Last week, I was asked about the Orthodox Church’s views of cremation. News from Greece is that there is a push to authorize cremation. The real story is that the push is coming from the secular government and it is being opposed by the Church. The teaching of the Church is clear, cremation is not allowed. We hear the argument that it is more economical and that the environment will be helped. These are just excuses. It is true that in Japan, where the state mandates cremation, the Church reluctantly has to accept the practice. But, it happens after the funeral service has taken place, with the body in the Church.
What is the theology of the Church’s teaching? The mystery of death has many facets, not the least being the attitude concerning the body. The earliest and most vital aspect of this teaching is the story of creation itself. Genesis 1, 26 clearly teaches that humanity is made in the “image and likeness of God.” This creation is not only our spirit, but our physical body as well. Christ with His Incarnation assumed our physical body. St. Gregory the Theologian states in his first letter to Cledonios: “The unassumed is unhealed, but that which is united with God is also being saved.” We also read in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel. ” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1, 14) At the Resurrection and again at the Ascension, we believe that the Glorified Body of the Lord rose and ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father. With this act of salvation our body is united to Christ. The Church teaches at the Second Coming our Glorified bodies will rise to meet the Lord.
We read in Genesis 3, 19, “…till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Holy Church believes that we are holistic creatures and that our bodies should be allowed to decay naturally. Respect for the natural order is strongly upheld in the Church’s teachings. The question comes to mind, what about times when out bodies are burned or lost at sea, or blown up? These are not wilful acts. Cremation is the choice of humans and intervenes in the natural order, because it is the direction of our will not God’s. St. Paul teaches ” Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6, 19 – 20). Our bodies are anointed with the Holy Spirit at Chrismation and are Spirit filled! They belong to God.
It is the Orthodox doctrine that to consider the material world sinful is wrong. We believe that the material world can be sanctified by God’s grace. The Holy Spirit consecrates wine and bread into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Church sanctifies water, wheat, oil, food and our bodies. The witness of the saints is a convincing illustration of this glorification of the body. Many saints’ bodies, after their falling asleep in the Lord, do not corrupt. Their bodies testify to their glorification by God in Christ and His victory over death. The holy relics of the saints become Spirit bearing and many miracles are associated with them. Our consecrated temples, altars and antimensia contain relics of the saints. Additionally, the reverence given to Christ’s body at the Crucifixion by St. Joseph, St. Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing Women is a prime example of the reverence we Orthodox have for the body. The hymns and services of the Holy Passion are replete with references to the body and the respect which the Church affords it. The act of cremation is a violation against the body and is not allowed by the Church. Your questions can be asked by E- mailing me. Thank you.