As recently as 1960, only 3.56% of Americans opted for cremation over burial. But, according to the Cremation Association of North America, the number of people in the United States choosing cremation is now about 50%. As of 2015, 48.6% of Americans and 68.8% of Canadians chose cremation. It has been projected that by 2020, the numbers will be 54.3% for Americans and 74.2% for Canadians.
To the extent that death is feared and viewed as the ultimate enemy, the choice between burial and cremation will never be much more than an earthly concern; however, there are esoteric schools that claim metaphysical reasons for choosing cremation. They have to do with the transition from this life to the next.
While the economic, hygienic, and ecological advantages of cremation are obvious, its acceptance as the best way of disposing of our mortal remains has been deterred by religious beliefs. Traditional Jews see cremation as a transgression of biblical laws requiring burial. Islam considers it sacrilegious, since Allah did not prescribe it. Much of Christianity has opposed it because turning the cadaver to ashes leaves nothing to be resurrected on Judgment Day. While that reasoning made little more sense than a skull and detached bones being reassembled on that day of reckoning, the biblical tradition prevailed.
As more and more people expressed concerns about the fate of the righteous who were “blown to smithereens” during the war or were consumed by carnivorous beasts, church authorities began to rethink their ideas. It made absolutely no sense that good people should forfeit their right to eternal salvation because they were unlucky. And what of the saintly Joan of Arc and other martyrs burned at the stake? Would a just and loving God deny them entry to His kingdom because their body parts were beyond reassembly?
The Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation in 1963, but it requires internment or entombment of the ashes, forbidding the scattering of ashes, apparently still clinging somewhat to the possibility that the body will reassemble itself on that last day. Liberal Protestant denominations have likewise accepted cremation, but the more fundamentalist denominations continue to oppose it because of the biblical and resurrection concerns. Eastern Orthodox faiths also continue to forbid it.
The fact that many people have completely abandoned organized religion in recent decades, becoming atheists, agnostics, or perhaps subscribing to various so-called “New Age” belief systems which do not accept the physical resurrection scenario, has no doubt also significantly contributed to the acceptance of cremation.
The metaphysical reasons lending themselves to cremation come from various Eastern, mystical, or esoteric schools, such as Tibetan Buddhism, Theosophy, and Spiritualism. Such schools do not teach survival of the physical body; rather, it is a spirit body, energy body, or light body that separates from the physical body at the time of death and continues to exist in a greater reality, often referred to as the “afterlife.” The outer edge of this spirit body when connected with the physical body is referred to as the aura. In effect, the basic teaching relative to cremation is that even though the person may be physically “dead,” the consciousness of the undeveloped soul may still cling to the physical presence, and thus cremation helps the soul overcome the attachment to the body, one that may continue for a much longer period if the cadaver is buried.
Moral Specific Gravity
Generally, such esoteric belief systems further hold that we survive death with varying degrees of consciousness, based on what has been called a “moral specific gravity.” The more spiritually advanced the person, the greater the moral specific gravity, and the greater the consciousness or awareness after death. The more enlightened souls should quickly “awaken” on the Other Side, while morally corrupt souls will transition into the greater reality with limited consciousness and may not even be aware that they have “died.” These “earthbound” souls exist in something of a dream world, the more spiritually challenged soul possibly experiencing it as a nightmare, what religions call “hell.”
Emanuel Swedenborg, the brilliant eighteenth century scientist who learned to leave his body and explore the afterlife realms, wrote that he had met newly departed souls in something of a stupor, unaware they were “dead.” This seemed especially true of people who had “denied the Divine” when alive in the flesh. When they finally came to realize that they had left the physical body behind and existed in a different state, they were, he said, “acutely embarrassed.”
As Allan Kardec, a pioneering French psychical researcher, came to understand it from his conversations with spirits of the dead through mediums, “the moral state of the soul is the condition which determines the ease, or the difficulty, with which the spirit disengages himself from his terrestrial envelope.” He further concluded that the strength of the affinity between the physical body and spirit body is in the exact ratio of the spirit’s attachment to materiality. “It is, consequently, at the maximum in the case of those whose thoughts and interests are concentrated on the earthly life and the enjoyment of material pleasures,” he wrote. “It is almost null in the case of those whose soul has identified itself before with the spirit life.”
Kardec likened the “earthbound” condition to somnambulism, as in sleepwalking, when the somnambulist who is thrown into a magnetic sleep cannot believe that he is not awake. “Sleep, according to their idea of it, is synonymous with suspension of the perceptive faculties, and as they think freely, and see, they appear to themselves not to be asleep,” he explained.
Kardec and others who studied the dying process wrote of magnetic currents holding the spirit body close to the physical body during the earth life and continuing after death—the more materialistic the person, the greater the magnetic currents. However, these magnetic currents, it was explained, should not be confused with what has been called the “silver cord,” the connecting link between the physical body and the spirit body. The silver cord will have been severed at the time of physical death, liberating the spirit body, but the magnetic currents can still keep the spirit body close to the physical body.
Between the advanced soul and the earthbound soul, we might find the majority of humanity drifting in and out of consciousness in varying degrees in the period following physical death. It has been likened to being so absorbed in a movie that one experiences the emotions of the actors, forgetting temporarily that it is “just a movie.” Clearly, some people are more absorbed by the action in the movie than others, and just as the emotions of the movie may remain with a person for some time after the movie is over, so it seems to be with the more spiritually challenged person. In effect, our consciousness is partly in this world and partly in the unreal one when we are enjoying a movie, and it is much like that in the after death state, the earth life becoming the unreal one and the afterlife becoming the greater reality.
As physicist James Beichler interprets it in his 2008 book To Die For, when consciousness is less evolved and the mind is more focused on the material/physical world of common, four-dimensional space-time alone, those making the transition from this life to the afterlife in the nonmaterial but still physical, five-dimensional space-time may be faced with a very big gap, thus not recognizing that they are dead. If the person had achieved a higher level of consciousness while occupying the material/physical body, “then the mind would already have memories of five-dimensional experience and would then merge with less difficulty into its new state of being,” Beichler explains, adding that this mind can remain stuck in its four-dimensional material reality without any real material existence because it does not have any reference points in the higher-dimensional, nonmaterial world.
It is for this “confused” soul that cremation is most recommended by the esoteric schools. “The process of dispersal is greatly aided by cremation,” wrote Alice Bailey, as explained to her by Djwhal Khul, referred to by her as The Tibetan Master. “In the case of the undeveloped person, the etheric (spirit) body can linger for a long time in the neighborhood of its outer disintegrating shell because the pull of the soul is not potent and the material aspect is. Where the person is advanced, and therefore detached in his thinking from the physical plane, the dissolution of the vital body can be exceedingly rapid.”
According to Kardec, cremation does not undo the gravitational pull of a materialistic life, but it at least mitigates the pull. This same teaching is found in many esoteric sources. In effect, the quicker the body is destroyed, the quicker is its hold upon the earthbound soul broken. According to those sources, burial, especially with embalming, can result in the earthbound soul clinging to the body for decades, if not centuries, in earth time as the body slowly decays.
Dead, Yet Not Dead
The “Lazarus Phenomenon”—a person coming back to life after being declared legally “dead”—has raised ethical issues among physicians relative to when autopsies and or harvesting should begin. Extreme cases, such as that of Dr. George Rodonaia, who returned to life after three days in the morgue (see sidebar), give rise to questions about when cremation, or burial, including embalming, should commence. Some states have a 48-hour waiting period before cremation can take place, but, according to a Minnesota funeral services provider, the average time frame is 12–36 hours after death, though some cremations have taken place within an hour of the person’s death.
Science has struggled with identifying the moment of death. For many years, “clinical death”—the complete cessation of heartbeat, respiration, and other vital functions of the body—was an acceptable standard to all, but modern methods of resuscitation and concerns relative to organ transplants and long-term coma patients brought about another standard, that of “brain death,” which called for the complete loss of brain function. According to the Uniform Determination of Death Act, a model act adopted by most states of the United States, an individual who has sustained either: 1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions; or 2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.
Nevertheless, the picture is still a very muddled one. According to Dr. Linda Emanuel, a professor of internal medicine and geriatrics, as set forth in a 1995 paper, there is no threshold event defining death. Rather, dying is a “process” and does not occur at a single, definite moment. In supporting Emanuel’s conclusion, cardiologist Michael Sabom, notes that 10 organ donors diagnosed as “brain dead” showed an average increase in blood pressure of 31 millimeters of mercury and in heart rate of 23 beats per minute during the surgical removal of organs. Sabom also refers to a study at Loyola University Medical Center in which it was found that 20% of patients diagnosed as brain dead had persisting EEG activity up to seven days after initial diagnosis.
In his 2010 book, Consciousness Beyond Life, Pim Van Lommel, a world-renowned cardiologist, devotes several interesting pages to the organ transplant issue, pointing out that when brain death has been diagnosed, 96% of the body is still alive. While stating that he is not in principle opposed to organ transplants, van Lommel suggests that more consideration should be given to the nonphysical aspects of organ donation, including the fear of death. Van Lommel further comments that most people are unaware that when an organ is removed from “dead” patients, it usually requires general anesthesia of the individual because of “violent reflexes by the certified dead organ donor.”
There are essentially three concerns here relating to premature disturbance of the body—whether physical death has taken place, whether consciousness has achieved separation, and whether the liberated consciousness still clings to the body. Since mainstream medical science does not officially recognize the survival of consciousness at death, the second and third concerns are not proper ones for medical practitioners to discuss.
Little has been written on the subject, although Kardec commented that the affinity that continues between soul and body after death can result in extreme pain, “for it causes the spirit to perceive all the horror of decomposition of the latter.”
When Sir Oliver Lodge, a renowned British physicist, asked his discarnate son Raymond about it while communicating with him through the famous British medium Gladys Osborne Leonard, Raymond suggested a seven-day waiting period. Raymond told his father that the body doesn’t start mortifying until the spirit has left it. He went on to say that he had witnessed a scene several days earlier in which a man was going to be cremated two days after the doctor pronounced him dead. “When his relatives on this side heard about it, they brought a certain doctor on our side, and when they saw that the spirit hadn’t got really out of the body, they magnetized it, and helped it out,” Raymond explained, going on to say that people seem to be so careless in this regard, the idea being to “hurry up and get them out of the way now that they are dead.”
One thing is certain. Neither medical science nor organized religion is prepared to offer any real help concerning the metaphysical aspects of disposing of our mortal remains, so it is up to the individual to make his or her own decision and arrangements beforehand, if possible. Better yet, achieve a high moral specific gravity in this life.
The Lazarus Phenomenon
Numerous cases of people coming back to life after being declared dead by medical authorities have been reported, although the great majority of them are within a few hours of the supposed death. Perhaps the most extreme case of the Lazarus Phenomenon is that of George Rodonaia, a Russian neuropathologist, who apparently was targeted by the KGB in 1976 because of his dissident views and run down by a car as he crossed a street. His death was confirmed at the hospital, and his corpse was placed in cold storage. When the autopsy began three days later, Rodonaia regained consciousness.
Rodonaia recalled seeing his physical body lying in the morgue. On top of that, however, he was able to “see” the thoughts and emotions of his wife, Nino, and of those who killed him. After being revived physically and when able to speak again, he told his wife how he saw her picking out a gravesite for him. But he also read her mind and saw that she was thinking about three different men as her next husband. She even made a list of their qualities, pro and con. When Rodonaia told Nino, who later confirmed it as accurate, of “seeing” all this, even reciting the list to her, she was totally shocked and kept her distance from him for a year as she felt she no longer had the privacy of her own mind.
Rodonaia also recalled being drawn to a nearby hospital, where the wife of a friend had just given birth. With x-ray-like eyes, he was able to see that the baby’s hip was broken during delivery when the attending nurse dropped the infant. When he came to, he alerted the doctors to the fracture. They had the baby x-rayed and confirmed his diagnosis.