Once, burial or creation was not a personal choice but a 'given' within a society dominated by one or another religion. Today, this is still true in many countries, yet no longer so in the industrialized world.
Here, people choose one or the other on grounds of personal preference, yet sometimes by price-tag as well. The funeral sector has become a major industry, graves and caskets and services can be rather expensive.
Variations across the globe are extreme. In Japan for example, more than 98% of funerals are cremations, while there are countries in which the practice doesn't exist at all, still being banned by the dominant religion.
However, especially in nations with a secular government, other considerations than religious ones have often come to prevail. Thus, cremation has meanwhile become the preferred manner of dealing with the remains of a deceased, partly because overpopulated regions and urban centers simply lack the space for extensive burial grounds or graveyards, partly because it's regarded as safer for the environment. After all, humans have turned into carriers of many a poison, and we don't want all of that in the earth.
While various Christian denominations have long tried to stem the tide, one prefers burial on the grounds of theological dogma, both the Protestant and Catholics churches have by now accepted cremation, the first in the late 19th century, the latter in varying degrees between 1963 and 1983. Still, Roman Catholics remained under control, because until 1997, Church regulations stipulated that cremation was to take place after the funeral service has taken place. The Church also specifies that the remaining ashes, weighing 2 to 3 kg, are to be buried or entombed in an appropriate container, such as an urn. That means the scattering of ashes or keeping them at home is not allowed.
Modern cremation as we know it was invented in Italy, and first presented to the world at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. This invention started the practice of cremation instead of interment on both sides of the Atlantic, with the first US crematory being established in the Pennsylvania of 1876. It took a hundred years for the RC Church to accept it, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law
read like this:
“The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”
In other words, burial is still preferred but cremation was tolerated.
Elsewhere, in Asia, cremation has a long history and is often the preferred method. In Hindu India, for example, and in Hindu-Buddhist Nepal, cremation is a public and open-air affair preferably performed near the Ganges (Varanasi et al) or another sacred river (Kathmandu).
The eldest son, if there is one, has to do the honors (assisted by priests and fire specialist), and the deceased is hoisted onto a big pile of wood (sandal is preferred yet expensive), and one can clearly see how the body is consumed by flames. This is seen as a cleansing of the soul by fire.
After a few hours, the remaining ashes and unconsumed rests of the wood are deposited in the sacred water of the river. I've watched these proceedings several times in Varanasi as well as Kathmandu. It is very impressive and a real down-to-earth experience. After one or two times, I was able to accept the sights, sounds and scents generated by such an event. It's best to get into a meditative mood and to contemplate impermanence -- an exercise also done by sadhus
(holy men) who often live and practice in charnel grounds.
Looking at Judaism and Islam, it soon becomes clear that both -- like ancient Christianity -- favor interment and abhor cremation. After all, besides their 'modern' differences, all three are monotheistic, Abrahamic religions "of the Book" listening to the commands of a 'Great Father' in the sky. They share the distaste for cremation with the Greek and Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as with originally Persian Zoroastrianism. While this is true in general, singer Freddy Mercury of Queen fame, a Zoroastrian, managed to be cremated ... just as modern, liberal Jews often choose cremation -- at least if they're living outside of Israel.
A chart published in The Economist shows the distribution of modern cremation across the world. Unfortunately, India and other traditional countries have been left out.
As long as people are free to choose, there's no way to predict who will prefer burial above cremation, or vice versa. Being informed, however, may help make that choice.
The variations within religions, their different denominations and sects are way too different and complicated for an article like this. Considering that my own book on this topic has only been published in Dutch, interested readers can glean more details on the websites The Funeral Source