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The Orthodox Bioethics of Cremation

Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with people (Act 3, Our Town by Thorton Wilder).

Cremation became legal in England in 1885, thus beginning an extraordinary change in British death ritual practice.1 One hundred years later, a 1988 survey showed that 70% of bodily remains in England were cremated, compared with 43% in Holland, 57% in Switzerland and just 15% in the United States.2 A more recent survey in 2000, found that 70.9% of remains in Great Britain were cremated.3 Two notable Christian exceptions from this popularity have been Roman Catholics and Orthodox who generally have opposed cremation and supported inhumation [burial]. The Vatican removed its objections to cremation in 19634 but Orthodox have continued their opposition, although there is no official Orthodox canonical or dogmatic statement prohibiting it.5

Beyond a respect for the tradition of Christian burial, Orthodox see several ethical and theological dilemmas that restrain them from a general acceptance of cremation. These include the respect for dead bodies that is necessarily linked with resurrected bodies, the striking metaphoric problems created, and the way cremation eliminates the possibility for bodily holy relics. While most Orthodox would not say that cremation is sinful, these three areas are enough for most to say that inhumation is by far the better, more ethical choice.

Respect for the Body

Emperor Julian the Apostate (c. 331-363) once complained that Christians had “filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres” and by their processions with and in honour of the departed were “straining the eyes of all with ill-omened sights of the dead.”6 Early Christians, by contrast, held that the death of believers was a cause of hope, and their bodies, far from being ill-omened, were precious links to the faith Christians had in the Resurrection of the Dead. The Apostle Paul describes this in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 as a joyous day when a loud call will sound and the Lord will come again, “and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.”7 Christ himself says in John 5:28-29 that “the day is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son of Man’s] voice and will come out…”. These are the two readings used in the Orthodox Order for the Burial of the Dead and they set a resurrectional tone for the whole liturgy.8

The boundaries between the living and dead were first broken by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The tomb was empty because the actual, physical resurrection of Christ’s body had taken place (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5) and although this resurrected body transcended some earthly limitations (i.e. walk through walls-John 20:19 & 26, appearing in various places-John 21:1, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8) it bore direct connection to the body Christ had always had and was recognised by his disciples (Luke 24:31, Matthew 28:9) and bore the marks of his crucifixion (John 20:27-28). This is the hope for all Christians. Our bodies will also be resurrected, not just our souls, we will recognise each other, and the “marks” of our spiritual and physical battles will somehow be a part of us. Our physical bodies are inseparable parts of our identity as, Orthodox anthropology maintains, a human person is a soma, an animated body – one indivisible unit of sarx (body) and psyche (soul).9

The Order for Burial liturgy instructs the congregation to look at the body in the open casket, and to come forward and to give the dead person a final kiss- a person who, like them, was made in the image of God. By contrast Tertullian criticises the common Roman practice of cremation as dishonouring to the body. He noted the practice of people burning incense offerings to the dead after cremation and said, “What piety is that which mocks its victims with cruelty? Is it sacrifice or insult (which the crowd offers), when it burns its offerings to those it has already burnt?”10 Many people today also feel this difference. J. Douglas Davies noted that ashes represent “what might be called a post-person state of the deceased.”11 From the Orthodox perspective this post-personal view of the body is unacceptable and burial may best avoid this confusion and maintain a clear link to the bodily resurrection.

Mixed Metaphors

On one level, there may not seem to be much difference between burial and cremation; what one method does in 5 years the other does in 20 minutes. Does it really matter? Through the lens of metaphor, however, the difference is stark.

Burial implies patience and waiting for nature to take it’s course. It is reminiscent of John 12:24 – “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Each believer can be seen as a seed planted hopefully in the ground, awaiting the new life of resurrection. This same imagery is employed in 1 Corinthians 15:42-43 – “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”

Cremation, by contrast, conjures up fiery biblical images of hell, judgement, destruction, torment and the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation. Christ consistently used punishment by fire in many of his parables including the Wheat and the Weeds, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and most directly in the Sheep and the Goats. Most people, however, can logically reason that cremation does not have to mean these things, though the natural link is unfortunate and lingers in many people’s mind.

A related and subtle metaphoric problem was spotted by Davies in his work on the Cremation Research Project. Because of the finality of cremation and the explicit technology used, cremation gives rise to a revival of the Greek philosophic focus on the soul of the individual as the only part of them that continues after death.12 The theme of resurrection gets left behind. This exclusive focus on the soul can easily be seen in the phenomenon of scattering ashes. Ashes being post-personal, sterile and indistinguishable from other ash, means there are few restrictions on the place of scatterings — in the ocean, along a favourite walking path, in someone’s garden, etc. Scattering requests mostly express a personal connection with a place or a hobby and say nothing about a hope in any eschatological future of the bodily person. As Davies writes, “their intention is not to give God an opportunity to show how easy it is to integrate and transform these bits and pieces into a heavenly body,” but instead to make a statement about individual identity and this earthly life.13 This idea is far from the early Christian goal of being buried near martyrs and other Christians in consecrated ground, awaiting the Resurrection together!

Holy Relics

Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Romans and the account of The Martyrdom of Polycarp, give us two links between the death of saints and relic veneration. In the Letter to the Romans the condemned Ignatius urges the Christians in Rome not to stop his fight with wild beasts in the arena, urging them, “coax the wild beasts, so that they may become my tomb and leave nothing of my body behind, lest I become a burden to anyone once I have fallen asleep.”14 This shows that burial is not a prerequisite for resurrection, as indeed God can raise people from any form, but even so, at least part of Ignatius’ body was recovered and became cherished relics.15

Polycarp likewise became a martyr in a Roman arena, being burned at the stake in the year 167.16 The Martyrdom of Polycarp recounts Polycarp’s death in the flames, but his body was not totally consumed and the Christians were kept from taking away his body, “even though many desired to do this and to touch his holy flesh.”17 The Romans decided to further cremate Polycarp’s body and the Christians in the end took away his charred bones which they considered “more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold.”18 The Martyrdom of Polycarp records that they put them in a suitable place and “there, when we gather together as we are able, with joy and gladness, the Lord will permit us to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”19

The Didascalia Apostolorum likewise urges Christians to “come together even in the cemeteries, and read the holy Scriptures, and…perform your ministry…and offer an acceptable Eucharist.”20 The Didascalia Apostolorum further sites how the body of the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 13, raised the body of another dead man because of the presence of the Holy Spirit that still dwelt in the his corpse. Orthodox Christians likewise understand that the Holy Spirit still rests in the bodies of saints. Also, since sainthood is not officially recognised by the Church until proper study has been made of the person’s life after they have died, there may be a significant lapse of time between the person’s burial and the call for their relics. Personal items of the saints are often also used as relics, but cremation would exclude the possibility of cherished bodily relics.

This issue is no small concern in the Orthodox Church, as each altar must contain a relic, usually of a martyr in reference to Revelation 6:9 (the souls of martyrs under the altar). Also the square cloth on which an Orthodox priest serves the Eucharist, an antimension, has tiny relics sewn into each corner, which would be impossible with cremated remains.21 The veneration of relics essentially is a way of making sure that the saints are not without honour among the faithful and in turn the faithful recognise that grace flows out of the whole persons of saints, even after death, as a gift to the Church.22

Conclusion

After considering the importance of the physical body in the Resurrection of the Dead, the confusing metaphors created by cremation, and the loss of future holy relics, it is clear why Orthodox Christians consider inhumation normative and cremation generally unethical. This is not due to a denial of the process of decomposition or a desire to waste precious land for burial, but an affirmation of each person as a whole being who, even after death, deserves our greatest respect and care.

It is not enough, however, to simply say that all cremation is wrong and all burial is good. Further attention is needed for the local laws (i.e. Japan requires cremation) and for the exorbitant costs of some funeral services that can prey upon the vulnerable (a worthy concern of the original Cremation Society of England). The bioethics of embalming should also be considered and how it relates to proper respect for human bodies. Above all, the Christian view of death must allow Resurrection to take centre stage as the focus of hope about the future. With Christ as our Lord and example, the “firstborn from among the dead”,23 we wait in hope for our release from our “bondage to decay” and our rebirth into “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”24

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Breck, John. 1998. The Sacred Gift of Life; Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Davies, Jon. 1999. Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge.

Davies, J. Douglas. 1990. Cremation Today and Tomorrow. Bramcote: Grove Books.

Davies, J. Douglas. 2002. Death, Ritual and Belief. London: Continuum.

Frazier, T. L. 1997. Holy Relics; The Scriptural and Historical Basis for the Veneration of Relics of the Saints. Ben Lomand, CA: Conciliar Press.

Hapgood, Isabel. 1996. Service Book of the Holy-Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church. Englewood, NJ: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

Holmes, Michael W. 2006. The Apostolic Fathers in English. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Holy Bible; New Revised Standard Version. 2007. London: Collins.

Nock, Arthur Darby. 1932. Cremation and Burial in the Roman Empire. Cambridge, MA: The Harvard Theological Review.

Parson, Brian. 2005. Committed to the Cleansing Flame; The Development of Cremation in Nineteen-Century England. Reading: Spire Books.

Tefft, Alexander. Lecture. “Body, Soul, Spirit.” November 20, 2009. The Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Willem van Henten, Jan and Avemarie, Friedrich. 2002. Martyrdom and Noble Death; Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge.

Online Resources Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3 - Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.viii.i.html

Cremation Society of Great Britain: www.srgw.demon.co.uk/CremSoc/GeneralInformation/Know.html

Didascalia Apostolorum: http://www.bombaxo.com/didascalia.html

Edmundson, George. 1913. The Church in Rome in the First Century. Public Domain. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edmundson/church.xii.vi.html

Renan, Ernest. The History of the Origins of Christianity. Book VII. Marcus-Aurelius. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/renan/marcus.xxxii.html

NOTES

1 Parson, Brian. 2005. Committed to the Cleansing Flame; The Development of Cremation in Nineteen-Century England. Reading: Spire Books. pp. 11, 30

2 Davies, J. Douglas. 1990. Cremation Today and Tomorrow. Bramcote: Grove Books. p. 6.

3 Cremation Society of Great Britain: www.srgw.demon.co.uk/CremSoc/GeneralInformation/Know.html

4 Breck, John. 1998. The Sacred Gift of Life; Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. P. 278.

5 Ibid., p. 279.

6 Quoted in Davies, Jon. 1999. Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge. p. 195.

7 All Scripture quoted from the New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

8 Hapgood, Isabel. 1996. Service Book of the Holy-Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church. Englewood, NJ: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. P. 368ff.

9 Tefft, Alexander. Lecture. “Body, Soul, Spirit.” November 20, 2009. The Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

10 Tertullian’s play on words in the final phrase is nice — “Cum crematis cremat.” Allan Menzies, D.D., ed. “On the Resurrection of the Flesh.” Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3 - Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.v.viii.i.html

11 Davies, J. Douglas, p. 14.

12 “The Greek belief in the immortality of the soul led to burning, the Oriental belief in the resurrection led to interment.” Renan, Ernest. The History of the Origins of Christianity. Book VII. Marcus-Aurelius. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/renan/marcus.xxxii.html

13 Ibid, p. 16, 33.

14 Holmes, Michael W. 2006. The Apostolic Fathers in English. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p. 114.

15 Breck, p. 281.

16 Holmes, p. 144.

17 Ibid., p. 153.

18 Ibid, p. 154.

19 Ibid.

20 http://www.bombaxo.com/didascalia.html

21 Frazier, T. L. 1997. Holy Relics; The Scriptural and Historical Basis for the Veneration of Relics of the Saints. Ben Lomand, CA: Conciliar Press. p. 26.

22 Ibid, p. 21.

23 Colossians 1:18.

24 Romans 8:21.

Kathryn Wehr, MCS, (Master of Christian Studies, Regent College, Canada) is from Minnesota and is a post-graduate student at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England (www.iocs.cam.ac.uk). Her areas of research are Pastoral Theology and Theology and the Arts. She is also a folk musician and her music can be found on iTunes or at www.katywehr.com.

©2010 Kathryn Wehr. All rights reserved.

Published: April 27, 2010

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