Is It Ok To Be Cremated?
By Fr. Gregory Murphy.
Source: The Word published by the Antiocian Orthodox church - May 2003
According to some reports, nearly a quarter of Americans choose to be cremated
(over 40% in California, Florida, and Arizona), and there are many "high profile" celebrities who
serve as models of this choice, such as John F. Kennedy, Jr., John Lennon and George Harrison, Gene
Roddenberry, Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia, Gianni Versace, and Sir John Gielgud to name just a few.
I am neither a scholar nor a historian in this particular matter; nevertheless, the issue is one
that comes up quite often in pastoral conversation. The arguments in favor of cremation seem to
fall mostly into the category of expediency: we are running out of room for cemeteries; funerals
are expensive and cremation is a cheaper alternative; cremation spares the family (or the person who
is to be cremated) the unpleasant idea of the body undergoing decay in the grave; some societies
practice cremation regularly and therefore it is merely a matter of social-context. Perhaps there
are other arguments in favor of cremation, but, these are the ones most often cited.
On the other hand, I never seem to hear any cogent, theological reasons put forth
that might support cremation for Orthodox Christians. Burning the body is never spoken of in a favorable
way in Holy Scripture. The Fathers do not recommend it. The Church has never practiced it. In short,
putting the most positive spin on the contemporary attitude toward cremation, we might say that the
Euro-American practice of cremation, as it exists today, is a "novelty."
Any time we Orthodox Christians come up against an idea or practice that is
"new" we mustn't reject it out of hand, but rather we must start by examining the novelty in
light of the basic tenets of our Faith. The generally widespread and favorable attitude toward
cremation, that it is a valid option in funerary practice, is a relatively recent phenomenon that
should be openly and fairly examined by Holy Orthodoxy to assess its supported value. We need to
ask theological questions, to hold up the idea and its practice to the rule of faith and to
historical practices of the Church, and see how it measures up. The "new thing" might be quite
acceptable if it promotes and furthers the "Faith once delivered unto the saints." But if that
idea and its practices are at odds with the basic tenets of our Faith, or if they diminish our
witness of the Gospel of Christ to the world, then we must not promote the idea or its practice.
In short, in this process of discernment, it is important to get a firm grasp of the central
theological issues at stake, and not to be sidetracked by superfluous claims.
Although cremation was widely practiced in pre-Christian Europe (at least, a
rather "rustic" form of it), the Cremation Association of North America reports that "modern"
cremation, as we know it, actually began only a little over a century ago, when a Professor Brunetti
of Italy finally perfected his prototype for a cremation chamber and displayed it at the 1873 Vienna
Exposition. The "Cremation Movement" started almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic
after this exhibition. When proponents of cremation speak of this act as "scientific progress"
and as "purification by fire" there is usually no mention of the actual process. I wonder how
those who advocate this procedure for their loved ones would feel if they knew what actually
happens? The process begins with the superheating (to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit) of the body, which
desiccates it and then vaporizes the flesh and organs. This takes about two hours. The bones and
teeth, which do not burn even at these high temperatures, are disposed of by violently crushing and
grinding the skull, teeth, and bones into small sand-like fragments. The technical term for this
procedure is "mechanical processing" of the "non-combustible" material. Then, the "cremains" (as
the cremation remains are termed) are deposited in a sealed tube for delivery to the family. This
impersonal and mechanical attitude toward the "remains" of one's loved one seems, to me, to be
diametrically opposed to the attitude which an Orthodox Christian ought to maintain toward the
body of his or her reposed loved one.
In light of this knowledge about the process of cremation, the ubiquitous
arguments of expediency seem to me to be disingenuous, at best, and in a darker sense, tend to
obscure the deeper moral and theological questions. Should cremation be favored by the Orthodox
Faithful? Let us ask, rather, does this practice promote or detract from the Gospel witness of the
Church to the world? Let us ask whether you or I are diminished, as a Child of God, if we allow
ourselves or our loved ones to partake of this practice? Is cremation a loving act? These are the
types of questions we have to ask when examining this "novelty," not whether cremation is a cost-effective
means of disposing of a dead body.
One of the basic tenets of Holy Orthodoxy is respect for God's Creation. Unlike
Satan and the demonic forces, who are bent on the destruction and defacement of God's Creation, we
Christians are called upon to respect, care for, and love all that God has made. If somethings
occur in this world that seem less than lovely due to the forces of corruption in this Age (such as
diseased or malformed bodies - or even dead bodies), we, as Orthodox Christians, are called upon to
love and venerate these things. Some cultures have practiced euthanasia, and it might be argued, from
expediency, that one ought to dispose of malformed, twisted bodies because they are a burden on society;
or one might argue that unwanted pregnancies or the aged and infirm are just taking up space and
resources. When painted in such a stark way, it is easier to see that this type of argument is certainly
contrary to the Orthodox Way.
But then there is that gray area of "dead bodies." Should we regard them in the same
way that we regard the bodies of the living that are diseased and infirm? After all, aren't we through
with such things after we die? Isn't this body a fleshy cloak that we are glad to shed at death? There
is an unfortunate - and very UN-Orthodox - idea floating around in the super-spiritual corners of "cultic"
Orthodoxy that has a tendency to promote the idea that we should yearn for the "spiritual" things and that
the "physical" things are less important, or worse, that they are a burden which keeps us from true holiness
(that the body must be mercilessly crushed into submission). A similar Gnostic idea floating around in
mainstream American culture celebrates the "spiritual realm" and has people chasing after angels (and
wearing little chubby "cherubs" as jewelry), consulting the PsychicHotline, and generally regarding this
life as something that one has to "get through" before one dies and is drawn into "that intense circle
of light" (that all the after-death survivors chatter about) and are finally freed from the burdens of
With the prevalence of these attitudes about the body, it is no wonder that we see
the rise of cremation. It is a logical extension of these ideas to regard cremation as just another method
for disposing of a hated and detestable thing. This attitude can also lead our Orthodox Faithful to minimize
and devalue the Christian mystery of Orthodox funeral rites, and to consider cremation as a harmless, or
even as a positive and beneficial alternative.
The Incarnation of our God exposed that demonic inspiration as a great lie. Our bodies,
as well as our souls, are equally HOLY and we cannot exist except as a union of these two. (This is why we
must feed and clothe the poor and the infirm, as well as pray for them.) The greatest tragedy of corruption
and decay (brought upon us by Adam and Eve's regrettable choice) is that one's body and soul must be torn
asunder at death. At death, the soul does not go to live in blissful contentment in Paradise freed from
the hated body. The Human Person is a unity of soul and body. This is why we yearn for the Second Coming
(as we profess in the Creed), because God will make all things new, and our bodies will be re-united with
our souls. We are meant to live in God's Eternity as God, Himself, IS - that is, as incarnated beings. The
angels will never be able to attain this blessing; only humanity has been given this great gift, the union of
body and soul, of materiality and immateriality.
We must learn to value and venerate our bodies, and to be attentive to the sanctity of both
body and soul. This veneration of the body should be shown to infirm bodies, to scarred bodies, to tired and
deprived bodies, to the bodies of our enemies as well as those of our friends, to both saints and to sinners -
and to the body both before and after death. It is not a sign of veneration or of respect to pre-empt the dissolution
of the body into its constituent parts by the act of cremation. This is not to say that if someone is killed by
flames, such as in the horror of the World Trade Center tragedy, that they have any hand in desecrating their
bodies. Even to think of that horrible event makes us see more clearly how the intentional burning of bodies
shows disrespect. When St. Paul writes in II Corinthians, "even if I give my body up to be burned," he is using
this as an example of extreme degradation and sacrifice. When we read the account of Polycarp's martyrdom, we see
that the burning of his body was meant to be the ultimate form of insult and humiliation. Also, when we consider
that the image of the body in Scripture is that of the Temple of the Holy Spirit, we must understand that this
exalted status does not cease at the time of death. We need only pause for a moment to think of how the Communists
sought to desecrate the Church by destroying the Temples of God, both the churches and the bodies of the saints.
When we consider the entire course of liturgical actions that we, as Orthodox Christian clergy,
perform before the moment of death, at the time of death, and after death (both immediately afterward, during the
three days of the funeral service, during the 40 days, and thereafter) we understand that our rites proclaim the
ultimate continuity of the whole person, both body and soul. The offering of the wheat is a direct metaphor of the
kernel, which produces manifold return for the Master, and reminds us of the "savor of spiritual sweetness" when it
is shared with the Faithful. It is not possible to offer this gift with the accompanying prayers of the Trisagion
if there is no parallel, in actual fact, of the body being reverently placed in the grave.
Also, as we know, during the history of the Church's sojourn in this Age, God has shown forth
the sanctity of his saints not only during their lives, but also even after their death. The incorrupt bodies
of a number of his saints, and the miracles that come from those bodies, are a powerful statement that even the
most terrible consequence of the Fall (death) cannot keep God's Grace from benefiting His Church. When the body
is burned in cremation, this choice pre-empts God's choice. God can certainly manifest His Grace in other ways
(and does), but the choice of cremation prevents a most astounding and visible manifestation of His declaration
that the power of death has been destroyed.
While I don't think that a person is damned if they are cremated, neither do I think that this
act manifests the Love for our reposed loved ones that God would have us choose. The love and veneration and
respect for the dead body of Jesus, which the disciples showed after His passion and death, should be our model.
The body of our Lord was not cast down the hillside as an ugly and detestable thing. The disciples venerated His
body as much after His death as before. This shows that the body is not just a husk that can be discarded and
burnt and ground to powder and packaged for shipment - like some nondescript product rolling off the assembly line.
Rather, the body after death is the very image of Jonah (very much alive in the depths of the abyss for a time)
that holds the promise of the glorious thing to come at the Resurrection.
I think I may fairly say that I can see no reason to commend this "novelty." The practical
benefits are negligible, and more importantly, the theological considerations point in exactly the opposite
direction. As for the Japanese Christians, if the Church cannot convince the civil authorities to grant an
exemption for the small number of Orthodox Faithful who live in Japan, then I think that God will highly honor
those who are forced to do this thing. He tells us to render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to be good
citizens of the society in which we live, for the sake of the Gospel. I believe that God will certainly honor
all those who are obliged to undergo cremation because the State requires it. But if there is a possibility to
choose, then I believe one should choose to honorably and piously bury one's reposed loved ones. I believe one
should choose to provide all the benefits that the rites of the Church have to offer for those who have reposed.
To choose otherwise is to choose a course of action that is less respectful and loving, and which deprives their
loved one of the inestimable benefits of the Church's ministrations.
In closing, I would offer a brief portion of the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp for our
consideration. I believe it reveals, with great pathos, the unfailing love that our forebears showed toward his
"remains." It illustrates how the Faithful highly prized his body, even after its degradation in the flames.
Their actions forcefully answer any who might regard the body as just one more disposable product of our
"throw-away" society. Love IS the answer.
The centurion then, seeing the strife excited by the Jews, placed the body (of Polycarp) in
the midst of the fire, and consumed it. Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious
than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither,
being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to
celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course,
and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.
I offer these thoughts in humble service and charity, without seeking to offend anyone.
Fr. Gregory Murphy is pastor of St. Michael's Antiochian Orthodox Church, Geneva, N
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