By Rev Father Christopher Holwey
Questions have been asked, and I guess will always be asked, concerning why the Orthodox Church does NOT accept cremation as a viable alternative to the normal and proper Trisagion & Funeral Prayers at the church, and the burial at the cemetery that are offered after a member of our community has departed this life. In fact, in my 12 years as a priest having to defend this position, I have come across many people who didn’t even know what cremation was all about or how it was done, let alone the church’s position.
So, let’s start with a short explanation (not meaning to get too graphic here) on what happens when a human being is taken to be cremated. Cremation involves taking the body to a crematory and having it completely incinerated, or burned. The heat of the fire is so hot that it burns the fleshly portion of the body to the extent that not even ashes remain. It is entirely consumed. The only thing left are the bones, which do not burn completely. The bones are then taken and crushed and pulverized, AND THAT is what is returned to the family in a little enclosed urn. When people say that they want their “ashes” scattered across the field, or at sea, or wherever, there are no real “ashes” per se, because everything was burned up to the point of mere dust. The so-called ashes are really the crushed bones of the person.
With that in mind, let us talk now about the teachings of the Orthodox Christian Church as to why this is NOT an acceptable practice for Orthodox Christians.
First of all, we have to remember that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. This means that human beings have a special blessing above all other forms of creation. If we bear that holy and divine image, we are obligated to show a much deeper respect for our bodies than we would anything else. Hear the words of St. Paul: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). If our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, we should not do anything to harm or destroy it, even after its soul has departed this life. For example, we do not purposely kill other people; rather, they die of natural causes. Therefore, we do not purposely cremate a body; rather, we show respect for it, honor it, pray over it, anoint it with oil and ashes, and bury it in the ground to decay naturally.
Secondly, we ought to treat our body with great respect because the Lord God has become incarnate and has taken on our human life as His own. Through Jesus Christ, our human nature has been deified and united with God. The pre-eternal, uncreated Son of the Living God has united Himself to MAN: He lived His earthly life in a human body; He died in a human body, and was raised from the dead in a human body; and He ascended back into heaven IN A HUMAN BODY. And because of His resurrection from the dead, we too “look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (The Nicene Creed). Listen again to St. Paul: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized [immersed] into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).
You see, my friends, it goes like this: From the moment of our conception, we have a soul and a body that is developing and growing in the image and, hopefully if we allow it to, the likeness of God. It is the soul that enlivens the body, and the body that is the tangible base of the soul. [FYI – In the totality of our being, we must realize that we human beings also have a spirit (see 1 Thess. 5:23), which may be thought of as our conscience, or as Fr. Paul Tarazi puts it, is “the center where we meet the Spirit of God, … our ‘spirit’ is but the opening through which the Holy Spirit is poured into our lives and works in us…” It is our spirit that causes us to know the Truth and what is right and wrong, which other creatures do not have. They act on instinct; we act on reason. However, this aspect is food for another discussion.] When we die, our body and soul separate, as it did with Jesus. Our body is then buried in the grave, and our soul goes on to be kept by God until the Second Coming of Christ (see also Luke 16:19-31). At the Second Coming, when Jesus comes on the clouds to judge the living and the dead, our bodies will be raised from the dead, and REUNITED WITH OUR SOULS, so that we will become fully human again, hopefully to spend eternity with God in His heavenly Kingdom. For as Jesus says: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). So, then, we honor the body in hope of the resurrection from the dead.
Thirdly, in the history of The Church, there have been countless instances where miracles have occurred at the graves of the martyrs and saints. Their bodies, even though buried, have filled the air with a sweet-smelling fragrance, such as can be experienced at the monastery of St. Katherine in Mt. Sinai, Egypt. In our Tradition, we take these “relics” as we call them, the BONES, or remains, of the saints, and place them in the center of the altar, or even sew them into the antimension that sits on the altar, upon which will be placed the bread and wine to become the Body & Blood of Christ. Therefore, we honor the relics (a practice that began in A.D. 156 with the relics of St. Polycarp), and have them placed on our altars, and within the icons of the saints to be venerated and honored – not pulverized and scattered in the garden or out at sea.
Lastly, let me say this: the point in all of this is to show honor and respect for the human body in the Tradition of what has been handed down to us from Christ and His apostles. No doubt, many will ask, as they have before: “But what if someone is cremated, or burns and dies in a fire? Can God still raise up their bodies from the dead?” Well, of course. God can and will do whatever He chooses. But, again, the point is that WE shouldn’t do harm to that which has been sanctified and deified and chosen by God to be a consecrated vessel, and an instrument of His divine purposes in life and even after death. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).