To cremate or to bury? A tough choice between beliefs and wishes

A casket prepare and gpoing into the crematorium incinerator. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Finding ways to say goodbye is a matter of personal preference. The choice to bury or cremate is largely influenced by religion but what happens when preference collides with beliefs?

Death and Tax – That is all you’re owed. Some famous Historical figure said poignantly once how death and tax are all that life ensures. So today, we’ll be discussing the former – Death. More specifically, what usually follows death – saying goodbye.

The death of a loved one or a true companion has long addled mankind. We find ways to say our farewells and we find ways to confront our own mortality. Death rituals are a long-established practice, though they vary in method.

There is a long history of burning the dead, with evidence pointing to cremation in China as far back as 8000 B.C.E. Ancient European civilisations, such as the Greeks and the Romans would soon adopt the practice, though the phenomenon would die down by the fifth Century C.E.

These conversations about origins of human funeral rites are often hotly debated and contested. What stands true amidst all the noise is a deep yearning to understand the process of death. People are most serious when contemplating such matters. It affects us all. And it always has.

On the African front, it is said that the ancient Egyptians had extravagant funeral practices that most believed crucial to maintain immortality after death.

One could surmise that death and religion go hand-in-hand as they have stood the test of time for mankind. Mummifying of bodies, engravings on tombstones and spells being cast upon the dead all play key roles in Ancient Egyptian religion and mythology. As these practices evolved over the course of history, old rituals made way for the new.

However, many important aspects of ancient funeral practices have withstood the test of time. With these questions of death feeding off religious sentiment, there come divergent views and perspectives on interpreting the choices between cremation and burial.

Globally, the most dominant religion is Christianity. Through this religion, we tailor many mundane and consequential tasks throughout our lives. While Christians may prefer burial, others like Hinduism embrace cremation.

Certain data suggests that Far Eastern nations prefer cremation over burial, with Japan maintaining one of the highest cremation rates in the world, reporting a cremation rate of over 99 percent. “I am a Christian who believes in burial,” said Dr Simon Marealle, a medical officer who specialises in TB and HIV. “I support both,” he continued, “as one has to send off loved ones according to their religious beliefs or requests.”

Christianity has seen shifting views on cremation over the years. Traditionally speaking, many factions of Christianity were vehemently opposed to the idea. In the modern day, however, cremation has spread in acceptance and it is a common practice throughout the faith.

One of the leading reasons for the initial Christian apprehension to cremation was the belief that cremated bodies could not be resurrected. This concern has waned over time as the world became more connected and different beliefs and practices were modified to accommodate.

As Simon put it, “both cremation and burial have serious undertones depending on one’s religion. As a medical officer, I have witness people of different religions expressing how they are going to send off their loved ones.” I asked the doctor if this battle between cremation and burial, added with the whole notion of death, is one on which he has contemplated throughout his life and he responded with an emphatic, “Yes.” Such questions are universal. “Death and funeral practices have a lot of significance because they observe religious, cultural and personal requests,” he added.

The sense of being one with nature and returning back to the earth is a common theme for both cremation and burial. At times, it merely comes down to personal preference. With the world as intertwined as it is today, we tend to borrow perspectives and philosophies from one another. This leads to a less rigid and more fluid mind-set. One that is willing to incorporate certain outside elements into one’s way of thinking.

A grave site with gravestones. PHOTO|FILE

Whilst cremation certainly holds significant religious undertones, burial certainly has its fair share. “I don’t want bugs eating up my dead body,” stated Yvonne Shose. She is a Christian in Rwanda who noted that burials hold more religious weight than cremation. At least in her experience.

She has always associated death with a burial. Perhaps a memorial service where a choir would sing Hymns and the pastor would preach. It is an emotional experience for those so inclined. That being said, she states: “I have thought about this a lot and I decided on cremation a long time ago.” Her idea of being one with nature does not extend to the afterlife.

“Go smell the flowers, plant trees, be one with the ocean (without drowning).” This is how she connects with the earth. “But as long as a person is cremated or buried in a peaceful way the way they wanted, I’m cool with it,” she says.

In Islamic teachings, the practice of cremation is considered Haram or forbidden. Followers of the faith are not allowed to cremate their dead as it is considered unclean. Muslims take a firm stand against cremation, believing that the human body should be respected in life and in death. And so they bury their dead. “It is like you are mutilating me after my death. It is simply not allowed.” Ashy Kiliza is a Muslim doctor and speaks to the strict adherence within her faith to burials after death. “We were created by sand and soil and moulded into the shape of a human. And we will die in the same way. We’ll be buried and turn to sand and soil to be the same as nature. The soul is taken up and waits for the day of judgment,” she explains.

“I would advise a dying man that wants to return to nature to do it on his own terms. This world can be ruthless, so anyway to rest is welcomed,” Kusi, a local entrepreneur commented. “I would personally prefer a burial, because that is just how I was brought up. Cremation feels like you’re hurting the person. I can almost hear the soul scream.”

For most people who don’t base their existential understandings on a strictly religious basis, they simply go by visceral and gut instincts. To some, burials represent dirt, mud and bugs. Having your flesh decay over decades before you wither into nothingness.

To others, it represents a preservation of the body and spirit. Paying respect to the human form. To some, cremation represents inflicting pain on a deceased body. The violation of a once-breathing being, now subject to torture in the afterlife. To others, it represents a fiery awakening into the next life. A method of escape for the soul and spirit into something greater than before. It comes down to perspective and lived experience.

“Rituals surrounding death are all about getting things done,” Kusi Justice continued. “We cannot really pray for the dead. We pray for ourselves, because the dead might not hear us. They have done their part, now they’re dead. We have these rituals to acknowledge and celebrate a life. Then we bury the body to keep things moving.”

I, for my part, am yet to determine which course of action to take. Both make compelling arguments, though I cannot find myself leaning more to one side or the other. I suppose, all this talk of death and religion could make one skittish or uncertain. Though it is clear that peace and rest is all that one could wish for. For one’s self or for loved ones.

All we want to do is maximise the opportunities of this life and rest in peace once our journey is over. My advice to you is to take some time to ponder such ideas. Ask yourself how you feel about such uncomfortable topics. And why do you feel that way? You might stumble upon a deeply-rooted philosophy that you are yet to express.

“I believe that both cremation and burials have religious undercurrents, as most religions practice either one,” said Brenda Magai. “My advice is that whatever you feel comfortable with is what you should go with,” she continued. “Be sure to voice your opinions before your time so that your loved ones may actually do as you wish. My preferred method of exodus would be cremation because I have an irrational fear that I might wake up once buried. Specifically, a Viking burial would be great. This is certainly something I have deliberated over the years as my religious beliefs have constantly shifted.”

The general feeling from those that don’t seek to impose their beliefs on others is to do as one needs to in order to find peace. The responses to these questions boil down to “Do as the dying wish.” Brenda finished off with, “I don’t place too much significance on rituals surrounding death. I believe that it is a form of closure for the family and friends of the deceased. Because, really, how would I know how I am being sent off? I’m DEAD. Well, that just about sums it all up really.