From the St. Nicholas monthly bulletin…
On the Christian Life
Contemporary Problems: Cremation
OUR BODY IS THE TEMPLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
"What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's."
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
When God became incarnate, He united our humanity to Himself and sanctified our nature. We who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ and thereby we have become members of Christ. Since this is so, it has consequences in how we conduct ourselves and what choices we make in regard to our bodies. This is the first installment of a series of articles under this heading, each discussing certain aspects of what the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit means to us.
As promised in a previous issue, we shall now discuss why cremation is unacceptable to us as Christians. We may think of cremation as a modern phenomenon, but the Christian Church resolutely rejected the then-prevalent Roman custom of cremation in the Apostolic times. This custom was based on the pagan idea that the body is the prison of the soul, and that death is a release from this imprisonment. This idea is shared by many non-Christian eastern religions, and has become popular once again in our neo-pagan, post-Christian culture.
The teaching of the Church, however, is that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are made of body and soul together, and neither is our complete person without the other. God created this material world good, and everything in it is good, and that includes our bodies. Not only is our body good, it became holy on the day of our Baptism and renewal into the life of Christ, and just like icons and the relics of saints, they are to be treated with respect.
When we die, our soul parts from our body, and our body becomes lifeless and subject to decay and corruption. But in the Resurrection on the Last Day, our body will be renewed and reunited with our soul. Even when our body is dead, it is still holy. It is asleep in the Lord, and at rest. A Christian burial is the laying of the body to sleep in the ground to await the Day of Resurrection, we plant it in the ground as a seed. As Saint Paul says: So also is the resurrection of the dead. It [the body] is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). When we burn the body, there is nothing to plant; this destroys the connection between the words of our funeral service and our hope of the Resurrection. Symbolically, cremation denies the Resurrection. It is for this reason that cremation was first popularized by atheistic organizations.
Some have likened our insistence on proper burial to the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification, and their belief that if the physical body were destroyed the soul would not survive. They say, what about those who were lost at sea or perished in natural disasters or in war? We know that God will reconstitute the body in these cases, so why insist on burial? We answer that circumstances that we have no control over do not govern our actions in cases where we do have the ability to act. The sin comes of intentionally treating things that are holy with disrespect. A Christian burial expresses our love for the departed and our love of God and respect for the awesome mystery of death.
One thing that people do not understand about cremation is how violent a procedure it is. Some think that the body becomes reduced to ashes like a log in the fireplace. This is not true. The bones are mostly mineral, and cannot burn, and so after cremation, the bones are broken up and ground to powder. Moreover, not all the ashes of the departed are swept into an urn, and the ashes of previous cremations remain in the crematorium to mix with the ashes of the next corpse. We will not dwell here on the other unsavory aspects of this process.
The society around us is pressuring us to change our practice. It offers many arguments to get us to accept cremation, but none of them are valid for the Church. In fact, this is only one of the many intrusions and pressures put on the Church by our surrounding materialistic culture. Some ask why not accept cremation, since the Roman Catholic Church has done so for a few decades already. However, it does not matter that the Roman Catholics have succumbed to secular pressure and accepted it; this is just another sign of how far they have departed from the Apostolic Faith. We receive guidance neither from Rome nor from our secular culture, but adhere to the universal and age-old practice of the (true) Christian Church, which never changes, for the truth of the Lord abideth forever (Psalm 116 :2).
As for the added expense of burial rather than cremation, we must bear it in the spirit of Christian duty. One of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy is to bury the dead. Therefore we have an obligation to see to proper burial of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and not allow any of our fellow churchgoers to be subject to cremation. As a community, we ought to have a fund for indigent parishioners in case they die intestate (without a will) and without next of kin. Many parishes have such a fund.
For more information, consult the following online articles by clergy from various jurisdictions:
- Why Orthodox Christians Are Not Cremated, by Priest John Touloumes (Greek Archdiocese)
- Cremation: Earth Thou Art and Unto Earth Shalt Thou Return, by Archpriest Victor Potapov (ROCOR)
- Cremation, by Archpriest George Grabbe
- The Church and the Cremation Problem, by Archbishop John (Shakhovskoy, OCA)
Fr George Lardas, Rector
St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, Stratford, CT