Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Orthodox Christianity maintains an explicit insistence on burial of human remains, denying a ‘church burial’ to those who opt for cremation, but I am not sure that it is consistent in applying this rule. Personally I do not know anyone who was an Orthodox Christian and who was cremated and yet had memorial services and a funeral performed. My wife’s grandmother, the daughter of an Orthodox priest but not, to my knowledge, an ‘active’ Orthodox Christian while she was alive (she let her children, my wife’s mother and her siblings, be ‘christianized’ in the United Church of Canada), was cremated and her boxed ashes buried on top of her husband’s buried remains, because there was no possibility of burial with his remains any other way. I do not believe the Church was involved in her funeral at all.

In east Asia the Orthodox Church allows cremation, I have been told, because that is the normal procedure for the disposition of the bodies of the dead in those cultures, but I cannot confirm it. Having been to Japan and visited the grave of the mother of a friend of mine, whose ashes are interred in a monument on the grounds of an ancient Buddhist temple, I never got the impression that there was anything disrespectful in that form of burial.

I think that the insistence on burial of the whole body rather than cremation or other methods which destroy the corpse goes back to the very strong feelings about the integrity and necessity of the body's survival that we find in ancient Egypt. I also think that ancient Egypt, as well as ancient China and other early cultures derived their insistence on whole body burial from the possibly universal prehistoric human reverence for, and fear of, the dead, as we find from the evidence of graves all over the planet. True, some of the prehistorics may have cremated, maybe even a majority, but of this I don’t think we have evidence. How could we?

The attitude prevalent in pop Christian culture in the West of the cocky belief that ‘I won't be there (in my dead body) so it doesn’t matter what happens to it when I’m gone,’ has come from the same shallow veneer Christianity that produced the pentecostal movement, bandstand and talk show Christian worship, and the prosperity gospel. It is essentially a gnostic attitude of ‘spirit-good, matter-bad’ which when taken to its logical conclusion results in spiritualism and other ‘New Age’ philosophies, and denies the incarnation and full manhood of Jesus Christ.

On a practical level, I think that burial versus cremation is ultimately a kind of ceremonial orthopraxy that has been agreed upon because it is an expression of the other truths of Orthodox Christian faith (and here I am not speaking of Orthodox as applying only to the ancient churches with this word in their titles, but all mainstream Christian churches). In other words, cremation of one’s remains, even as a Christian, doesn’t exclude a soul from salvation or the mercy of God. Only rebellion and apostasy do that. For this reason, I think, the Church could change its practice and allow it, as long as there was consensus on the matters of faith of which it is one (and not the only one) of the representations. This is why, I believe, it is allowed in regions of Asia where Orthodoxy exists.

The veneration of ikons in the Orthodox Church is another representation of the same point of faith that is covered by the practice of bodily burial of the dead. Both of them represent our faith in the sanctification of matter. Ikons, relics of the saints (incorrupt bodies or body parts of ancient martyrs and confessors), the blessing of conjugal relationship in the marriage mystery, all these represent the same truth: God enters matter and enlivens it, as He wills, when He wills, and ultimately all the universe will partake of the Divine Nature when His incarnation in and among us has come to its perfection. That is why, for the Orthodox, heaven is not the purely spiritual realm of departed souls, but the restoration of the universe as material and spiritual Paradise, something that hasn’t happened yet, but for which we and all those who have gone before us wait for. When that Day arrives, then heaven will really begin, as will hell.

But that's another story.

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