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Burning question: Religion is one factor driving cremation trend

Published: Friday, Sept. 13 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Bassey, who wrote about the experience in her "52 Weeks of Worship Project," said a year after the service and cremation, she and her mother and three sisters flew to San Diego, where they arranged for a boat to take them about 15 minutes from shore. They sang songs, said prayers and dispersed their father's ashes into the Pacific — except for the small amount that Bassey still keeps on her shelf at home.

"There was a family decision that rather than trying to spread his ashes in Nigeria, the Pacific Ocean might be somewhere we could actually go and have some time where we are memorializing him," she said. "(Knowing) that water moves and air moves and he might make his way home" to Nigeria.

A larger community

David Augsburger, a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary, said it's important for a family of the deceased to respect the needs of the community at large as well as the wishes of the deceased.

That's what one Utah family did when it decided to cremate a family member but kept the decision private so as to not upset members of the Mormon congregation where the deceased attended church.

"We did have a traditional funeral service in the chapel, even to the point that they brought in a (rented) casket even though (the body) wasn’t in it," an in-law of the family said, requesting anonymity. "There was no mention made of cremation."

The family member said the decision to cremate was primarily a financial one. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' policy states cremation is a family decision. The CANA report noted that cremation is on average about one-fourth the cost of a traditional burial.

"Social respect and acceptance was dealt with, then they dealt with their own private family grief," Augsburger said of the decisions the Utah family made in holding a traditional service and a private interment of the cremated remains.

Discussions that take into account a broader community have helped bring cremation into the mainstream, funeral operators said, as it gives people more options to memorialize deceased family members according to their needs and beliefs.

The Rev. Michael Fick said in his first Lutheran parish in Denver, Colo., only one of the dozens of funerals he officiated over in seven years was a traditional burial. A cultural environmental ethic was a predominant reason people chose cremation over burial, he said.

"The environmental piece is often a very motivating one because they may have found their most spiritual experience in hiking and camping and spending time outside," he said.

Now, as pastor over Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Chicago, Rev. Fick said burial is the preferred choice for both religious and traditional reasons.

"In this area, generations can be buried in the same cemetery, and so it may be important to carry on that tradition, and that would influence burial over cremation," he said. "Some people don’t understand cremation remains can be buried."

Evolving views

Christian denominations have a long history of changing views on cremation. While some cite Biblical references to burial, resurrection and the use of fire as a means of punishment, religious scholars say the main reason early Christians buried their dead was to distinguish themselves from Pagans who cremated deceased remains.

"The early Christians also followed the standard practice of Jews," said Larry Cunningham, an emeritus professor of theology at Notre Dame University.

Jews regard the human body as sacred and on loan from God, so any form of intentional mutilation is forbidden and can be seen as an act of rebellion and disrespect, said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who leads a congregation in West Rogers Park, Chicago.

Old Testament scripture in Deuteronomy gives detailed instructions on how the dead should treated, Matanky explained.

"(Cremation) is troubling as a choice, especially in light of the Holocaust, where the crematoria are still fresh in people’s minds," he said. "Choosing anything that has reference to that is very troubling."

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