By: Father Konstantinos Koutroubas, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church
It is inconsistent with the teachings of the Orthodox Church to practice cremation.
We have to remember several things.
1) Pagans practiced and practice cremation. The pagan Greeks had practiced cremation, but when the Greeks became Orthodox Christians, this practice ceased. The traditional, appropriate practice for honoring the departed is burial.
2) Please know that the ancient and traditional practice of the Jews, as received from the Old Testament, is burial- not cremation.
3) The body is not evil. Matter is not evil. Creation is not evil. The body is not a prison for the soul. The body is created by God. God Himself took upon Himself a human body, mind, and soul. God became man to save the body and the soul together. Our bodies belong to God. We are called to be temples of the Holy Spirit. The bodies of the Saints were and are temples of the Holy Spirit. The grace of God worked through the bodies of the Saints. To this day, bones and even clothings of the Saints have had a miraculous grace and power. In fact, there are Saints whose entire bodies are incorrupt, whose bodily remains have not decomposed and have not been mummified, after years, after centuries-for some, after very many centuries to this day. Examples of such Saints are Saint Spyridon on the island of Kerkyra (Corfu) who reposed in the 300s (!), Saint Gerasimos on the island of Kephalonia, Saint Dionysios on the island of Zakynthos, Saint John the Russian on the island of Evia, Saint Savas the Sanctified at the Monastery of Saint Savas in the Holy Land, Saint Euphemia the Great Martyr at the Patriarchal Church of Saint George at the Phanar in Constantinople, the Russian Saint John Maximovitch in San Francisco, California, and the Russian Metropolitan Philaret at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York.
One of Saint Mary Magdalene’s hands is incorrupt and is at the monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos. I saw with my own eyes an incorrupt hand of a Saint Efthimios that was at the Russian Monastery of Saint Panteleimon on Mount Athos. I have also been blessed to be in the presence of the relics of Saint Demetrios the Great Martyr in Thessaloniki, which give off a fragrant, heavenly substance called myrrh for centuries through the present day. Saint George the Great Martyr’s tomb and relics in Lydda in the Holy Land also give off myrrh. Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker’s relics emit agiasmos (a holy water).
What if we had cremated all these Saints? Can you imagine all the blessings that the world would have missed out on?
4) Christ’s Body was not cremated. The Panagia’s Body was not cremated. If it was good enough for Christ and the Panagia to not be cremated, why is it not good enough for us?
5) We believe that, at the end of time, at Christ’s Second Coming, our bodies will rise with the General Resurrection of all mankind, because of Christ’s Resurrection. Because Christ resurrected, we too will resurrect-whether we like it or not, whether we care two cents about it or not, both the good and the evil. We pray to be resurrected unto eternal life with the Lord and not resurrection unto judgment, that is, for hell. We teach this and thus pray this in the Nicene Creed (the Pistevo) at every Divine Liturgy, “I look for the resurrection of the dead.”
Furthermore, we Orthodox Christians bury our dead in the cemetery. The word cemetery comes from the Greek word κοιμητήριον (koimitirion), which comes from the word κοιμάμαι (koimamai), which means “I sleep.”) The cemetery, the koimitirion, is the place of those who sleep, awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Death, according to Saint John Chrysostom, whose Divine Liturgy we do most of the year in the Orthodox, is considered a little sleep. Sleep is like a little death, and death is like a little sleep. If we do not fear sleep, then we should not fear death, according to Chrysostom. Therefore, at the cemetery, the departed await the resurrection of the dead, when they will resurrect and encounter Christ who will come, as is the Tradition of the Church, with His Holy Cross preceding, like a flash of lightning in an instant, from the east. This is why we traditionally bury our dead facing east. The body will be resurrected with a glorified body, like Christ’s Body after the Resurrection, not like some kind of zombie.
6) When we have the funeral services of the Orthodox Church, it is with the hope of the Resurrection that the liturgical service is imbued. Certain hymns are written as if the departed person is speaking to us all. There are funeral hymns of the Orthodox Church that were written by Saint John of Damascus, the great defender of icons who wrote the well-known and much beloved hymn of “Christ is risen,” Χριστός ἀνέστη (Xristos Anesti), that we chant on Pascha and during the Paschal season.
If a departed person dies right before or during the Paschal season, the cremated person misses out on the hymns from the Saint that wrote “Christ is risen.” The cremated person would miss out on the Paschal hymns that are chanted during Bright Week, the week after Pascha, which is especially joyful and Resurrectional. The cremated person would miss out on “Christ is risen” being chanted during the entire Paschal season up to the feast of the Ascension. During the Paschal season, “It is the Day of the Resurrection” is also chanted, as the body is processed outside the church to the place of burial.
7) A cremation puts both the departed person, his or her family, and all those mourning in a difficult position. A cremation deprives a person of all the liturgical prayers and services of the Church. A cremation takes away these sources of comfort and consolation for those grieving such a loss.
When an Orthodox Christian departs this life, we normally have the funeral service, the burial service, the trisagion prayers for the departed, the memorial services, the preparation of kollyva (boiled wheat), and the commemoration of the departed during the Proskomide, that is, during the preparation of the bread and the wine for Holy Communion for Liturgy; in order to benefit the souls of the departed. We know from the Apostles and from the experience of the past 2000 years of the Saints that the prayers of the Church greatly benefit the Orthodox departed. It is a mystery, but we know that the souls are greatly helped, especially by the Divine Liturgy. These actions of the Church, offered in love, can even, by God’s grace and if the Lord wills, snatch the person from the clutches of the evil one. It has happened before.
The kollyva (the boiled wheat) are a symbol of the Resurrection, coming from the Lord in the Gospel of John. Christ tells us, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).
Losing a loved one is painful, but we are called to grieve and mourn with hope, trusting in the Resurrection. Even having the open casket, as is traditionally, helps with the grieving process of the survivors. All these liturgical actions and prayers are ways through which the Church helps the souls of the departed. All these liturgical actions and prayers also help those grieving to place the souls of the departed loved ones in God’s hands.
8) The process of cremating someone is particularly gruesome. The body is burned. The bones remain and are then pulverized, and the ashes and dust from the bones are not all completely given to the family. Do we really want our loved ones and families to go through a process like that, burned and pulverized? Would we rejoice if our loved ones died and were in a house fire or in some kind of accident?
9) If there are reasons that are economic that serve as a pull to have a cremation, please remember that a big, fancy casket is not needed. Flower arrangements are not needed. Remember that Orthodox parishes, priests, organizations, and others will try to help ease the financial burden if they are made aware of a particular situation where money is an issue. These things can also be handled with dignity for the people involved, dignity for the deceased, and appropriate confidentiality.
10) Please also know an Orthodox Christian cannot have a funeral and then be cremated. This goes against everything we have received from Holy Tradition and is sadly, perhaps without this being the intention of some but nevertheless the end result, disrespect and spitting upon all our ancestors, both by heritage and by Faith, who in their simplicity tried to live Christian lives, with Christian endings to their lives.
11) Once again, the Church welcomes repentance. The Church welcomes a change of heart. Repentant people also became Saints, even great Saints of the Church. There can be no repentance after death for the person who has cremated. For those cremated persons, we pray for the mercy and love of God even for them. For those who can repent on this side of life, one is called to only feel remorse but to also resolve for cremation to not happen once more, any more, and for oneself. For those on this side of life, they can still make the decision for themselves to not get cremated.
It seems like, from my limited experience, that the Orthodox Church is one of the last bastions for Christian funerals and burials. Unfortunately, although not universally, there are Christians from various Protestant backgrounds and even Catholic backgrounds that are practicing and encouraging cremation. For what it is worth, a common witness to the Resurrection is certainly tossed aside when Protestant and Catholic Christians are also practicing cremation.
From what I also understand, in Japan, because the civil state requires cremations for all, cremations occur even for Orthodox Christians, as it is extremely difficult to get a burial. This is the exception in world Orthodoxy, not the norm, and it seems like enforced state law would be one of the rare exceptions where a cremation can happen, according to the Church guidelines.
May the risen Lord guide us and enlighten us all!