Cremation: An Orthodox Perspective

Cremation: An Orthodox Perspective
by Saint George Antiochian Church

Let us cover briefly, because it seems to be a rising problem in our age of secularism, cremation of the body. The Church has stood against this pagan practice for centuries, in fact it is a grave disrespect to the bodies of our departed loved ones.

The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19); it is also sanctified and it will be raised to participate in our final destination: heaven or hell. This body is not a shell that is discarded, never to be picked back up. The Christian Gospel tells not of eternal life, but of the resurrection of the dead.

Now one question we need to ask is when is God through with our bodies? This may seem an odd question, because we so often think of it in terms of when we are through with them. But notice that many of the Saints who have died have wonder-working relics. That is, the Holy Spirit continues to use the body of the Saint to heal and bring grace to other people.

In the midst of natural death, the body of the Saint remains a channel of God's grace and redemption. Sometimes in fact, the Saint may not have been a wonder-worker during his life but only became one once he had died.

So when is God through with our body? Can we decide for God?

Secondly we must remember that the body is accorded great reverence and love in an Orthodox funeral. We sprinkle the body with holy water, we anoint it with holy oil, and cense it with incense as a sign that it has been set aside for the glory of God's work — just like a priest, bishop, or a king is censed. The person's soul and body will be reunited at the Second Coming of Christ.

You see, even our bodies bear the image of God, especially since God the Son became man, and is still incarnate. Christ still has his body. He ascended, body and soul into heaven! And not only Him but also His Holy Mother, the Theotokos. This is a sign of what is in store for us.

In the Orthodox Church we may bury in the ground, in a mausoleum, in a cave, in catacombs, or in ossuaries (where they place the bones of the departed). The integrity of the body is preserved in any and all of these means of burial. Quoting one of our priests in the Antiochian Archdiocese, let us look at what happens in cremation:
It is popularly believed that in cremation, the body is completely consumed and reduced to ashes which are then disposed of by the family according to their wishes. This is absolutely not the case. Most of us will remember the photographs from the crematories at Auschwitz death camp in Poland at the close of World War II. Inside the open chambers can clearly be seen the intact skeletons of those who were cremated there.

Everyone needs to understand that cremation reduces the clothing and the container, the softer parts of the body and some of the smaller bones to ashes but leaves larger bones of the skeleton intact. These, then, are generally crushed or pulverized in order to enable them to be placed in a container. Occasionally, however, they are disposed of by the crematorium in a convenient place near the crematorium itself. Quite often, the combined remains are greater than the size of the container, so the crematorium disposes of the excess.

For the most part, cremation is connected with circumstances which are both economic and a public profession of irreligion and materialism. People choose it because it can be cheaper than a conventional burial. Perhaps they do not believe in anything after death, and so the body has no meaning at all either. This is clearly seen by the large percentage of cremated remains that go unclaimed by the families following cremation. Some crematories expressly state in their contracts that if the remains are not claimed in 90 days they will dispose of them themselves. I have seen some funeral homes that have substantial collections of cremated remains, all unclaimed by the families, awaiting a sufficient time to elaps so that they can be disposed of anyway.
To cremate the body of a Christian is a horrible disrespect to the departed loved on and a serious sin. We might just as well hang the body from a tree outside!

We should not leave instructions to be cremated or to allow loved ones to be cremated.

If someone is cremated, an Orthodox priest's hands are tied. He cannot and will not perform a burial service for that person. That person has already decided that an Orthodox Christian burial is not important to them. If the priest says any prayers at all, which is only because of particular causes, they will only be for the grieving, not for the departed.

The priest is not permitted to go to the cemetery and perform any blessing or service for a cremated person. He also is not able to do a Forty-Day Memorial Service for those who have chosen to disobey the rules and customs of our Faith. Strictly speaking, anyone who is cremated cannot be interred in an Orthodox cemetery nor buried in consecrated ground. This is the canon law of the Church.


St. George Antiochian
Orthodox Church