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Cremation

by Protopresbyter George Grabbe

The question concerning cremation arose in comparatively recent times, moreover, in countries where the Orthodox population is relatively small. In Russia it was discussed during the period of the development of the Revolution, in the course of the years 1905-1906; but at that time the thought of cremation was so far removed from actual attempts to implement it that apparently no ecclesiastical decisions whatever were handed down in regard to the cremation of the bodies of the dead. However, this thought did meet with some protest in small articles of the ecclesiastical press. In more recent times, the Serbian Church waged a determined battle against an attempt to set up crematoria in Belgrade. In the newspaper Politics in 1929, there appeared a short polemical exchange in connection with this subject between Kuyundzhich, a well-known Serbian Mason, the chairman of the Fire Society which had been organized to spread the idea of cremation, and Archimandrite (later Bishop) Simeon (Stankovich), professor of the theological faculty. Objecting to the cremation of the bodies of the dead, Archimandrite Simeon pointed out that the existing practice of burial was consonant with the ancient traditions of the Church, and that the concept of cremation of the dead originated in the Masonic lodges which were striving to popularize it. Mr. Kuyundzhich, for his part, tried to prove that the cremation of the dead was not contrary to the Christian faith. To make this suggestion palatable to the public, the Fire Society even wished to establish a slava according to the rite of the Serbian Church, but the Patriarchate, in order to emphasize, its unfavorable attitude towards the society, forbade Orthodox priests to take any part in such a celebration.

In connection with a particular occurrence, the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad also set forth a decision on the question of the cremation of the bodies of the dead, and during its August 20-September 2, 1932 session, it issued the following resolution: "As a matter of principle, the incineration of the. bodies of Orthodox Christians in crematoria is not permitted, in view of the fact that this custom has been introduced by atheists and enemies of the Church. In all individual, extenuating circumstances, the decision is left to the diocesan bishop."

There is evidence that the Greek Church also expressed its opposition to cremation, but we are not familiar with, the circumstances stances which brought about this pronouncement.

Thus, whenever the question of cremation has been placed before the Orthodox Church and Orthodox theological thought, it has invariably been resolved in a manner unfavorable to the question, although there has been no direct decision by the entire Church on this matter to date. However, if there are not explicit canons condemning the cremation of the bodies of the dead, there is still a solid basis for stating that the introduction of such a custom would contradict the teaching of the Church and her canons, insofar as it would be contrary to Christian practice as established in the first centuries.

If one approaches the question from the canonical point of view, one must say that far from every rite of the divine services of the Church and not every legal norm has been established by a specially enacted resolution. St. Basil the Great, in his 87th canon [1], states that in the Church custom has the force of law. In another canon (91), St. Basil writes: "From the dogmas and preachings preserved in the Church, we have some in doctrine set forth in writing, and others, which have come down to us from apostolic tradition, we have received in secret, both of which have equal force as regards piety. Accordingly, no one gainsays these, at least no one that has any experience at all in ecclesiastical matters. For if we should undertake to discard the customs not set forth in the Scriptures, as though they had no great force, we would unwittingly do damage to that which is most important in the Gospel, and would turn our preaching into empty words. For example, to mention the first and most common custom: Who has taught in writing those that put their hope on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross? What Scripture has instructed us to face East when we pray? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words pronounced at the exhibition of the Bread and Cup of Blessing? For we are not, even content with those words with which the apostles or the Gospel mentioned, but before and after them have added yet others, on the ground that they contribute greatly to enhance the Mystery, receiving them from teachings not found in the Scriptures. We bless the water, of baptism and the oil of anointing, and even the person baptized, according to which canons found in the Scriptures? Is this not preserved according to silent and mystical tradition?" [2] Interpreting the 87th canon of St. Basil the Great, Bishop Nikodim Milash correctly states that a custom has always had the same force as law in the Church, provided that its institution was authorized by the Church and if it has been sanctified by long existence (The Canons of the Orthodox Church with Interpretations, vol. II, p. 426, Novi Sad, 1895). Indeed, a whole array of the canons of the Church protects one or another her norm as established by ancient custom. Such canons are canons 7 and 18 of the First Ecumenical Council, canons 2 and 7 of the Second, canon 8 of the Third, and canons 39 and 102 of the Sixth and the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in their canon 7, which ordered the reaffirmation of the custom of placing in the foundations of churches the holy relics which had been removed by the iconoclasts, likewise commanded that other customs abandoned by the iconoclasts be reconfirmed, and "in accordance with both the written and the unwritten law they must prevail." [3] The council subjected anyone who consecrates churches without holy relics to deposition for having transgressed the traditions of the Church. Thus, if other canons enumerated by us point to ancient tradition or custom as a canonical norm, the 7th canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council contains also a sanction (deprival of rank) against those that transgress the unwritten laws of the Church which had never particularly been proclaimed, but which had been preserved in ancient customs. Civil jurisprudence acknowledges the so-called common law, but nowhere does it have such significance as in the Church, for her customs are an expression of the faith which she has preserved as a treasury of truth, and their violation not only causes scandal, but can even lead to heresy and great discord. The great heresy which took the form of the rejection of reverence for icons—the pretext that such veneration had no scriptural basis, but was based solely on custom—serves as a clear proof of the correctness of this assertion.

The mode of burial which alone has been established and manifested as lawful is clearly evident from the funeral service. Therein it is plainly indicated that, after the conclusion of the funeral service, the body is committed to the earth: "And thus, taking up the remains, we go forth to the grave, all the people following, preceded by the priest. And the relics are placed in the grave. The hierarch, or priest, taking up dirt with a spade, spreads it above the relics in a cross-wise fashion, saying: 'The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the world and all that dwell therein. . .' (Ps. 23:1). And thus, they cover the grave as usual."

In regard to the burial of the bodies of departed Christians in the earth, the custom has indisputably been preserved in the Church without change from the first days of her existence, and therefore the Roman law, cited by Zonaras [4] and later by Bishop Nikodim in his interpretation of the 87th canon of St. Basil the Great, is applicable: "When there does not exist a written law, one ought to preserve the customs and usages", and "one must keep the ancient customs as law." The custom of burying the dead came to the New Testament Church from the time of the Old Testament and was preserved by Christians who lived among peoples that widely practiced cremation of their dead. Thus, the holy canons which guard all the customs of the Church command that the ancient custom of burying the dead in the earth be preserved.

But apart from the canonical, there is yet another side to the question. In our rite of burial there is manifested internally a humble submission to the decision of God: "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return" (Gen. 3:19). It is completely understandable that the Masons, who have a pantheistic ideology, take exception to this law of God. Deifying mankind, they wish to cover up the law of corruption which bears witness to the downfall of human nature, when man beholds "our beauty, fashioned after the image of God ... disfigured, dishonored, bereft of form." [5] On the contrary, the entire ecclesiastical rite of burial was fashioned with the burial of the departed Christian in mind, in fulfilment of the judgment God pronounced over Adam: "For out of earth were we mortals made, and unto the earth shall we return again." [6] "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, and is interred among the dead." [7] The appearance of the dead body and its burial should be for our instruction: "As we gaze upon the dead lying before us, let us all discern the image of our own final hour. For he vanisheth ... like the grass he is cut down; swathed in sackcloth, he is covered with earth." [8] These verses (stikhiri) speak of decay in detail, calling upon us to pray for the dead and reminding us at the same time that "Vanity and corruption, of a truth, are all ... the things of life ... They that once were alive are now cast down into the grave." [9]

But the full decay of the body—"all comeliness stripped off, dissolved in the grave by decay, by worms in darkness consumed" [10]—is the normal appearance of sinful people. In general, Christians are called to a spiritual perfection which should sanctify their very bodies. The promise has been given to the faithful children of the Church: "But as many as received Him, to them He gave power to become the children of God" (Jn. 1:12). To the faithful it is said that they are "heirs of God" (Gal. 4:7), "joint heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:17). Calling to mind in connection with these sayings that the Lord is called "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Rev. 19:16) and "God of gods" (Ps. 49:1), St. John of Damascus writes that "surely also the saints are gods, and lords and kings ... Now, I mean gods, and lords and kings not in nature, but as rulers and masters of their passions, and as preserving a true likeness to the divine image according to which they were made" [11]. According to the same holy Father, "death is rather the sleep of the saints than their death. 'For they have labored forever and shall live to the end' (Ps. 48:8-9)." [12] And the very remains of the saints, who are the children of God and joint heirs with Christ, remain sources of grace, at times being preserved incorrupt and even giving forth myrrh. Even in the Old Testament miracles were worked through the relics veneration of the saints, an example of which is the prophet Elisha, of whom it is said that "after his death his body prophesied" (Eccles. 48:13), and through whose relics life was restored to a dead man (IV Kings 13:20-21). Even more numerous are the signs of grace from the relics of New Testament saints. In burying the bodies of the departed, the Church leaves it to the will of God either to commit them to natural decay in accordance with the judgment pronounced upon Adam, or to set aside the order of nature and preserve the bodies of the saints incorrupt, as a clear sign that the righteous souls that inhabited them "are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them" (Wis. Sol. 3:1). To cremate bodies would mean to reject so ,precious a sign of grace, which serves as a fountain of salvation "pouring forth manifold blessings." [13]

Thus the order of burial which we have at present has been sanctified by ancient custom and, as such, is protected by the sacred canons; it is consonant with the whole spirit of the Orthodox teaching concerning man, and is deeply edifying. On the contrary, cremation of bodies is unacceptable from the Church's point of view, as an innovation which has come from an infected source, which, in the, case of its implementation, would deprive us of the incorrupt bodies of the holy saints of God.

Translator's Notes

1. The Rudder, pp. 842-844. This canon is in fact an extract from St. Basil's canonical epistle to Diodorus, Bishop of Tarsus.

2. Ibid., pp. 853-854.

3. Ibid., p. 436.

4. John Zonoras, one of the foremost of the Byzantine canonists, flourished during the reign of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, in the early part of the twelfth century. After a brilliant career in the civil service, during which he attained the rank of privy-councillor of the emperor, he retired to the Monastery of St. Glyceria and took the monastic tonsure. There, at the urging of certain of his friends, he undertook to compile a commentary on the body of canon law that had come down from the holy councils and the Fathers.

5. Stikhira of St. John Damascene. Service Book of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church, trans. Isabel P. Hapgood, 3rd edition, publ. Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, Brooklyn, 1956, p. 386.

5. Ikos of Burial Service. Ibid., p. 383.

6. Ibid., p. 389.

7. Ibid., p. 390.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Precise Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. IX, p. 86.

11. Ibid, p. 87.

12. Ibid.

From Orthodox Life, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 32-36. Original Source: The Church and Her Teaching in Life: Anthology of Articles. Protopresbyter George Grabbe, Vol. II, pp. 316-321, Montreal, 1970.

On the Question of Incineration of Bodies of the Departed In Crematoria

A Decision of the Sobor of Bishops of The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad

The Sobor of Bishops of The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad took up the question of the attitude of the Orthodox Church concerning the cremation of those who have departed.

From the reports that were given on this topic, it became apparent that this question was the subject of an opinion of Sobor of Bishops of The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad of 1932. At that time it was decided not to allow the burning of Orthodox Christians in crematoria in light of the fact that the proponents of this practice are atheists and enemies of the Church. The Greek and Serbian Churches have also reacted to negatively to this practice.

The cremation of the bodies of the dead is contradictory to that which was established in the Christian Church from the very beginning. It also contradicts the content of the prayers contained in the Orthodox funeral rite which is based upon the burial of the dead as a fulfillment of the judgement passed by God over Adam: "Earth thou art, and unto earth thou shalt return" (Gen. 3:19). Only a few Saints are freed from this consequence of the fall of our foreparents. These Saints, through spiritual struggles of good deeds returned their very bodies to the original goodness, and as a result the Lord gives their remains (termed Holy Relics) incorruption and miraculous grace-filled powers. The cremation of departed Christians would deprive us of such a saving and consoling manifestation of God's mercy to us and to those righteous souls who reside in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Additionally, the history of religion demonstrates that cremation was practiced primarily by religions of satanic, militantly atheistic character and in the last decades is being disseminated under the influence of those who are unchristian and opposed to the church.

On the basis of the above facts, the Sobor of Bishops forbids the children of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad to burn the bodies of their departed in crematoria. Priests are obligated to explain to their flock the unchristian character of such a burial. They must not perform a church funeral service over those bodies who are designated for cremation. The names of such departed may be commemorated only at Proskomidia. Panikhidas may be served not earlier than the fortieth day after their death. If anyone, on their deathbed, is stubborn in their desire to be cremated, despite the council of his attending spiritual father—the priest must not give such a person Holy Communion because of such disobedience to the Church.

In the most extenuating cases, an exception can be allowed in the form of a burial service by proxy, when it has been undoubtedly proven that the incineration of the body is taking place against the will of the departed one, as a forced act against him. But even in these cases this cannot be done without special permission of the diocesan bishop after his careful investigation of all aspects of the case. Parish priests must explain to their flock the sinfulness of the violation of the order which has been established by the Church and accepted by all Christians, in emulation of the example of our Lord Saviour Himself—and that this violation has been adopted by only the worst of the ancient pagans and contemporary opponents of the principles of the Christian faith.

If any faithful Orthodox Christian, because of his ignorance directs his close ones to cremate his body, and then dies not having received good council, and not having repented of his intention—then this will, being contrary to the laws and teachings of the Holy Church, is morally nonbinding to his close ones as are all sinful promises. This is what the Church speaks about in Her stichera on the feast of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist: "O Herod, thou grandson of lies, it would have been better not to have sworn, if by swearing thine oath was given for evil: it would have been better to have lied and received life, rather than to have kept to the terms of the oath and to have beheaded the Forerunner." If the close ones have promised the departed one to cremate his body, they can be released by the Church of this unwise oath, by the way of an established prayer for such cases. The soul of the departed one upon death, having seen the foolishness of its desire for cremation of the body, will be thankful to the close ones for such a decision.