In America, cremations now outnumber burials — what's religion got to do with it?

My hippie wannabe wife insists that she wants to be cremated when she dies.

"I think it's environmentally friendly," my bride tells me. "Countless acres are filled up with remains inside caskets.

"Plus, it will allow me to spare you guys a lot of expense and possibly trauma and heartache," she adds.

Rather than be buried in a cemetery, Tamie says she wants to be "mixed in with the roots of a tree and planted in the mountains in the breathtakingly beautiful area where six generations of my family have made memories together. I think it would be nice to contribute to nature rather than be a burden on it."

Well, alrighty. 

As for me, I want to be dressed in my Sunday best and await the resurrection with what's left of my skin and bones fully intact. I don't like flames. So it sounds like my wife of 27 years and I will — at some point hopefully many years in the future — spend the first part of eternity apart.

In all seriousness, we are both people of strong Christian faith — but we come down on different sides of the cremation vs. burial question. 

I bring up the topic because of a fascinating Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story this week that noted cremation is becoming the new norm in America:

When Scott Beinhauer’s forebears expanded their funeral business in 1921 with a location just south of the then-new Liberty Tunnel, they added a rare piece of equipment: a crematory.
For nearly a century it stood as the second-oldest crematory in use in the nation, although it would have received only occasional use for its first few decades, when more than 95 percent of Americans were still opting for burial.
That began to change in the 1960s, and now the nation has reached a cultural tipping point, with cremations outnumbering burials. The Memorial Day tradition of paying respects for the departed are increasingly taking place in columbariums rather than graveyards.

Longtime GetReligion readers will be thrilled to know that the byline atop the Post-Gazette trend piece belongs to Peter Smith, one of the best religion writers on the planet.

That means — hurrah! — that the writer definitely gets religion, and that makes this story a joy to read. Well, as much a joy as a story about dying can be ...

But Smith demonstrates his Godbeat expertise masterfully as he explains the religious and cultural factors at play in the cremation trend:

The highest cremation rates are in more socially and religiously liberal states, accounting for three in four deaths in Oregon and Washington state. The lowest rates are in more conservative Bible Belt and Appalachian states such as Mississippi (21 percent) and West Virginia (32 percent).
The map of state cremation rates resembles a presidential Electoral College map, with the highest rates in Democratic-voting states and the lowest in Republican-trending states.  (The main exception to the red-casket, blue-urn model is in the more libertarian Western states, which trend toward cremation and Republican votes).
The states with the lowest cremation rates also tend to be the same ones the Pew Research Center lists as most religious.

OK, that's terrific context.

But what actual religious doctrines and beliefs influence where various people of faith come down on this issue?

Glad you asked:

But while cremation may have once been a marker of the nation’s culture wars, it’s less so now.
The rate has been steadily increasing everywhere in the United States since the 1960s, when it rose above 5 percent for the first time.
That’s also when the Roman Catholic Church began to permit the practice, with restrictions. The church once used to forbid cremation as a symptom of religious deviance and what a 19th century pope called a “detestable abuse.” Pope Paul VI decreed that cremation was permissible as long as it wasn’t conducted as a deliberate statement denying the doctrine of the resurrection.

After quoting a priest, Smith turns to an evangelical pastor:

In his nearly 20 years of presiding at funerals at Orchard Hill Church, Rob Bohnenstengel said he has seen an increasing number of families opting for cremation.
But as evangelicals placing a high value on the authority of Scripture, they often seek assurance first that cremation is OK.
“That’s why they ask the questions,” said Mr. Bohnenstengel,  the community care pastor at the large Franklin Park-based congregation. “The Bible doesn’t address it directly. In our faith we believe one day our bodies and our souls will all reunite and that would take place some time in the future when Jesus comes back. .. If God created the heavens and the earth and mankind, why couldn’t he put us back together? So we go through that with families. They feel a little better.”
Some evangelicals continue to urge families to choose burial when possible, not so much as a mandate but as a statement. They say it reaffirms the Christian view that the body is an integral part of the human self and will be raised up, rather than seeing the body as a temporary shell for a spirit. 

Want to know where Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Hindus stand? You'll have to click the link and read the full story. Trust me, it's an excellent piece of journalism and worth your time.

Not only that, but it might spark some discussion between you and your loved ones — as it did between my wife and me.

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