Christ is Risen!
I wish to write you in the brightness of the Paschal season about the unfortunate topic of cremation. There doesn’t ever seem to be a “right time” to mention it, so I will take this season of joy to describe, in brief, our funeral practices, and to say that as an Orthodox Christian, there is no reason at all to be cremated, and the ruling practice of our faith is that any cremated person is not to be buried from the Church.
First, the negative side of the argument. Why anyone, who wishes to “go to heaven” would voluntary subject his or her own body to the terrestrial fires of hell is beyond me. A body undergoing cremation is subjected to temperatures of 1400-1800 degrees—hot enough to melt aluminum—for one to three hours. Cremation is absolutely a violent desecration of the human body.
After the scorching flames, much of the skeleton remains largely intact—that is, the cremation only incinerates the flesh and organs. You don’t actually get “ashes”. Rather, the skeleton is removed from the fire chamber, and the bin is swept out—like cleaning a fireplace. Then the bones are put into a large blender, called a cremulator. I am not making this up. They are ground into a fine powder; these are the “cremains”.
Here it is. Click HERE. Graphic, but this is how it is.
Next the neutral argument. Cremation isn’t often “cheaper”, if you follow the Church’s way. Our way is not to embalm, and not to use an expensive casket. In fact, under normal circumstances, we can avoid the use of a funeral home (with expensive fees) almost entirely. A simple washing and prepping of the body costs $0, and a simple casket could be made for under $200, if you made your own. Inexpensive wood caskets can be purchased for as little as $800. And being buried at our monastery costs $500 to open a grave, plus a donation of your choice to the monastery.
While the Church is, indeed, against cremation, our practice is more grounded in the positive aspects of what we do, in fact, do. And simply, it is to be buried like Jesus was buried. When Jesus died, they took his body down from the cross, anointed him with fragrant myrrh, wrapped him in linen, and place him in the tomb. In becoming a human being, God showed the sanctity of the human body, indeed the sanctity of all matter. We treat the body with dignity, and allow the natural (in the fallen world’s sense) decomposition of the body.
In many Orthodox monasteries, the bodies are exhumed after a period of a few years, and the bones are carefully and sacredly washed and stored in an ossuary, allowing for the recycling of graves (imagine the thought!). Sometimes, upon the digging up of the body, one finds the body incorrupt—meaning even after all those years under ground, the body and flesh are still intact.
The Church calls this “incorruption”, and it is generally taken as a sign of a saint. (This would be impossible with ashes, as would possessing the relics [bones] of the saints, as we do at Ascension—more than a dozen.) Three examples of incorruption include St John of Damascus, whose incorrupt body lies in state in the St Sabbas Monastery in the Judean Desert (I venerated it this past summer); St John Maximovitch, whose incorrupt body lies in state in San Francisco (many in our parish have been there, and Vladimir Pleshakov served as his choir singer in Shanghai when he was a teen); and our beloved Archbishop Dmitri, whose incorrupt body was disinterred under the direction of our Protodeacon Mark Barna in Dallas a few years ago.
In the parish if burial costs are ever an issue, the Church will absolutely help. No one should be cremated, “because it saves money”. It doesn’t or doesn’t have to. Every Orthodox Christian should treat his or her own body with dignity while living, and should expect and leave expressly-written directions for the same dignity after death.
To be buried like Jesus is the most beautiful and holy way that the Church bids farewell to a newly-departed brother or sister.
If you’ve “already paid for your cremation (or your columbarium), there may be ways to get your money back, or you could consider it just a lesson learned, and opt for the beauty of an Orthodox Burial according to the way of the Lord.
SOURCE: Holy Ascension Orthodox Church