Cremation – the burning of a body after death – has become quite popular over the last few decades. In 2015, the rate of cremation (48%) actually surpassed that of burial (45%). And by the year 2030, the National Funeral Directors Association places the cremation rate at 71%, with only 23% of Americans choosing traditional burial. The title of this article already told you the Orthodox Church does not allow cremation. In fact, most Orthodox Christians know at least this much. But do we really understand why?
The origins of cremation
The Orthodox Church rejects cremation for two main reasons: 1) its pagan origins, and 2) its denial of the value of the human body. First, let’s dive a little deeper into reason number one.
The Old Testament Israelites found themselves surrounded by pagans. God constantly warned them not to adopt the values, beliefs, and practices of these people, one of which was cremation of the dead. Thus, the Israelites buried their dead after preparing the body. They closed the eyes (Gen. 46:4); washed the body (Acts 9:37); draped a cloth over the face (Jn. 11:44); anointed the body with spices (Lk. 23:56; 24:1; Jn. 19:40) and wrapped it with linens (Mt. 27:59; Mk. 15:45; Lk. 23:53; Jn. 19:39-40). Historically within Judaism, cremation was used only for punishment and humiliation (Joshua 7:15; Leviticus 21:9; 20:14). It was also an instrument of God’s wrath and destruction. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24).
The use of cremation by gnostics
During the 1st century, early Christianity saw the birth of an heretical movement known as gnosticism. This movement denied the involvement of physical matter in our salvation (aka dualism). (In the interest of time, we’re trying to keep this simple!) Thus, they (and many other heretical groups like them) viewed the body as basically useless after death and burned it. The early Christians distinguished themselves from these heresies by carrying on the tradition of burying their dead, modeling the example of Jesus, who was buried in a tomb after His crucifixion. Modern Orthodox Christians continue to reject cremation because it distinguishes us from the hedonistic, secular society that has made cremation trendy and acceptable.
The body as a temple
The second reason the Orthodox Church rejects cremation is because such a practice blatantly denies the holiness of the physical body. Orthodox Christians revere the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). It is holy, and more importantly, it doesn’t really belong to us. Rather, our bodies are gifts from God that we must treat with dignity, reverence, and care. Thus, any act that deliberately defiles the body (e.g. tattoos, sexual reassignment surgery, cremation, suicide) is not acceptable to the Church.
Not only do the Orthodox revere the body, but we also acknowledge the part our physical bodies play in our salvation. Unlike certain other religions (ex. Buddhism), the Orthodox do not view the body a temporary, inconvenient prison. Our bodies are just as involved in the process of attaining salvation as our souls. According to Holy Tradition and Scripture, we will be resurrected in our physical bodies at the Second Coming of Our Lord. Thus we must take care of our bodies, feeding them properly, getting adequate rest, and healing them with the Holy Mysteries.
What happens if you decide to be cremated as an Orthodox Christian?
Put simply, any Orthodox Christian who has his/her body cremated will not receive an Orthodox funeral service. Because the Orthodox Church’s rejection of cremation is so intimately tied with our understanding of salvation and the sanctity of the body, the funeral service loses all meaning. After all, how can the body and soul be reunited if the body was pulverized and burned?
In certain circumstances that necessitate cremation, the Orthodox faith does not condemn those who must practice it. For example, cremation is legally required in some municipalities in Japan. An Orthodox Christian living in one of these cities can be cremated in accordance with local law. Compulsory cremation in the case of an epidemic is also acceptable to Orthodox authorities.
The Orthodox Church does not allow cremation because it rejects the sanctity of the human body. Those who do request cremation upon death will not receive an Orthodox funeral or burial. However, the Church recognizes that certain circumstances might necessitate cremation, and will not condemn any who must be cremated in these situations.
Even if cremation might be cheaper and more popular than traditional burial, money and popularity should not be our primary concerns. Rather, our salvation and the state of our souls and bodies should always be at the forefront of our minds.
Read More >> Moral and Ethical Issues for Orthodox Christians