Friday, July 31, 2015
Stump the Priest: Cremation
Question: "What is the Orthodox Church's view of cremation?"
The Orthodox Church does not approve of cremation, because it is a desecration of the body, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is also rooted in a pagan worldview which does not see the body an integral part of the human person, and which rejects the Christian belief in the goodness of creation and the resurrection of the body. It is only in very recent times that cremation has re-emerged in what were once Christian cultures. Before Rome and other pagan cultures converted to Christianity, cremation was commonly practiced. The revival of cremation is a sign of the re-paganization of these cultures.
Unfortunately, many Protestants have come to accept cremation in recent years. This is due to their rejection of Church Tradition, which is unambiguous on this issue, and also due generally to their view of salvation, which often sees the bodily resurrection as sort of an after-thought or an anticlimax. Often at Protestant funerals, you will hear people say that the deceased is not in the coffin but with Christ, for example. However, if a person dies in Christ, their souls will be with Christ, but until the general resurrection, their body remains a part of them that will one day be reunited with their souls (though their body will be transformed) -- and as such, the soul apart from the body is not the whole person (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Our faith in the general resurrection is directly linked with the Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) -- it is the Resurrection of Christ that makes our resurrection possible. Just as Christ was buried and then arose again in a glorified body, so too are we to be buried -- not cremated -- but rather, planted in the ground like a seed. As St. Paul says: "But someone will say, "How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?" Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.... So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, 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. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-45).
This, of course, does not mean that God cannot raise the dead if the body is cremated. In fact, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected, regardless of the treatment their body received after death -- some raised to life, and some raised to the second death (Revelation 20). However, the willful destruction of the body is a desecration of the human body, a denial of the goodness and importance of the body, and ultimately a denial of our Faith.
It is for this reason that the Church does not allow a Church funeral to be performed for those who are cremated, unless it is clear that this was against the wishes of the deceased. This often happens when an Orthodox Christian has non-Orthodox relatives, and fails to plan their funeral arrangements or to make their wishes known. But some Orthodox Christians decide to be cremated out of ignorance of the Church's teaching, or in willful disregard for those teachings.
It should also be noted that our practice of venerating the relics of saints is antithetical to cremation. If cremation were generally practiced by Christians, we would have no bodily relics.
Probably the biggest reason in our times that people opt for cremation is that the cost of a proper burial has steadily risen, and most people do not plan their own funerals. And so when they die, their family is left with the choice of coming up with between an average of $7,000 to $10,000 dollars for a funeral with a burial, or the much lower costs of a cremation (between $1,500 to $4,000 dollars, depending on how elaborate the funeral is, and whether the ashes are interred or not). But planning ahead greatly eases the burden on your family, and ensure that you will be given a proper Orthodox funeral and burial. There are also ways to economize on the costs of a burial (see: "A Guide to an Orthodox Funeral," by Fr. Alexander (Reichert), as well as the book "A Christian Ending" as well as the Podcast by Deacon Mark Barna). And for those who have been active Orthodox Christians, if there is a need for others outside of the immediate family to help cover the costs, a way to meet the need will generally be found.
Cremation, by Protopresbyter George Grabbe
Decree of the Synod of Bishops of The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia: "On the Question of Incineration of Bodies of the Departed In Crematoria" (August 20/September 2, 1932).
"Burial or Burning," by Protopresbyter George D. Metallinos
"Cremation: Earth Thou Art and Unto Earth Shalt Thou Return," by Fr. Victor Potapov
"Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life," by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas
Update: Someone asked about how the above would relate to the question of organ donations, and so here is the pertinent section from The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, § XII. Problems of bioethics:
"XII. 7. The modern transplantology (the theory and practice of the transplantation of organs and tissues) makes it possible to give effective aid to many patients who were earlier doomed to death or severe disability. At the same time, the development of this sphere of medicine, increasing the need for necessary organs, generates certain ethical problems and can present a threat to society. Thus, the unscrupulous propaganda of donoring and the commercialisation of transplanting create prerequisites for trade in parts of the human body, thus threatening the life and health of people. The Church believes that human organs cannot be viewed as objects of purchase and sale. The transplantation of organs from a living donor can be based only on the voluntary self-sacrifice for the sake of another’s life. In this case, the consent to explantation (removal of an organ) becomes a manifestation of love and compassion. However, a potential donor should be fully informed about possible consequences of the explantation of his organ for his health. The explantation that presents an immediate threat to the life of a donor is morally inadmissible. The most common of all is the practice of taking organs from people who have just died. In these cases, any uncertainty as to the moment of death should be excluded. It is unacceptable to shorten the life of one, also by refusing him the life-supporting treatment, in order to prolong the life of another.
The Church confesses, on the basis of Divine Revelation, the faith in the bodily resurrection of the dead (Is. 26:19; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:42-44, 52-54; Phil. 3:21). In the Christian burial, the Church expressed the reverence that befits the body of a dead. However, the posthumous giving of organs and tissues can be a manifestation of love spreading also to the other side of death. Such donation or will cannot be considered a duty. Therefore, the voluntary consent of a donor in his lifetime is the condition on which explantation can be legitimate and ethically acceptable. If doctors do not know the will of a potential donor, they should, if necessary, find it out the will of a dying or dead person from his relatives. The so-called presumptive consent of a potential donor to the removal of his organs and tissues, sealed in the legislation of some countries, is considered by the Church to be an inadmissible violation of human freedom.
A recipient assimilates donor organs and tissues entering his personal spiritual and physical integrity. Therefore, in no circumstances moral justification can be given to the transplantation that threatens the identity of a recipient, affecting his uniqueness as personality and representative of a species. It is especially important to remember this condition in solving problems involved in the transplantation of animal organs and tissues.
The Church believes it to be definitely inadmissible to use the methods of so-called foetal therapy, in which the human foetus on various stages of its development is aborted and used in attempts to treat various diseases and to «rejuvenate» an organism. Denouncing abortion as a cardinal sin, the Church cannot find any justification for it either even if someone may possibly benefit from the destruction of a conceived human life. Contributing inevitably to ever wider spread and commercialisation of abortion, this practice (even if its still hypothetical effectiveness could be proved scientifically) presents an example of glaring immorality and is criminal."