Cremation, an Orthodox Perspective

Recently some folks have asked me about being cremated and what does the church teach about cremation.  I have been giving this some thought and found this wonderful explanation on the website of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church.  The bottom line is the Orthodox Church does not allow cremation and cannot serve an Orthodox Funeral Service is one has been or will be cremated.  As the last part of the articles says, economia is always used for pastoral reasons.  If you have questions, or are planning your funeral, you should speak with your priest about this.

Why Orthodox Christians Are Not Cremated

Cremation (burning the bodies of those who have died to the point of ashes) is a practice which is being “sold” as a cost-effective, space-conservative alternative to traditional burial of the body. Throughout her history, however, the Orthodox Church has prohibited this practice. But, as in many areas of the Faith, we must take the time to learn why the Church takes such a position. In doing so, we not only grow in our own knowledge of the Lord and His Church, but we are better prepared to answer questions others ask us about our Orthodox Christian Faith.
The following passage is drawn from the Orthodox journal, “Life Transfigured” a publication of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, and from “Contemporary Moral Issues” by Father Stanley Harakas.
Compiled by Father John Touloumes
A Growing Practice & Problem
In our country, cremation is increasingly being practiced. In part this is due to the influence of Oriental religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and to the rise of neo-paganism. But it is also a result of the eroding of traditional beliefs among non-Orthodox Christians. In many Christian denominations — or at least among their liberal preachers — it is no longer necessary to believe in the “empty tomb, ” in Christ’s physical Resurrection. These teachers call the “empty tomb” a myth and reduce all the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to merely spiritual experiences. The Orthodox conviction that the Son of God was also truly Man and was raised in His whole human nature — body and soul — explains the Church’s traditional rejection of cremation, a practice which is diametrically opposed to the expectation of the resurrection of the dead in Christ. If the Resurrection is merely a legend or a beautiful metaphor, then as Saint Paul writes, “If Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15.17)
The Church’s Historical Foundations
The Church throughout her entire history has stressed the importance of understanding that Jesus was born with an actual human body with the same attributes and needs of any other human body, which upon being crucified died the same death that every other body has died. Three days later, the Resurrection included His human body.
Through all this Jesus makes abundantly clear that the whole of our humanity – body as well as soul – has been called to salvation and eternal life. All of human nature has been raised by Christ’s Ascension to the right hand of the Father. Jesus gave us many proofs of this, but it is seen most clearly in Christ’s appearance to Thomas. In his “Commentary on Saint John,” Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes:
“What need was there for the showing of His hands and side, if in accordance with the depravity of some, He did not rise with His own flesh? If He wanted His disciples to believe differently concerning Him, why did He not rather appear in a different and by putting the form of the flesh to shame, draw them towards a different understanding? But it was more important that He show Himself carefully at that time so that they should believe in the future resurrection of the flesh.”
Saint Cyril adds that the Body of Christ had to be raised in order to vanquish death and destroy the power of corruption. Christ’s body, which Saint Thomas proved through touching to be real, gives clear witness to the future resurrection of our own bodies.
In God’s Image
The human person is created in the image and likeness of God. When we are baptized it is not only the soul which becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit, but also the Body. When we receive Holy Communion, we take the real Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies. In the mysteries of Chrismation and Holy Unction it is our bodies which are anointed with Holy Chrism. Particularly clear proof of the sanctity of the body is given by those saints such as Saints Spyridon, Paraskevi, Savas, Gerasimos and Dionysios, whose bodies remain incorrupt centuries after their physical deaths. The Church knows innumerable accounts of healing occurring upon being blessed with the relics of a saint. These men and women lived the life in Christ so fully that not only were their souls taken to heaven but their bodies retain the sanctity and healing power of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Example of Holy Friday
The future resurrection of the believer’s soul and body, according to the truth which Christ revealed, dictates the nature of Orthodox traditions concerning the body at death. In an Orthodox funeral, “the mourners gather” as the “myrrhbearers to provide the last ministry to the Christian body in preparation for the Resurrection.” Anyone who has attended the Orthodox Great Friday services knows the sequence following Christ’s death: Joseph of Arimethea goes at great personal risk to beg Pilate for the body of Jesus. As our icons show, the Theotokos, Nicodemos, John the Apostle and the Myrrhbearing Women helped Joseph, covering the Most Precious Body with tears.
How We Care for the Body
The Church has unequivocally taught since Christ’s Crucifixion that the proper way to treat the dead is a reverent burial of the body in the context of a proper Church funeral and prayers for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. We sing hymns and psalms to escort the dead on their way and to express gratitude to God for their life and death. We wrap the body in a new shroud, symbolizing the new dress of incorruption the person is destined to receive. We pour myrrh and oil on the body as we do at baptism. We accompany this with incense and candles, showing our belief that the person has been liberated from darkness and is going to the true Light. We place the body in the grave towards the east, denoting the Resurrection to come. We weep in our grief, but not unrestrainedly, as we know what happiness is to come.
The Process of Death
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15.55). Death is neither a finality nor it is merely an evolutionary step. The Church in her wisdom commemorates saints on the day they died in this life, calling it their day of birth into eternal life in heaven. A Christian death means eternal life with Christ, where at the Last Judgement body and soul will be reunited and glorified together.
The Bridal Chamber
A radiantly beautiful verse from the Orthros of Pascha concerning Christ’s bodily Resurrection from the grave encompasses the blessed hope He has given to each of us, saying:
“Today, as from a Bridal Chamber Christ has shown forth from the Tomb and filled the women with joy, saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the Apostles!”
The Broad Picture
Acceptance of cremation, therefore, would represent a radical departure from an established practice for which there seems to be no adequate reason to institute a change. The argument that cemeteries waste space does not stand in a nation as immense as our own, especially when the universality of modern transportation makes burial sites away from urban centers easily accessible. The sky-rocketing cost of burial is not seen at this time as a compelling reason to sanction cremation, for the Church does not ask that funerals be extravagant and costly, but that a certain amount of respect be maintained for the human body that was once the temple of a human soul. Thus the Church, due to a pastoral concern for the preservation of right beliefs and right practice within the Tradition of the Fathers, and out of a sense of reverence for its departed, must continue its opposition to this practice. Each Orthodox Christian should know that since cremation is prohibited by the canons [rules of the Church], those who insist on their own cremation will not be permitted a funeral in the Church. Naturally, an exception occurs when the Church is confronted with the case of some accident or natural disaster where cremation is necessary to guard the health of the living. In these special situations, the Church allows cremation of Orthodox people with prior episcopal permission and only by “economia.”


  1. When my mom was planning for her final days, she, a very committed Christian, told me that she'd just as soon be cremated as buried. It was less costly and more "friendly" to the environment. She saw her body just as an "earth suit" anyway. Thankfully, she didn't have any strong convictions about it.

    A few days before her passing, my dad and I had a lengthy conversation about her funeral arrangements. He was very agitated because He didn't feel comfortable burning her body. I told him what the Orthodox/tradtional-Christian-view was on the topic and he was so relieved. He, too, was a devoted follower of Christ and wanted to do what was right, honoring both her and her creator.

    Some people make decisions about these matters without the benefit of knowing the spiritual and theological implications. Thanks for posting this.

  2. during the time of christ bodies were shrouded and buried in caves, tombs and catacombs.
    Now days people are put in coffins and buried 6 feet under ground in cement vaults.
    I guess change happened somewhere or we would still be buried in caves.

  3. What's the Orthodox take on embalming — replacing the blood with chemicals, removing internal organs, etc.? Surely this process desecrates the body as much as burning would.

    I believe the Jewish practice is still to get the intact body into the ground as quickly as possible without embalming.

  4. WorcesterGadfly, I did not post a comment on the emblaming question becasue I am not sure the church has a position. Embalming, in some places, is required by law.

    The other thing to remember is that there is not one single voice for the Orthodox Church. Bishops may speak and make policy but they do not speak for the entire Orthodox Church. We have canons that govern us but I am not a canon lawyer so I would not know where to begin.

    The conversation is a good one, and the point that one of the folks made about the blood being placed in a casket is one worth researching. I will do some research and see what I can find out.

  5. In most cases, embalming is not required unless the body has to be transported across state lines (check local laws). Embalming is, on the one hand, a superstition of "preserving" the body (that we can never see again…). On the other hand it's a way for the Morticians' Industry to make money off the bereaved just like expensive caskets.

    To be "environmentally friendly", burning oil and producing greenhouse gasses isn't the way to go. The appropriate way is the monastic way: a box. No embalming. Do the service the Orthodox way (open casket, final kiss, etc – don't forget to tip the choir!) then get the body in the ground and let the worms do their work. Every monastery I've visited has a place for Orthodox Christians to be buried – an option to consider.

    A Christian with a proper eye towards her mortality will have not only prepared the family for what is to be done, but will, ideally, have done so herself: purchased the box and the plot, set up an arrangement with her doctors to avoid any extra expense or superstition and explained to her family what the deal is.

    It may be an Uberfrum spiritual practice, but really cool (in a Goth sense) to build one's own box…

  6. My understanding is that in the U.S. there are very few circumstances under which embalming is *required* by law. Otherwise, I'm sure that we'd hear more protests from those who practice Judaism. There's an interesting summary of the topic here:
    and here are a bunch of links to Mass. law on the subject:

    Judaism finds cremation and embalming equally abhorrent, but it seems (to the casual observer, anyway) that Orthodox Christians don't necessarily find embalming (removal of blood, organs, etc.) theologically troublesome.

    In the absence of a unified Orthodox policy on the matter, do you, as a parish priest, simply defer to the wishes of the family? Or have you some personal views on the matter which you share with families when you counsel them?

    Just curious.

  7. A quote that might be of interest:

    "Embalming and Autopsies. In the Orthodox Church we do not make the dualistic distinction be-tween the body and the soul that one finds in some ancient, pre-Christian sects and in certain early Christian heresies. The body and soul, according to Orthodox teaching, are integrally bound together. The good health and correct, moral use of the body can affect the soul, just as a healthy and sound soul can reflect itself in the external appearance of the body (and especially in the eyes).

    When a Christian dies, we show tremendous respect to his body as the place where the spirit of the human being resided. The body of a holy person, for example, is highly revered, since even his flesh and blood have been permeated by the holiness of his life. To embalm and disfigure the dead body for no reason—and embalming is not required in most states in the U.S.—is to show disrespect to it. And autopsies, when they are done for no specific purpose and routinely, are blasphemous. One need only attend an autopsy to understand that this statement is not hyperbolic, but wholly accurate. Except when indicated by forensic considerations or specific needs in medical research, autopsies should be discouraged among Orthodox Christians.

    The bodies of monastics and bishops, whose lives are dedicated to spiritual principles and aims, should under no circumstances be embalmed or, except in the case of suspected foul play, subjected to post-mortem examination. This is a rule which every Orthodox Christian physician should understand and one which he should attempt to uphold with every possible means. Since monastics should, if possible, repose in their monasteries—rather than in the hospital, as is usually the case in the Western world now—, Orthodox physicians should be available and ready to assist in the preparation of the needed certificates of death, so as to avoid the eventuality of an autopsy."

    — From "Orthodox Tradition", Vol. VII, No. 2, p. 15

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