Deacon Mark Barna · July 2, 2013
On the premier episode of his new podcast, Dn. Mark Barna discusses the Orthodox perspective on cremation.
Glory to Jesus Christ; glory forever. This is Dn. Mark for A Christian Ending. Greetings from the Deep South and the holy city, Charleston, South Carolina. The suggestion for this podcast came after my interview with Kevin Allen on Ancient Faith Today. We’re planning a limited series of podcasts focused on the issues Elizabeth and I talk about in our book. So we’ll be talking about that subject, which is most taboo in our society: death and dying and the preparation of the dead for burial, with or without a professional funeral director.
I’d like to start by filling in the gaps left by the interview and then progress through the other questions that Kevin and I didn’t get to. Along the way we’ll answer some of the most common questions we’ve received and also pass on some things we’ve learned since the book was published. We may also get into some end-of-life issues since Elizabeth and I were intimately involved in those issues for several years. We’d also like to encourage anyone at all to contact us at achristianending.com with any questions or especially with any experiences of your own. If you and your parish are currently managing your own funerals, we’d love to hear about your experiences, especially if they’re different from ours and especially if you disagree with anything we’ve done or with anything we say.
Preparing bodies for burial is a new experience for all of us. It’s an entirely new concept for most people. We are always eager to learn something new, and we’ll be more than happy to pass it along through our website or these podcasts. Please understand from the beginning that we’ve never held ourselves out as experts. We’re not professional funeral directors, and we’re not legal or medical professionals either. I’m not a theologian or a scholar. I’m just a guy who didn’t want to be embalmed.
This is not an obsession, either. While I try to follow the holy Fathers’ advice to keep my own death in mind, like most people the busyness of life insists on my attention, and either more urgent matters or more pleasant thoughts take up most of my time. I do think, however, that we can speak candidly and plan properly for our own death without becoming morbid or being consumed by it. In fact, facing the reality of death and dealing with it as best we can can be a very liberating experience and reinforce our dependence on God. After all, the only true freedom is slavery to Jesus Christ.
Since the interview on Ancient Faith Today, I’ve become aware that our priests are dealing with the issue of cremation more and more. There were two rather difficult questions from callers on the show, and since then I’ve received several emails and calls asking for more details about the issue. I really didn’t realize the level of concern our priests are dealing with out there. They’re dealing with parishioners who don’t understand why they can’t choose to be cremated, and they’re also trying to help parishioners faced with family members who want to be cremated. It’s a very difficult subject. I wasn’t trying to side-step the question on the show, but I really didn’t want to butt into the caller’s family business. I’ll try to give a better, more detailed answer here.
One caller was concerned about her parents’ wanting to be cremated. That’s always a dicey issue: dealing with family, especially parents. I know I went through it myself. I didn’t want to sound self-serving and tell her to give them a copy of A Christian Ending, but I really think that would be a good place to start. We didn’t spend much ink on it in our book, on the subject of cremation specifically, but we do mention it. I guess we took for granted that Orthodox Christians would not be cremated. We probably would have spent more time on it if we had understood the magnitude of the problem within the Orthodox Church.
We do have some good information on the funeral industry, the Orthodox understanding of the human person, and a traditional Christian understanding of funerals and their significance for the bereaved. Most of the evolving popular traditions of today show a very basic lack of understanding of any of these things.
I think that most Orthodox Christians know that the Orthodox Church does not and never has approved of cremation as an option in lieu of burial. If you weren’t aware of that, you are now. I’d like to say it very clearly: Cremation is not an option for Orthodox Christians. We Orthodox handle everything with great care and love for the individual. In most things, there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules, but this is one of them. Only in some extreme cases is cremation acceptable and unavoidable. We won’t go into those here, as they will probably never affect anyone hearing this podcast.
The person who is cremated cannot receive the full funeral rites as provided by the Church. There can be a memorial service, but not the full funeral. For one thing, the funeral service presumes the presence of the body in the church during the funeral and a procession to the grave site. We are being sold cremation as enlightened or environmentally responsible. Believe me: it is neither of those things. I hope to make that clear.
Even so, I still think the number one issue for most people is cost. It usually is cheaper to cremate than it is to contract a funeral director to bury someone in a commercial cemetery with all the trimmings. It’s also more profitable for the industry. However, I think if more people understood the process of cremation, just like the process of embalming, they might think twice about it.
The issue for Orthodox Christians, as it should be for everyone, is the violence done to the human body during the process of cremation. We Orthodox are very concerned about respect and honor for our brothers and sisters in Christ as images or living icons of Christ himself. This is not new. The Jewish tradition in the Talmud has prohibitions against the desecration of bodily remains. We believe that the body is sacred, a very integral part of the human person. I understand that Buddhists and Hindus, and perhaps other religions, see the body as a corrupt prison for the soul. They believe that the body must be destroyed for the body to be set free. We do not believe this at all. We believe that the body and the soul make up the whole person, and that at the resurrection we will be raised up, bodily, just as Jesus was, but with our body perfected and reunited with the soul in a personal union, just as it was meant to be.
Our physical body is a gift from God. It’s not a prison for the soul, but the temple where the living God should dwell. In the book of Genesis, God created the body and then breathed life into it. This is a beautiful, very intimate portrait of the relationship man was created to have with God. God breathed life and his own spirit into his nostrils. Jesus Christ put on a human body with all its weaknesses. This in itself is proof of the sanctification of the physical human body. When Christ descended into the Jordan, he washed the waters of the earth at his baptism. The waters didn’t wash his body, but as we hymn in the hymns of Theophany, he washed and recreated the waters of the earth, and thereby recreated and sanctified all matter. He suffered and died in that body and was raised at the resurrection in that same body. Thomas placed his hands in the nail holes and in Jesus’ side. Christ feeds our flesh and spirit with his own body and blood in the Eucharist. We believe this in reality, not just some vague metaphor. Perhaps Metropolitan Jonah said it best on the back cover of A Christian Ending, and I’ll quote:
The body of a Christian, which was immersed in the sacred waters of Baptism, anointed with holy Chrism, and nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, has become the sanctified dwelling-place of God, even in death remaining worthy of profound reverence.
The idea of the total depravity of the flesh and of matter is completely unknown to Orthodox Christians. To me it just doesn’t make any sense. God doesn’t make any junk. All of creation is an outpouring of God’s love and blessing. He put man at the very pinnacle of creation and gave him dominion over it. I don’t think that’s something he intended us to treat at all lightly. Anyone who’s ever been in a crematory while it’s operating can tell you it sounds very similar to a blast furnace. I worked in a small foundry years ago, and I can testify to that.
A human body to be cremated must first have pacemakers removed so the batteries won’t explode. This is done either by the funeral director or the cremator. The body is usually put into a cardboard box and put into the furnace. The burners are lit, and the temperature is raised to 1400-2100 degrees Fahrenheit. This is maintained for approximately one hour per 100 pounds of human body-weight. Depending on the design of the furnace, the burners may be directed directly on the body, not just heating it but burning it like a blowtorch.
The burning process can take up to four hours. That requires a considerable amount of fuel to do the job. It’s not as environmentally friendly as some people would like to make it out to be, but that’s not all. Most people don’t realize that bones don’t burn, so what you’re left with after hours of hellish temperature is some ash and about four pounds of dehydrated, collapsed skeleton. In order for the crematory to hand you a jar of ash, they have to place the bones into something called a cremulator. A cremulator is a high-speed blender that crushes the bones into fine, sandy granules. To avoid calling these remains “ashes,” the funeral industry coined the term “cremains.”
Videos of the cremation process are available on YouTube. You may note in the video that several bodies are cremated, depending on the size of the crematory. The bones are placed in trays on the floor. Now, I’m sure, just as you are, that all crematories take scrupulous care to make sure they never make a mistake and mix up someone’s cremated remains. If your loved one is considering cremation, you might just show them the videos on YouTube. If that doesn’t enlighten them, I’m not sure what will. If you live in one of the 42 states that allow individuals or families to care for their own dead, you might also mention that a family- or church-directed funeral can be free or nearly free, and that should get their attention.
All this should be enough to convince anyone of the inappropriateness of cremation especially for Christians. Another objection that we’ve heard is: “I don’t want my family to go through all the trauma of a funeral.” Now this may not be an objection that’s easy to overcome, especially if your loved one thinks of doing it yourself as just crazy. However, this again is simply a manifestation of a very basic misunderstanding of what a funeral is and what it does for the bereaved family. We’ll get into this more in a future podcast, but let me just say that the funeral is a major step in the grieving process. It’s extremely important for the loved ones to be able to hear the prayers and the hymns, to give the last kiss, and to say good-bye with real finality.
While the funeral prayers have been official for the deceased, something they’ll not receive if they’re cremated, they’re very beneficial for the bereaved. One might even venture to say that the funeral’s not for the dead, but for the living. Don’t deny your family this opportunity. In addition, you can’t know the incredible benefits derived by those who actually prepare the body of their loved one for burial, unless you’ve done it or at least observed or spoken to a family member who has done it. It is truly a powerful and rewarding experience.
For Orthodox Christians, though, there are a couple of other reasons we can’t accept cremation as a valid alternative except in places or in circumstances where it’s required. One of these reasons is a loss of relics. There are incorrupt relics of saints all over the world. Many of them are wonder-working relics. Not all saints’ relics are incorrupt, but many are. Every consecrated Orthodox altar has a relic of a saint buried in it. The antimins on every Orthodox altar [has] the relic of a saint sewn into it. We venerate the relics of saints and are reminded of their holiness and sanctity and their long-suffering. Obviously, cremation would preclude any incorrupt relics and would make additional relics very difficult to come by.
What are relics anyway? The pieces of a Christian body, sanctified through a life of prayer, labor, and sacrifice in the Church. We bless an icon one time and revere it for all time. A Christian body is baptized, blessed, and anointed over and over again. It’s nourished by the very body and blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ throughout our entire life. Hopefully our last act will be to receive the holy Eucharist before our death. It is, in fact, an icon of Christ Not-Made-by-Hands. Surely the relics of the most common of Orthodox Christians are worthy of ultimate respect.
What about people in fires, shipwrecks, and other disasters? Won’t they be raised at the resurrection, too? Well, yes, of course, they will be. That’s not what we’re talking about. God can and will do what he will do without any help and despite any interference from us, but that’s not the point. Orthodox Christians don’t claim that cremation inhibits God or his action. We’re saying that cremation is a violent and disrespectful act perpetrated on the temple of God, created without hands, and it is therefore disrespectful to God. Remember Jesus Christ was buried, not embalmed or cremated.
Respect is a vital issue we’ll be returning to throughout these podcasts, and that brings up the final—and I think the most important—point about cremation. As Christians, particularly Orthodox Christians, our whole life is to be lived in reverence, love, and humility before God and one another as his image. Our obedience and humility is the ultimate show of respect for God and for his creation. After all, it’s disobedience that got us into this mess to start with. If we read the holy Scriptures, the lives of the saints, and the writings of the holy Fathers, we find constant reminders of humility before God.
I have here with me the icon of the Extreme Humility of Christ. It’s so powerful. Here stands the Creator of the universe: beaten, rejected, crowned with thorns, clothed in a purple robe, standing in a cesspool. This is the image of extreme humility, the image of greatest love. God is love. Love is meek and humble to the extreme. In love we place our whole being and everything we are into God’s hands to guide, guard, and protect us, to show us his ways all of our life. If at the end of our life we choose to destroy the temple of our body through cremation, what are we saying? “Okay, God. You’ve done a great job so far. I’ll take it from here.” We decide what will become of our body, not God.
This, then, rather than humble submission to the will of God, becomes as our final act an act of pride. After a life of work to acquire the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of humility and the Spirit of love, should we throw it away at the last moment with a prideful decision? I don’t think so, and I hope you agree. The prohibition against cremation in the Orthodox Church is not just the Church trying to dictate how we live and die, and it’s not just some antiquated tradition. It is the Church trying, once again, to guide us into a God-pleasing way of life, and in this case, a God-pleasing way of death and burial.
By contrast, the process of natural burial that we advocate in our book is very respectful, gentle, and loving. The body is gently washed and anointed with fragrant oil by loved ones, brothers and sisters in Christ. It is placed in a reclining position of honor in the center of the church. The body of Christ gathers together to say the prayers and to sing the hymns for the newly departed child of God. Finally, the body is placed in the ground and returned to the earth from which it came, all of which confirms the personhood and the value of each of us.
Well, I hope that helps those of you struggling with the issue of cremation. Please be aware that there are other forms of body disposal being promoted. Some are even more heinous than cremation. Orthodox Christians must remember that there is no method more environmentally friendly or ultimately life-affirming than a natural Church funeral and burial.
Please contact us with any comments or questions at achristianending.com. Our book, A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, is available from stjohnsbookstore.com, at the Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, and from our website as well. It’s also available from most of your favorite Orthodox booksellers. I hope you’ll think about getting a copy for yourself or for those family members who are considering these issues. I hope you’ll tune in next time when we’ll address more of the questions we’ve been asked regarding natural Christian burial. Thank you for listening. May God grant you many, many years.