe those who have buried their friends here, their condition is enviable. Look at Jacob and Joseph in Egypt, how they required their friends to bury them in the tomb of their fathers. See the expense which attended the embalming and the going up of the great company to the burial.

“It has always been considered a great calamity not to obtain an honorable burial: and one of the greatest curses the ancient prophets could put on any man, was that he should go without a burial.

“I have said, Father, I desire to die here among the Saints. But if this is not Thy will, and I go hence and die, wilt Thou find some kind friend to bring my body back, and gather my friends who have fallen in foreign lands, and bring them up hither, that we may all lie together.

“I will tell you what I want. If tomorrow I shall be called to lie in yonder tomb, in the morning of the resurrection let me strike hands with my father, and cry, ‘My father,’ and he will say, ‘My son, my son,’ as soon as the rock rends and before we come out of our graves.

“And may we contemplate these things so? Yes, if we learn how to live and how to die. When we lie down we contemplate how we may rise in the morning. …

“Would you think it strange if I relate what I have seen in vision in relation to this interesting theme? …

“So plain was the vision, that I actually saw men, before they had ascended from the tomb, as though they were getting up slowly. They took each other by the hand and said to each other, ‘My father, my son, my mother, my daughter, my brother, my sister.’ And when the voice calls for the dead to arise, suppose I am laid by the side of my father, what would be the first joy of my heart? To meet my father, my mother, my brother, my sister; and when they are by my side, I embrace them and they me.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Deseret Book Co., 1961], pp. 294–96.)

This is the ideal—the perfect pattern of death and resurrection. But, unfortunately, this procedure of death and burial is not always possible for man. Nor, perhaps, is it always desirable. Too many people die violent and horrible deaths. Pilots are shot down and their bodies sometimes waste away in prison camps; human bodies are often mutilated, torn, destroyed, and sometimes entirely obliterated by war or accidents of fire and automobile. Some men are buried at sea and their bodies devoured by marine creatures. Not all bodies, not even all bodies of the righteous and the faithful, can be buried whole, or buried in the earth at all. In parts of Europe and in the southern United States the underground water level is so high that bodies cannot be buried in the earth. Hence they are frequently placed in containers above the earth and sometimes placed on top of one another.

In today’s world there are local laws in some countries that prohibit burial and encourage cremation; some metropolitan areas in Asia are so crowded that gravesites are a precious commodity and are outrageously expensive. Funerals and burials are prohibitive in cost to some of the most faithful members of the Church in that part of the world. Hence, although I personally prefer embalming and burial and although it has been the pattern followed by Israel, there appears to be no prohibition against cremation in the scriptures or in the theology of the Church. Certainly there is no doubt but that people whose bodies are destroyed by fire (cremated), as was the case with one of our Korean sisters in a recent hotel disaster, will rise again intact in the resurrection from the dead. The fundamental elements of the bodies of mankind are never lost or allowed to belong to another soul. (See Documentary History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 339.) These will be restored whole, as Alma has promised.

“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 every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame, as it is now, or in the body. …” (Alma 11:44.)

All of us need to realize that there are Latter-day Saints around the world who prefer cremation to burial. Here, for example, is the view of a young Japanese Latter-day Saint, a returned missionary who is now at BYU, a top student and respected Church member.

“In Japan we often cremate the remains of our dead and I definitely feel that this practice is cleaner than burying someone’s dead body under the ground. After cremation only dust and some small bones remain. But just imagine the decay of dead bodies that people put under the ground for the worms and bacteria to eventually take care of. That seems very unclean to me. It is probably a matter of how I was raised. But after the spirit is gone, the body is lifeless material. This material will come back in the resurrection no matter whether you cremate it or bury it underground. So far as Church doctrines are concerned, I don’t see anything wrong with cremation. I would rather see cleanliness for the living than sentimental feeling for the dead.”

Also, I feel there are unusual circumstances when cremation is preferable and in accordance with the mind and the will of the Lord. The experience of my mission president some twenty years ago in connection with the death of Mark Johnson Vest, an Indian member of the Cocoapas tribe, is a vivid and memorable example in point.

Brother Vest was branch president over an active group of Latter-day Saints at the time of his death. En route to Brother Vest’s funeral in Arizona the mission president prayed earnestly that the Lord would tell him why Brother Vest had been taken. As he prayed, he visualized Mark Johnson Vest standing in front of a large group of Indians, which he estimated to be about ten thousand. Mark was preaching the gospel to them. As he did so, one of the Indians in the middle of the group stood up and said, “Do not listen to this man. He is not a Lamanite. He is a Nephite!” After this, Mark Johnson Vest rose to his full stature and said, “I am not a Nephite! I am a Lamanite, and when I died I was cremated according to the custom of my people.”

When the mission president arrived at the town where the funeral was to be held, the stake president told him of a serious problem that had developed. Mark’s tribe, the Cocoapas, wanted him cremated according to their ancient customs. His wife’s tribe wanted him “properly buried.” The Cocoapas had said that if he were buried, they would dig him up so they could cremate him.

In his funeral talk the mission president related the vision he had had during the night. This settled the problem of cremation to the satisfaction of both tribes, and there was no more fighting among them over the matter. After the funeral service the mission president and his wife witnessed the cremation of Mark Johnson Vest.

  • Chairman, Asian Studies, Brigham Young University, and former president of the Korean Mission