Tuesday, August 18, 2009


A little while before my Dad died I was at his house and he said to me, "Matt, I've been thinking about cremation. What do you think of that." What I wanted to do say was "Abraham buried Sarah. Joseph was carried back to Canaan and was buried. Elisha was buried. Jesus was buried. All the early Christians were buried. The only ones that were cremated were those burned alive by the Romans." Admittedly my theology was not very sophisticated. It was simply following the example of Jesus and his saints. But all I managed to say, because I knew my Dad was trying to make a horrible decision and I was so pained by the thought of death was, "It isn't something I would do."
He said, "Okay. Thank you, Matt. I've been thinking about it." A few weeks later he asked me to find a burial plot for him. (I wasn't able to complete this task, because my Dad's health was failing fast and he wanted to see the place before we bought it. He never felt well enough to go out and look at the places I found. My brother Ken, after my Dad died is the one who found some ground for him.

Since then I've thought about burial and cremation a lot. And my opposition to it has solidified. Interestingly, this Newsweek article does a really good job of showing, what for me, is the core reason Christians ought to be buried instead of cremated. The whole article is rather long and is about much more than burial practices, but here is the relevant part:

Then there's the question of what happens when you die. Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the "self," and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies. So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we're burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975. "I do think the more spiritual role of religion tends to deemphasize some of the more starkly literal interpretations of the Resurrection," agrees Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard. So let us all say "om."

In his little essay, Why Orthodox Christians are not Cremated, Fr. Peter Orfanakos writes...

"When we are baptized it is not only the soul which becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit, but also the Body. When we receive Holy Communion, we take the real Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies. In the mysteries of Chrismation and Holy Unction it is our bodies which are anointed with Holy Chrism."

"The Church has unequivocally taught since Christ’s Crucifixion that the proper way to treat the dead is a reverent burial of the body in the context of a proper Church funeral and prayers for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. We sing hymns and psalms to escort the dead on their way and to express gratitude to God for their life and death. We wrap the body in a new shroud, symbolizing the new dress of incoruption the person is destined to receive. We pour myrrh and oil on the body as we do at baptism. We accompany this with incense and candles, showing our belief that the person has been liberated from darkness and is going to the true Light. We place the body in the grave towards the east, denoting the Resurrection to come."

Fr. Andrew describes a funeral in a small village in Carpatho-Russia...

"The sunshine is penetrating through the morning mist. The priest preaches in Rusin: ‘The departed is going to where all pious people go, to Christ and His Holy Mother and the saints. The people cross themselves and a hundred voices are raised to sing ‘Eternal Memory’. The service is finished. The lid is placed on the coffin. A son weeps, a daughter sobs. The hand-bier, on which the coffin is placed, is pushed up the village street towards the onion-domed church. We stop on the way for Gospel readings on the Resurrection. Two cars stop, for the road is blocked by the village funeral procession. At the church, the last panikhida is sung and then we make our way to the other end of the village - to the cemetery.
A stream babbles as it rushes down from the hills. A farm dog barks.
The cross and banners lead the way, as at Easter. For the funeral of every true believer is also a Paschal feast. There the last hymns are sung. As the coffin is lowered into the grave, a woman sobs uncontrollably. It will take time for her to heal. Yes, she has deep faith, like all these people. But to recover from the sorrow of death, it takes not only faith, but also time. The greater the faith, the less the time needed. The weaker the faith, the more the time needed.
A stream babbles as it rushes down from the hills. A farm dog barks.
Clods of earth drop onto the coffin. I make the sign of the cross over it.
To the servant of God Ekaterina, Vichnaya Pamyat!"

I wish I knew were I was going to be living for the rest of my mortal life. If I did, I'd buy some ground so that when Athanasia and I die the Church could bury us there. The Cross and the Icons would lead the procession, like at Pascha. I'd like it to be on the east side of a hill so we will see our Savior straight away. Cremation? No. Not for me. I'm planning on getting up again.


Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

a few years ago, my husband and I took a leap of faith and we bought a double burial plot in our town, where we have both grown up and lived all our adult lives.
There is something very comforting about knowing where you will most likely be resting till the Parousia.
The current economic crisis means we may have to start thinking about moving because of DH's job, but it is still my fervent hope we will still be buried here.

DebD said...

Matt, one of the things that surprised me after becoming Orthodox was that I began to have an utter distaste for cremation. I knew that the Church did not condone it, but never studied about it or anything. I appreciate the info you have gathered here.

Philippa said...

"Cremation? No. Not for me. I'm planning on getting up again."


My plot is purchased and paid in full these last 26 years. I don't care where my mortal body is at the time, I *will* be buried with my first husband.

Gretchen Joanna said...

Thank you SO much for writing on this subject. I try from time to time, but I'm afraid I lack grace.

Matt said...

Gretchen, I lack grace, too. That's why, mostly, I quoted others.

Elizabeth, I hope you get to stay in your town. But if not, I hope you have a fun adventure.

Deb, isn't it amazing how our opinions begin to line up with the Church's when we aren't even thinking about it?

Philippa, what a good thing for you to have done. Is the plot near where you live?

Anonymous said...

It is interesting, isn't it? The problem is today so many people, even Christians, don't realize the Holy Spirit dwells within us, within the "whole man" (John 7:23, Greek)...body and spirit. Hence relics: even when the 'soul' has departed a holy person, the Spirit may still be present. An example is Elishah, whose body brought life to a dead man (II Kings 2:13).

I heard an interesting radio show one time...most laws for burial in this country were made a long time ago, before embalming, and so there are a lot of options regarding burial. One example is that you don't need to be embalmed to give family members time to make it to the funeral; the funeral home can just pop you in the fridge till Aunt Maude gets there.

The funeral homes won't often tell you these things, since they prefer to provide the more profitable services...but it's true.

I might also add that you get minimal (or no) Orthodox funeral if you have yourself cremated. Your body is part of "you," and the funeral service is designed for "you"...


Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

having been to my brother's cremation yesterday (cremated at his express wish, he was not Orthodox), I am so glad I will be buried when my time comes.......