Burn the Trash, Bury the Treasure?


I recently ran across several online documents produced by Orthodox Christians that objected to the practice of cremation. One, in particular, was written by Fr. John Touloumes and posted online in 2007. While is it ascertained in the beginning that the Orthodox Christian Church prohibits cremation, the document posted explains why.

The points from that document are as follows:

  • The document states that the practice of cremation is on the rise, partly due to the influence of Oriental religions and neo-paganism and buoyed by the erosion of the traditional beliefs among non-Orthodox Christians.
  • The Orthodox conviction that the Son of God was also truly Man and was raised in His whole human nature – body and soul – explains the Church’s traditional rejection of cremation, a practice which is diametrically opposed to the expectation of the resurrection of the dead in Christ.
  • Throughout church history and through the Resurrection, Jesus makes abundantly clear that the whole of our humanity – body as well as soul – has been called to salvation and eternal life.
  • The Church knows innumerable accounts of healing occurring upon being blessed with the relics of a saint. These men and women lived the life in Christ so fully that not only were their souls taken to heaven but their bodies retain the sanctity and healing power of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
  • 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.

Finally, the article ends with this statement:

The Broad Picture Acceptance of cremation, therefore, would represent a radical departure from an established practice for which there seems to be no adequate reason to institute a change. The argument that cemeteries waste space does not stand in a nation as immense as our own, especially when the universality of modern transportation makes burial sites away from urban centers easily accessible. The sky-rocketing cost of burial is not seen at this time as a compelling reason to sanction cremation, for the Church does not ask that funerals be extravagant and costly, but that a certain amount of respect be maintained for the human body that was once the temple of a human soul. Thus the Church, due to a pastoral concern for the preservation of right beliefs and right practice within the Tradition of the Fathers, and out of a sense of reverence for its departed, must continue its opposition to this practice. Each Orthodox Christian should know that since cremation is prohibited by the canons [rules of the Church], those who insist on their own cremation will not be permitted a funeral in the Church. Naturally, an exception occurs when the Church is confronted with the case of some accident or natural disaster where cremation is necessary to guard the health of the living. In these special situations, the Church allows cremation of Orthodox people with prior episcopal permission and only by “economia.”

On the other hand, another religious leader questions embalming. While he states on the front end that “burial is far better, that cremation can send an unintended message that the body will not be resurrected, that it has Pagan origins, and that, by contrast, a body laid out in a casket is both a testimony of the law, and tangible evidence of the Gospel in the form of bodily resurrection,” embalming seems to shake this minister’s soul:

…one of my members (a former funeral director) threw me a curve-ball.

He argues that the modern method of embalming (which also has roots in Pagan Egypt) is itself a desecration. This is obviously something most of us never see. Blood is drained and thrown away. Parts of flesh even end up in the garbage. The body is filled with harsh chemicals. And all of this is to avoid the process of decomposition (Gen 3:19) that was spoken by God to Adam as part of the wages of sin.

His argument is that cremation – by avoiding the chemicals, the draining of fluids, the removal of flesh, and the mingling of the Christian’s flesh and blood with the garbage – is instead subjecting the body to a process that hastens the Gen 3:19 process, and is actually less of a desecration than embalming.

Be sure to read the comments posted below the second article as well as comments provided by readers who discuss cremation through any searches you might find when you look for “Orthodox Christian cremation.” You might discover that the arguments provided by the church may not seem popular, but they offer fodder for thought among readers. This is a good thing – for people to think about burial and what it means to their ideals and belief systems.

But, the church is not the only obstacle for those devout believers who also believe that cremation, when done with reverence, is an option for burial. In some cases, such as the one offered by Michigan funeral director, Thomas Lynch, in the book, Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, the funeral director might prove an obstacle. In that book, Lynch is noted for his “subtle and not-so-subtle disdain for those who opt for anything other than the elaborate, body-on-display funeral he unabashedly glorifies.” Cremation as a caring choice, according to author Lisa Carlson, is “beyond his bias to understand.”

His statement, which has been echoed by several church leaders over the past few years, clearly marks cremation is something that only the ‘unclean’ would choose when he stated, “We burned the trash and buried the treasure.”

How do you feel about this stance?

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