Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust...
A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited Crestone, Colorado, which has the only inter-denominational open-air funeral pyre in the United States. There is a deep sense of peacefulness at the place, sitting at the edge of a Zen monastery’s land with spectacular mountains in the distance. The idea of an open air cremation seems to me a good choice and there is a wonderful local organization, CEOLP, that provides the cremation services (http://informedfinalchoices.org). It was recently highlighted in the bestseller, From Here to Eternity, by Caitlin Doughty.
After I posted these thoughts and a few personal photos of the site on Facebook, questions began to roll in. I was not surprised. As an Orthodox Christian, I know full well that cremation is not formally endorsed by the Orthodox Church, yet it is practiced more than one might think. When I was a clergyman, many times I agreed to an Orthodox funeral for a person who was to be cremated, although I never performed an Orthodox funeral service over ashes. As a priest, I have carried infants’ bodies out of hospital ICUs to the morgue; I have attended autopsies to relieve families’ concerns; I have ritually washed and dressed the bodies of fellow priests for burial, and picked up the shovel to cover their earthly remains. All of these actions and more have I done for the sake of the “temple of the soul,” deserted in death, yet still of value. For me, a human corpse is analogous to a forsaken church building – void of is purpose but not its honor. Yet for all this “up close and personal” work with dead bodies of the faithful, I have never been offended by the idea of cremation. As a matter of fact, I have never found any theological argument against cremation that holds up, and there is nothing that I am aware of in the canonical tradition of the Church that forbids it.
Nevertheless, I wanted to explore some of the usual objections, not to be argumentative, but to find grounds for discussion and perhaps reconciliation. Both the Roman Catholic and most, if not all, Protestant traditions accept cremation as a means of the final disposition of earthly remains. Orthodox Christianity remains resistant, but that resistance is showing signs of amelioration.
The most obvious objection comes from the fact that our Lord was buried, and indeed he was, in accordance with Jewish custom. This custom included three important elements. First, the body was buried within 24 hours of death, earlier in the Lord’s case as there was a rush to forestall the “Great” Sabbath (John 19:31,42). Second, the body was anointed before death; incompletely in the Lord’s case (a wonderful foreshadowing of his resurrection!). And note, anointing is not the same thing as embalming. Anointing is external to the body; embalming removes and replaces fluid within the body. Third, the body was buried in the earth, a cave in the Lord’s case, not in any type of sarcophagus or coffin.
If we examine most modern American burials, including those of Orthodox Christians, we see that they do not occur within 24 hours as in Judaism and Islam (see Deuteronomy 21:23, a verse that specifically relates to a body hanging on a tree and I would say, a prototype of the Cross). American funerals usually include some form of embalming – an ancient Egyptian custom forbidden in Judaism, and a sarcophagus/coffin/vault. The most analogous American burial rite to our Lord’s would be the “green burial,’ where an un-embalmed body is permitted to dissolve directly into the earth (as is the practice of Orthodox Christian monasticism). It is an irony that many who vociferously decry cremation, allow for practices antithetical to the Christian burial. And to be clear, the clergy are as complicit as anyone. How many clergy would receive that extra gratuity from the local funeral home (usually charged unbeknownst to the family) if they – the clergy – advocated against coffins and vaults and embalming – the very things funeral homes make money on. But none of these have anything to do with Christian and Biblical tradition. In fact, just the opposite.
The second usual objection is that cremation is a pagan custom, and therefore should not be used by Christians. Alone, this hardly makes sense, inasmuch as Christianity has historically and selectively ‘baptized’ aspects of paganism in its mission to save the world. Christmas – the Mithraic feast of the Unconquerable Sun. Easter – the name of a Germanic goddess of Spring. August 15 as the Dormition or Assumption of the Virgin Mary (her greatest feast in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) – originally the feast of Diana of Ephesus, one of the greatest temples and cults in the Roman world. (Take a trip through James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.) “Dioceses” – an administrative form of Church governance invented by the Emperor Diocletian, one of the most vicious persecutors of Christians in the years immediately prior to Constantine the Great. Concepts like ousia (essence) and hypostasis (person) – borrowed from Greek philosophy and reworked to express Christian doctrine (“of one essence with the Father” in the Nicene Creed).
The list can go on. But what is important here is to realize that there is nothing wrong with this. One builds with the material that is available (anyone who disbelieves this should visit the monastery of Osios Loukas in Greece!). Even Saint Paul quoted “pagan” Greek authors to express his views and thoughts (Acts 17:28, I Corinthians 15:33, Titus 1:12). So what if cremation was used by the “heathen?” Could it not have served to help distinguish Christianity from Judaism, much like the house-churches that came to supplant worship in the synagogues, or the books (biblia in Greek) that replaced Torah scrolls?
Another objection is that cremation destroys the body, and thus is a sacrilege, like burning down a church. But would it be okay to let it fall into ruin? Anyone who has observed an exhumation of a body that has not been embalmed can tell you that the body is meant to be destroyed. I recommend the book The Death Rituals of Rural Greece by Loring M. Danforth with photography by Alexander Tsiaras if you have any doubt about how a corpse survives. We are meant to return to the dust, whether that dust comes from incineration or decomposition, we will all end up in the same place … dissolved and resolved into the dust and ashes from which we came (Genesis 3:19). And if someone maintains that a buried corpse in a fancy tomb is somehow better than an urn of ashes, consider the words of our Lord: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees – Hypocrites! Because you are like whitewashed tombs, that outside appear beautiful, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of putrefaction” (Matthew 23:27). We may sanitize, prettify, and embellish the disposal of our corpses, but their end is putrefaction, even as the Lord said.
A final common objection has to do with relics, that burning a body precludes the possibility of finding relics, an olosomos (body whole and not decomposed), as we say in Greek. The story of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos comes to mind, whose body would not burn when it was torched by raiders. Indeed, if there were an attempt at cremation and the body refused to burn, I would think seriously about the life of the person in question. However, it should be noted that in the Buddhist tradition, where cremation is often used, the relics of holy persons appear out of cremation fires, discovered like precious pearls (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Śarīra).
I am certain that there are more considerations than those I have offered. My point was not to be exhaustive, but inquisitive. There are many and legitimate reasons why an individual would want to be cremated: economic, environmental, spiritual, and I’m sure many more. They are all valid, and there seems to be no reason why the Church cannot accommodate them, especially when there is no stricture against it in the first place. And on the positive side, consider the photo above, a cremation at Crestone. The body hastens as a whole-burnt offering to the new reality, to its creator, to its primal being, to its journey of infinite life. Whether by dust or whether by ash, we will all commence this sojourn. Perhaps by facing it now, we will all live better lives.