Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Orthodoxy and Cremation

Since I made reference to Mark being cremated below, I'd like to post a quick comment about my feelings on cremation. The Orthodox Church forbids cremation under most circumstances (though it is permitted in certain special cases such as epidemics). The reasons usually given are that cremation is disrespectful to the body, which is holy, and represents a denial of the Resurrection at some level.


Do you know what is involved in the process of embalming? I personally cannot think of a more disrespectful, invasive, and unnatural process. I won't disturb you with undue details (draining, mincing of internal organs, etc.), but you can read about them if you want at
this site. Embalming dishonors the body by fillling it with toxic chemicals, and it dishonors the earth by poisoning the land and the groundwater. Moreover, I fear that the Orthodox Church has unwittingly allowed itself to become complicit in the death-denying zeitgeist of our culture by permitting embalming, the primary purpose of which is to make a person look like something other than what they are: dead.

In addition to the above, burial of the dead has become exorbitantly expensive, since the entire process of preparation and burial has come to be controlled by a vast industry. Poor people can't afford burial in many cases, and therefore many of the poor end up being cremated, thus losing their opportunity for an Orthodox funeral and subsequent commemoration in the Church.

In the ancient Church, one of the primary works of mercy was burial of the dead, including the poor non-Christian dead. This ministry was known as the xenotaphion (lit. "burial of the stranger"). But the Orthodox Church has for the most part forgotten this tradition, and does not involve itself in the burial of non-Orthodox, nor does it have many ministries for giving dignified burial to poor Orthodox Christians.


We in the Orthodox Church should either stop permitting embalming, or start allowing cremation, or possibly both. Requiring burial of the dead, which has become prohibitively expensive in our culture, while doing nothing to assist the poor with the costs involved and prohibiting less expensive options such as cremation, is discrimination against the poor. To use the words of Jesus, it is hypocrisy.

"They (the Pharisees) tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."

Matt. 23:4


alana said...

You are very right. In my state, embalming is not mandatory, and when it comes to it, I plan on being buried on consecrated ground at my Orthodox church cemetary in a pine box, vigil, liturgy, etc. without being embalmed.

One first step that can be taken is for Orthodox Mission Parishes, when they get to the point of purchasing property and building, to plan a cemetery along side the Church they build. This will enable your vision of justice to be possible.

Another thing would be to seek laws to be enacted, that do allow a more simple burial, if those are needed.

Miss Eagle said...

A great post - thoughtful, to the point, and discussion of stuff left unsaid in our society. I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition with similar attitudes to cremation. As an ageing woman, I think about this regularly. I live about 3 to 4 thousand kilometres from where my husband is buried. There is room for me in his grave but how expensive will it be for remains to get there? It may be more meaninful and respectful for my children if I were to be cremated. They could either retain my ashes or disperse them somewhere that is meaningful to me and to them. This takes a bit of getting around since my upbringing was anti-cremation. When my husband died, there had never been any consideration of cremation. He is buried in a rather ugly cemetery. Sometime later, I went to a lovely crematorium with a beautiful view to the sea. I often wonder if cremation should have been the way to go with his ashes dispersed in the beautiful rainforest near our home that he loved so much.

VIctoria said...

There is beginning to be an "ecoburial" movement. Burial without embalming, without metal caskets etc. Which is basically what we used to have before death became lucrative, as Sampson points out.

My husband's culture calls for cremation. I hope I'm able to do this for him in a way that approximates the very humane and sane way it used to be done in India: the family pays for the pyre to be built, and the oldest son (daughter in our case) lights the pyre. And everyone stands there and watches the sparks and ash spiral to the sky. If you're rich you have a sandalwood pyre and it smells like flowers.

I think my point is that every culture is different when it comes to respect of the body. But I didn't realize that if you are cremated, you can't have an Orthodox funeral or be commemorated in the church. Ouch.

Anonymous said...

An eco-burial is what I want. No embalming, just wrap me up in a sheet or put me in a cardboard box and put me in an organic cemetary, or if we have a Real Family House even in the backyard. Let my body go back to the earth, naturally.

I have recently spoken with a woman who did a home funeral for her husband--kept him on dry ice, kept him in-house and people went there to view his body. They they drove him themselves to a monastery and buried his body there. That's what I want. I want to be cared for by my family and loved ones, not the death industry.

--the She Guerilla

Sampson said...

Thanks, everybody, for your comments. We just got back from Mark's wake/memorial service. He was embalmed, and it just didn't look like him. It never does. I hate all those damn heavy cosmetics they put on corpses.

One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Arsenius, told the brothers of the monastery to tie a rope around his ankles and drag him out into the wilderness and leave him after he died. Maybe that's the way to go; doesn't get any more natural than that.


Johanna said...

Sampson, thank you for daring to question the prevailing status quo, for NOT towing the party line, & for having the balls to look at things hard & see the inconsistencies & look more deeply into them, rather than just spewing the conventional answers that most of us all too sheepishly accept from those "in authority".

Makes me want to ask & ponder the next question...where does true authority come from?

A question I think all of us would do well to ponder...it is a mysterious thing.

I have often wondered about the issues of cremation, embalmed burials, stinky burials, resurrection...wanting to look at it more...realizing that I don't understand even one smidgeon of it... not satisfied with the somewhat pat, mechanical kind of answer about it that I usually get from a priest or elder. You've got me pondering more actively again, & feeling that it's ok to trust that little uncomfortable feeling I have inside about what feels like a mass of contradiction or arbitrariness. Or control & fear.

Nektarios said...

Every priest or monk I've ever spoken to about embalming has spoken strongly against it. Annointing the body with fragrant oils (as is done in most eastern burial traditions) also has a very practical purpose in addition to its religious purposes.

Additionally, to my knowledge, the Orthodox Church of Japan allows cremation (I think) because of incredibly high cost of burials and the scarcity of burial plots. Cemetaries in Japan typically consist of buried urns/ashes post-cremation, not the western sense of burial. There's actually a western style cemetary in Tokyo that they government is trying to turn into a park.

Cranford Joseph Coulter said...

Embalming is a violation of the canons of the Orthodox Church. It is not required in any state. Funeral directors just "assume the sale." Also burial vaults do not have to have bottoms in most cemeteries. The vault is there to prevent sink holes, but keeping the worms out just doesn't seem right.
Modern embalming was sold to the public after Lincoln died. They took his body on a national tour to sell the idea. People had loved ones embalmed and kept them in their homes. Like the artificial maintenance of Lenin's body, it was part of a culture of denial of death. Funerals are to take place within a day of the death. Death is not convenient or pretty. Funerals are not to be "celebrations of life." The Orthodox service does not pull any punches. It causes us to look squarely at death in order to prepare for our own deaths with repentance. It helps us to mourn. It recognizes that death is not part of life. (We are not Taoists.) Death is the fruit of sin.