Burial or cremation of the dead?

by Fr J. Scherstobit

Living in a multicultural and multi-faith society here in Australia, we have different attitudes and beliefs about death, and the disposal of the dead.

Among a few of the religions and most of the secular people the idea of cremating the dead seems simple and proper in their eyes and, therefore, is practiced widely. Since we Orthodox Christians also live amongst these people it is quite natural that some of their ideas may rub on us. One of the questions asked of us clergy today, is whether cremation is proper for disposal of the dead, or not, and if not, why not?

Burial has been traditional way of disposing the dead for thousands of years. This is proven by the fact that we find graves of all sorts, ranging from pyramids to the simplest kind. Most of them include various artifacts from the dead people's everyday life, which tells archaeologists that they had a belief in the afterlife and eternity, or at least the continuation of life to a certain degree after death.

The Old Testament, which for Christians is an "educator in Christ", contains many references to the subject of burial. For Israel, the "chosen people" of God and also for the surrounding tribes and nations, it was considered a terrible misfortune for someone to be denied burial (Psalm 78:3 Septu.), and one of the worst punishments which the prophets foretold, would take place for sinners (3 Kings 14:11 also Jeremiah 22, 18:19 Septu.). The Israelites took great care, whilst living to prepare and have things ready for their burial. The sons of the dead person had the obligation of properly burying their parents. It was a sign of respect which was obligatory to the army, at a time of war, and to every faithful Israelite.

The New Testament, also talks about burial. The contemporaries of our Lord Jesus Christ kept this tradition of the Old Testament for burial; a good example is the case of Lazarus . Jesus Christ does not condemn this practice, even when he stressed that is was more important to follow him than to perform this holy obligation of burying one's father ("...leave the dead to bury heir own dead" Matt. 8:22). He himself was aware that He would die a dishonourable death as a criminal, without funerary honours ("she [the sinful woman] undertook to anoint my body with myrrh for my burial" - Mark 14:8, John 12:7). Even though the Lord died a death on the cross he was buried and not left on the cross as was normal for those executed as criminals. The early Christians in the catacombs, following the evangelical example, also buried their dead rather than cremate them.

This practice of burying the dead is held by all Orthodox Christian's Churches throughout the world. It follows in the steps of our faith, of the resurrection of the bodies together with the souls. Other religions (Buddhism etc) teach that the bodies should be burnt to release the soul which is bad with the hope that they will be reincarnated into a better one...

Another very important matter from a Christian point of view is that with burial we have kept the relics of many Saints, many of which being full of Grace give off a most pleasing aroma and have miraculous qualities.

People who support cremation say that they have a right to choose that, and that the Church should give in to their demands. The Church replies that: as they are free to choose the method of disposal of their bodies, but the Church is free to follow her Holy Tradition and teaching, and can therefore deny to those wanting cremation a Christian funeral service. As to the question whether the souls of those cremated are rejected by the Lord, we can only say that the Lord can resurrect any body regardless of how it died and was disintegrated. We have the example of Saints who were burnt alive or were eaten by wild animals in the Colosseum of Rome etc. and it would be foolish to say that they will not be resurrected. This, though, is different from someone voluntarily wishing to be cremated and not buried because of a differing belief about the body and salvation from that of the Church.

Among the other Christian Confessions of faith, most of the protestant denominations accept cremation. The Roman Catholic faith forbade cremations until 1983. From that year, according to their new Canon Law, they will allow cremations as long as they are not done for reasons contrary to the Christian teaching, but still advises burial as the norm.

In the Orthodox Christian Funeral Service the hymns and prayers continually refer to burial and for the return of the body "to the earth from which it was taken" (Gen. 3:19).

In conclusion

  1. The burial of the dead is an ancient custom of most civilisations. It is based on Holy Scripture, according to the belief that man was formed from earth "and to earth he will return".
  2. Christianity, especially the Orthodox Church, teaches that the human body will rise at the Second Coming of the Lord, to attain the blessedness of the Heavenly Kingdom together with the soul, or to suffer the result of rejecting God. Therefore we must respect the body even after death. Respect is shown by burying the body and not burning it.
  3. The supporters of cremation give a lot of environmental, psychological and economical reasons to push their ideas in making cremation available to Christians. Most of those putting these ideas across are either non Christians, or peripheral "Christians" who are doing their best to fight the Orthodox Christian Faith.
  4. The Church has no objection to people who are not firm believers and who wish to have themselves cremated, but expects the freedom not to conduct a funeral service for them because of the aforementioned reasons

from The Orthodox Messenger, Sept/Oct 1997
published bi-monthly by the SA Central Youth

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