Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Burial or cremation a murky choice

Part 3 of “Dead of Winter,” a series on death, mourning and rituals

To read Part 1 of the Dead of Winter series click here. To read Part 2 click here.

Bury or burn? When it comes to what happens after the breath has leaked out of you, the choices are limited.

Despite the huge diversity of rituals around funerals, the end almost always comes down to one of these two options.

There are rare exceptions. Among the more intriguing is the Zoroastrian funeral tradition. Because dead bodies are viewed as defiling nature, neither burial, which would pollute the earth, nor cremation, which would taint the purity of fire, which is central to Zoroastrianism, are acceptable. Therefore, bodies have traditionally been placed in a “tower of silence,” to be consumed by vultures.

For most of us, though, the choice is less exotic. And in a society where we tend to operate on assumptions of immortality, the choice between burial or cremation is hardly as alluring as, say, chocolate versus vanilla.

However disagreeable either option may seem as we go about our quotidian business, cultures for millennia have come down pretty hard on one side or the other. Like most things associated with funerals, the way yours plays out will most likely be determined by your religion or culture.

Riverside Funeral Home and Crematorium on the Fraser River in Delta is where a great number of funerals occur for members of Metro Vancouver’s Hindu, Sikh, Fijian and Sri Lankan communities.

It is also, says Jasbir Dhir, manager and funeral director at Riverside, where many of Vancouver’s white bodies end up when they request “basic cremation” — that is: no service, no embalming, nothing fancy, but a straightforward disposal of the body. Dhir sees cultural differences starkly here. For all the basic cremations they do of European-descended Canadians, she has yet to see a Hindu or Sikh family opt for this unceremonious option.

In some other cultures, cremation is extremely uncommon or outright forbidden.

Until the 1960s, the Catholic church forbade cremation, on the belief that the body would be the vessel for resurrection and eternal life. Since the liberalizations of the Second Vatican Council, cremation has been permitted with caveats, notably that the ashes must still be interred in the ground or a crypt.

For Muslims and Jews, burial is the almost universal choice. The parallels between the cultures are striking, though not surprising given their shared theological and geographic proximities. Both share a haste to get the bodies in the ground, a practical matter for desert cultures.

Howard Jampolsky, executive director of the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery Board, the Jewish burial organization in Vancouver, says the Jewish proscription against cremation is ancient, but it may have been reinforced by recent history.

“There are biblical reasons and there are more 20th-century reasons as well,” he says. “Cremation was used by the Nazis, probably specifically as an additional affront to the Jews.”

Cremation, under the circumstances, could contravene not only ancient religious principles but evoke grisly memories of a past that is still very much present in Vancouver’s Jewish community.

The Jewish tradition of burial is still very much proscribed, with a plain wooden box no matter the status of the deceased, with no metal fixtures and holes in the bottom to accelerate the process of returning to the earth.

Ultimately, British Columbia’s high rate of cremation — 77 percent; the highest in Canada — is due in part to cremation rates among Protestants and also the tendency of some large multicultural groups to cremate. But it may have as much to do with lack of religion.

In a place like B.C., with our vast swath of “spiritual but not religious” people, cost may turn out to be as significant as religion or culture. And cremation is cheaper — by as much as 75 percent.

British Columbians who have abandoned organized religion may or may not care what happens to their remains after they die. Certainly they are not going to be swayed by promises of resurrection. At which point, perhaps, the bottom line kicks in and they choose the cheaper option.

For a few, the environmental impact of our dead bodies may be a concern, though neither burial nor cremation is particularly palatable from this perspective. While there is a new trend toward “green” funerals (still very uncommon), conventional burial and cremation both come with some serious environmental downers.

Cremation causes a surprising amount of carbon emissions — and scary levels of mercury from old dental fillings that make their way into the atmosphere and affect child development. But decades of “perpetual care” in a neatly mowed and watered cemetery probably negate any green advantage that option offers.

If you do not belong to a faith group or culture that determines what happens to you at the end, the choice, such as it may be, is yours. The earth won’t thank you if you choose either conventional route. So it may come down to a pocketbook issue.