Every day, over 100,000 people die. Someday, you and I will be included in that total. It is a sobering thought, but one that is good for us to remember – not only for spiritual reasons but for practical ones as well. Aside from the distribution of the deceased person’s material goods, there is a greater question regarding how the body of our loved one should be prepared and buried.
Typically, a funeral home is called to complete this honorable task. They will pick up the body, clean it, place it in refrigeration while legal paperwork is being filed (such as the death certificate), embalm the body, place it in a casket, deliver the casket to the church where the funeral is to be held, transport the body to the cemetery, dig a hole (called opening the grave), lower the casket within a concrete vault into the ground, and then close the grave. The typical cost of such work is often $7,000-10,000.
Such costs are not affordable for many people, so cremation has quickly become the popular alternative. Already, a majority of people are choosing this option. But even that costs over $2,000 in most cases because the funeral director must still retrieve the body, clean it, refrigerate it, deliver it to the crematorium, pick it up, and then make it available to the family in some sort of container.
Additionally, cremation was never practiced by God’s people until the last several decades. In the Old Testament times, the Jews and Egyptians were two of the few groups that did not burn the bodies of the dead. Man was made in the image of God; to burn that image showed disdain toward the creator.
Fast forward to the early Church, and in the writings of Tertullian and others, you will find that Christians and Jews were the only ones who refused to cremate their dead. The pagan Romans would capture Christians, burn their bodies, sometimes grind their bones, and then scatter the ashes to ensure that the surviving Christians could not provide the departed martyrs with an honorable burial. The pagans also accused Christians of superstition, thinking that they believed a “relic” of the soul was trapped in the body and would be harmed through cremation.
However, the reason Christians have never practiced cremation is because of our theology. Not only is man made in the image of God but God himself became a man and wrapped himself in flesh. Our humanity has received the honor of union with the divine nature of God. The creator of the cosmos chose humanity as his vessel above everything else in creation. Every person we meet is, therefore, an icon of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we look upon our neighbor we see an image of Christ, and we should consequently treat all others with due reverence. On the great day of the Resurrection of all mankind, our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies for all eternity.
Reverence for the image-bearing body includes the honorable burial of the departed. Except in extreme cases, cremation is not an option because it desecrates the image of God and – according to ancient Christians – it denies the scriptures, faith in God, and the resurrection through the dishonorable destruction of the body.
I completed a research project on burial practices of the people of God throughout history, from Old Testament times to modern Orthodox practices. The paper is available in the PDF format here: Orthodox Christian Burial – McKemy. Within the paper, you’ll find sources and further explanations for most of what I wrote above.
The outline of it is as follows:
- INTRODUCTION. Page 3.
- BURIAL – THE TRADITION OF GOD’S PEOPLE. 4
- Burial in Old Testament Times. 4
- Burial in the New Testament 6
- CREMATION – AN UNNECESSARY VIOLENCE AGAINST THE BODY. 7
- Environmental Impact 7
- A Growing Trend. 8
- Ancient Christian Voices. 10
- Modern Voices of the Church. 11
- Is Cremation Ever Acceptable?. 12
- THE BETTER WAY – A CHRISTIAN BURIAL. 12
- Legal Paperwork. 13
- Preparation and Burial 13
- Caskets. 14
- Environmental Concerns. 15
- FINAL THOUGHTS. 15
- BIBLIOGRAPHY 16
Featured image by Ryzhenko Pavel Viktorovich.