Sunday, September 23, 2012

On the destruction of the body by fire

(Sobornost) - The first time I ever attended a funeral service where cremation of the body of the deceased had taken place was in Portland, Oregon, many years ago. An Episcopal priest friend had died and had requested his body be cremated. Walking into the church and seeing a small box sitting before the altar was a shock for me. Cremation was always something only non-believers practiced, Christians having always viewed cremation as something of pagan roots. I clearly remember feeling cheated out of that last goodby, unable as I was to view my friend for one last time.

In ancient times pagans always either burned the bodies of their dead, or left them for birds to consume, whereas Jews and Christians placed their dead in tombs, or in the earth, awaiting the bodily resurrection. For Christians the belief that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit and therefore sacred, made the burning of the body unacceptable. Bodies of our dead were always to be treated with great reverence. From the earliest of times the bodies of the martyrs and saints were buried in the catacombs, their tombs used as altars for the celebration of the Eucharistic offering, catacombs often being the only safe place for believers to worship without threat of arrest.

One of my earliest memories was going to a family plot in Spokane, WA. with my maternal grandmother. She would lay flowers on the graves of her loved ones, family members who were long dead before I was even born. Even though many had been gone from this life for a few generations, to my grandmother they were still alive. She would sit on a tombstone, flowers in hand, and tell me about her sisters, her parents, and other family members. Her shared memories were made all the more real seeing the names of these loved ones chiseled in stone. The ritual of visiting graves was common back in those days, with families keeping alive the memories, while showing their love and respect for their dead relatives by tending to the graves, and leaving flowers. It was even quite common, especially in Western Europe, for friends and families to take picnics to graveyards.

There is also the role cemeteries can play in our own spiritual lives, for they are clear reminders of our own mortality. I have already picked the plot where my own remains will be placed on the grounds of our monastery. Seeing where one will eventually be laid to rest is a good way to remember one’s own eventual death, reminding ourselves of our own mortality, and to use our remaining days wisely.

The Orthodox Church forbids the cremated remains of anyone to be brought into the temple for services, or for any other reason, and funeral services over cremated remains is strictly forbidden. The practice is seen as a denial of the bodily resurrection, not because God can’t raise the dead from ashes, but because the practice does not reflect the Church’s teaching that the body of a believer housed the Holy Spirit. It is also ignoring the fact that believers receive, in their lifetime, the very Body and Blood of Christ, and the body is therefore made holy in preparation for that day when we shall be united in both body and soul, to live forever with God.

My parents converted to Orthodoxy in their mid seventies and are buried in the church yard next to Saint John the Baptist Church in Post Falls, Idaho. Having them in an Orthodox cemetery, side by side, means a lot to me, and I visit their graves whenever I am in Northern Idaho on visits to my family. Having a plot to visit continues that connection and allows me a chance to show my love for them by placing flowers on their graves as I offering prayers for their souls. It saddens me that so many people have deprived themselves of such moments, having spread their loved one’s ashes over golf courses or on beaches. The loss of family cemeteries has contributed, I am convinced, to the breakdown of the all important extended families that were at one time so important to the cohesiveness of family values.

For those who would say that cremation is more ecologically sound, I would point out that the particles dispersed in the atmosphere are by no means good for the environment. A new way of burial, known as green burial, is gaining popularity throughout the country and is far more ecologically sound than cremation. Green burials require a simple pine coffin with no metal, nails or glue, using only wooden pegs and natural materials. The body is not embalmed (in keeping with Orthodox tradition), so nothing goes into the earth that is not natural. This is one of the most inexpensive ways of internment and is in keeping with the canons of the Orthodox Church. This is the way my own body will be laid to rest.

With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon


  1. I thought the Orthodox Church of Japan permitted cremation? Please correct me if I am wrong. I was also wondering about the Syriac Orthodox Church in Kerela, India.

  2. I am all for not cremating people; I happen to find the practice rather abhorrent, for reasons I can't really put my finger on. But let's think logically about the standard reasons set forth for it's forbidding in the Church.

    If it's about the body being holy, and having received the Body and Blood of Christ, then why is burning not permitted? For all other holy items, the proper and accepted methods of disposal are either burial OR burning. Why not the body as well?

    Additionally, what of those martyrs who are burned at the stake? Does that count as cremation? Or is that a separate issue?

    1. A few quick responses...

      1. The Japanese Orthodox are ordered to do so by the state. God willing, the Japanese government will give an exception one day.

      2. We burn those things because we are disposing of something that has come to the end of its use. The bodies of Christians still have a very real purpose in the future (parousia) and so do not need to be burned prematurely or ever for that matter.

      3. The martyrs are revered because they valiantly faced persecution, torture, and death at the hands of the ungodly. It is not the cremation that we esteem, but their steadfast faith in the Lord even under horrible conditions such as being burned alive. So, while the method of their murder is part of their hagiographies, we do not bless cremation any more than we would bless the cross or the Catherine wheel.

  3. A priest told me about being given a tour of a crematorium. He saw ashes on the floor. There was also a barrel containing ashes. He asked what that was. They said "if you promise not to tell" (he waited until he had moved to another city to tell), "sometimes when a body is cremated, there is too much of a volume of ashes to fit into the urn, and sometimes, if a person is small, there isn't enough, so we use this to make up the difference." Plus, the cremation factory seems a cold, non-personal way of handling a body. I was appalled by a case I saw where the family (who are Catholic) treated the body in the gnostic manner as if it was an empty shell that was now of no use. When they were told (shortly after the death) they could place the flowers on the body, they dumped them on the face, feeling the body was just the empty shell.

  4. Great post!

    There's a very nice book out by an Orthodox couple called (I think) "A Christian Ending". It is somewhat of a handbook for the traditional method of burial, and I guess would fit within the "green" model.

    Sadly, too few Orthodox keep with the Orthodox tradition when it comes to embalming.

  5. A friend responds: "In ancient times pagans always either burned the bodies of their dead, or left them for birds to consume, whereas Jews and Christians placed their dead in tombs, or in the earth, awaiting the bodily resurrection" - This is quite clearly an incorrect statement. I think we have all seen a sufficient number of Egyptian mummies to easily refute what pagans "always" did.

    If we restrict "pagan" to mean the pagans of Rome, then this is also incorrect. Pre-Classical Rome followed the ancient Etruscan custom of inhumation within hypogea (pagan equivalents of the Judeo-Christian catacombs of Rome) and columbaria (for the poorer Romans). By the time of the late Republic cremation vs. inhumation was an increasingly popular option. Sulla expressed a preference for cremation because he feared that his body might be desecrated by his enemies as he had done with his own political rival, Marius.

    As far as I am aware no classical pagan civilization exposed their dead to birds - that is a feature of certain Asian societies like Tibet, as well as ancient Zoroastrianism.

    The Christian preference for inhumation is entirely based on the belief in bodily resurrection (as with Jews) and the belief that the body and soul constitutes the whole person within orthodox Christian belief. It had little to do with differentiating Christian funerary rites from those of pagans.