Of course, we read in the accounts of the early martyrs that the faithful treated the martyrs’ bodies with the utmost respect as they were taken for burial - an early indication that the common Roman pagan practice was shunned by Christians.
Today there are those who would propose that the practice of cremation be explored anew, in light of the fact that the practice’s association with paganism or gnosticism is no longer a reality. Proponents of this line of thinking may also assert that cremation is a less expensive way to dispose of the body than the increasingly expensive - and often non-Christian - burial practices common in many cultures and societies, such as in the United States. However, the vast majority of Orthodox would contend that cremation for whatever reason, and regardless of its detachment from pagan thought or ritual, in every instance denies the value of the human body and of material creation in general. Hence, it is to be avoided as an option.
I have heard of a few cases in recent times where, in extreme cases and for good cause, cremation has taken place with the knowledge of the Church. In each case, however, I have heard that the actual cremation did not occur until after the funeral service at which the body of the deceased has been present. This does not represent standard practice, however, and in each instance there were extenuating circumstances which led the Church to apply the principle of economia.
The Church does not condemn cremation outright, provided that there is a valid reason for it.
In Japan, for example, the state requires cremation, and this extends to Orthodox Christians. There have also been exceptions made in cases of epidemics or fear of disease, for various reasons. There can also be reasonable cause for permitting cremation, but in general the image of the body being buried as it awaits the resurrection is more in keeping with the image given to us by Christ, Who likens burial with the planting of seed which later blossoms into a living plant. Fr. John Matusiak
Cremation: Earth Thou Art And Unto Earth Shalt Thou Return
Arguments in favor of burning the bodies of the dead come down to three basic themes: the high costs associated with burial; cemeteries occupying too much scarce land, especially in small countries; and the soul rather than the body being the important part of man. The practice of cremation is not new and has occurred in pagan cultures and among peoples confessing Buddhism and Hinduism now. These religions, especially Buddhism, teach disdain for the body, which is a kind of prison for the soul.
But Christians adopted the Old Testament custom of giving the deceased over to the earth. Burial expresses our faith that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that we live in the hope of Resurrection from the dead, according to the image of Christ, Who was buried (not cremated). The honor accorded by Christians to the bodily temple springs from the truth of the psychophysical union of body and soul and from the knowledge that man is the crown of God's creation. On the body of each man without exception lies the imprint of the image and likeness of God. In the divine incarnation, that is, in the advent of the Son of God, Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus, our body was sanctified in a special way.
Europe began to resort to cremation at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, when Western civilization began to move away from God. Early in the 18th century, a change took place: faith in God was replaced by faith in the power of human Reason. Amid anticlericalism and religious doubt, cremation came as a challenge to the Church and as an expression of denial of the physical resurrection from the dead at the last day. Burning the bodies of the dead appealed to ideologists of secular humanism because it emphasized their faith in the dissolution of human existence, and the denial of life beyond the grave. The Church, like a loving mother, in order to safeguard Her children from the corrupting influence of the growing secularization of this world, forbids burning the bodies of the dead.
People who agree with the custom of burning the bodies of the dead may not necessarily think that they are denying life beyond the grave. But this does not change the fact of the matter, that at the root of the recent practice of cremation lies the denial of eternal life. The practice is anti-Christian. The faithful children of the Orthodox Church must flee from it.
One ought not to forget that the incorruption of the remains of many saints testifies to God's particular good will toward these righteous ones and their flesh. Holy relics are the visible expression of an existence transfigured and glorified. Holy relics remind us that the body of a Christian can be incorrupt and can become a relic. In the Church's Order of the Funeral Service, the body of the deceased is plainly called relics: And so, taking up the relics, we go forth to the grave, followed by all the grave. The hierarch, or the priest, taking a shovelful of soil, streweth it crosswise over the relics saying: The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof, the world, and all that dwell therein. And then the grave is filled up in the usual manner.
The incorrupt body of a saint truly tells us that Death is not all-powerful, for it was not created by God but entered the world only as a temporary shadow of sin. The size of this shadow increases as the owner moves away from God, and it shrinks according to his return to the source of life eternal and perfect. The incorrupt saint testifies to us that physical death is temporary--the general resurrection of the dead will overcome it, when the creature, who begins in God, finds his completion in Him.
The holy relics of God's saints shine on us with the glory of Jesus Christ=s paschal victory, that Jesus Christ the New Adam gained over death. The Son of God became the Son of Man in order to renew mankind in Himself, and to lead mankind out of death's embrace. The voluntary descent unto death by Christ, the incarnate Life, broke the authority of death. Death retreated in fear before Him, admitting its own defeat. To burn the bodies of the dead repudiates them as holy relics.
We are called to prayerfully remember the dead. The main such commemoration is, of course, during the Bloodless Sacrifice, the Holy Eucharist. Another commemoration is prayer at the place of burial, at the deceased's grave, which is adorned with the Life-Creating Cross--the sign of Christ's victory over death. With cremation, when the ashes are scattered to the wind, strewn over the earth, cast into the water, and so on, we lost a place where we might come in order to recall our love for the deceased. Knowing that in the grave lie the bones of people beloved by us is a source of consolation. Here one can resort to prayer, take care of the grave and adorn it, and think about life and death and about one's own spiritual future.
Traditional funerals, of course, really do encompass many preparations and take up much time. It is necessary to make arrangements with the funeral bureau and the cemetery administration, and to bring the deceased to the church and from the church to the cemetery. Someone experiencing separation from a loved one cannot wish to deal with these matters, but prefers to focus his strength and attention on the "last kiss." Besides, the cost of American funerals grows steadily, and cremation requires less expense and bother. These facts, however, cannot justify a decision to burn the bodies of the deceased. Already in 1932, the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad resolved as a matter of principle not to permit the burning of the bodies of Orthodox Christians in crematoria, seeing that this custom has been introduced by the godless and the enemies of the Church.
Friends of the family will always help plan and accomplish the funeral. Friends always turn up in misfortune. No one, and especially not the Church, requires of us a fine coffin and a splendid burial, which will in no way help the deceased in the other world. If there is extra money, donate it to the church with a request for the commemoration of the reposed, or give it to the poor in memory of the loved one. Alms in memory of the dead can bring special benefit to those departed to a better world. If means for a funeral are lacking, the priest can arrange with the administration of the funeral bureau for a free burial. This is done throughout America because the funeral bureaus are interested in keeping good relations with the parishes that they serve. Each parish of the Russian Church Abroad should set up special charitable cemetery fund for the burial of needy parishioners.
In conclusion, let us turn to the Book of Needs of the Orthodox Church. . . The Order of the Funeral Service for Laymen reads: For earth thou art and unto earth shalt thou return (Genesis, 3:12). Come ye, therefore, let us kiss him who was but lately with us; for he is committed to the grave; he is covered with a stone; he taketh up his abode in the gloom; he is interred among the dead . . . . As we gaze upon the dead who lieth before us, let us all accept this example of our own last hour. For he vanisheth from earth like the smoke; like a flower he is faded; like the grass he is cut down. Swathed in a coarse garment he is concealed in the earth .
The Church teaches us to bury the bodies of the dead in the earth. Everything that the Church has decreed is for our salvation. If we seriously strive for the blessed life of eternity, let us submit to the will of God and His Holy Church, for everything else is truly vanity and corruption. (Parish Life, Archpriest Victor Potapov)