July 9, 2009

Burial or Burning? An Orthodox Evaluation of Cremation

Burial or Burning?

Protopresbyter George D. Metallinos

The burial of the dead is an essential element of Orthodox Christian culture and a foundational practice of Orthodox tradition. The position that burial corresponds with Jewish culture while burning with the Greek is historically proven to be deceptive and above all misleading. The correct history is that cases of burning the dead did exist in Greek antiquity, but burial was the rule. Classical proofs: the tomb of Marathon, the very many burial finds (skeletons are discovered) up to today, the entombment of Pericles (carrying around an empty bed for those not buried during the war), skeletons are discovered at the graves of the Mycenaeans, Abba Sisoes saw the remains (skeleton) of Alexander the Great in the 4th century A.D., and the most classical example is the tragedy of Sophocles “Antigone”, in which she buried the “traitor” against her brother Creon (not burying the person was degrading and a penalty imposed upon the traitors).

Burning occurs everywhere (Greece, East and West), with dishonor towards the body and regarding it as bad, and finally, contempt for it. In Christianity, the body becomes a “temple” of God, it becomes divinized by grace together with the soul (“τό συναμφότερον” or both together) and is glorified together with it. This is why Christ was buried and from that time all of the Christians, Saints or not, from the Forerunner and Stephen until today. Incorrupt and whole relics of Saints (such as Saints Spyridon, Gerasimos, Dionysios, etc.) have been saved inside the grave, revealing theosis. The Service for the Dead, among the most important texts of world-wide literature, theologically expounds upon the natural ending of the human body (by the grace of God), as well as its formation from “not Being” to “Being” (from non-existence to existence).

In Christianity (I’m talking about Orthodoxy), the unchanging nature of burial for 20 centuries is, despite the statements of the modernizing theologians, a “dogma” (teaching) of the faith. According to Basil the Great, it belongs to the “unwritten” things of the faith, like the sign of the cross, the direction of the church towards the east, the triple immersion and emersion in Baptism, etc., which have never been expressed in writing and however are a permanent and steadfast confession of the Orthodox Body, and they have “the force towards piety". The same with burial. Any theologian, as “important” as he may seem, cannot become a canon of faith, but only the deeds of our Saints, like Basil the Great.

But I believe that the strongest reason to remain in the tradition of burial for today’s Greeks is the cultural. Burial is an unfounded component of our culture. And culture is the fulfillment of our soul in space and time. Those among Buddhists and Hindus or whoever else, who have built within themselves another conscience, cannot impose their opinion to the rest of the multitude, because this would indeed be “fascistic” and undemocratic behavior. I would even say that this not only applies to the burial of our dead, which has been connected to so many practices and customs of our people (the heart of our culture is baptism, marriage, funeral - events that happen throughout our life), but also to seemingly insignificant elements, such as, for example, souvlaki (skewer of grilled meat), kokoretsi (grilled sheep’s entrails), or retsina (resinated wine), etc. Our fellow Europeans want us to be one to abolish us (ex. kokoretsi), so that we eat the German “hamburger” and drink warm Bavarian beer. This, no matter how funny it seems, reveals the permanent tendency of some of our own, for 2-3 centuries now, to change over (reincarnate) to another historical body, because we are embarrassed about our own cultural body. To become something else. And they know very well that if they “take out – put in”, nothing will remain, spiritual or biological, which will hold our Greek identity together. This is the number one problem even with the imposition by any chance of burning. It is a march towards the break-down of our culture. Our great sociologist, professor Demetrios Loukatos, has stated: “Maybe the remains of the dead do not need us, but we need them very much. Burning would be a complete annihilation of a living continuity and communication, which we want”!

There exists a solution to the foreseen “problem” (here we have a capitalist created problem which should NOT exist): Already Greek justice, recently, is apparent: “the establishment of burning of the dead goes against the public order and good morals” ("Τα Νέα" (a Greek newspaper), 5.11.1992). The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece has officially showed two times that “burning is opposed to the statutes of the Orthodox Church”. If a substantial problem exists, it has been created by our jostling in the Capital. Therefore, if we recognize what cultural identity means and we have the disposition to save it, we should reinforce actions such as the following: the creation of new graveyards (cemeteries) outside of residential areas and the transport of our dead to our provinces, to the land of our birthplace. The economical argument proves to be rotten, since burning requires huge expenses (for example public investment for this already exists ["Τα Νέα", 5.11.1992]). Let us leave aside the dangers of contamination from the crematoriums, about which much as been written Abroad.

An initial and very cheap solution is indeed “democratic”. The trade of tombs by the municipality must cease. Huge tombs cannot be appropriated by others in a favorite country, because they are rich, and for the poor (…even dead) to be burned. We propose normal tombs FOR EVERYONE and the gathering of bones in small cases, stacked one on top of the other, as for example in the Cemetery of the Zographou Province. But this applies to EVERYONE! It is understood how much space this will save.

The democratic conscience certainly dictates for us to accept the free choice of burning by those who do not possess Greek Orthodox convictions and thoughts. But this should not be imposed upon those who deny it. It is needless to say that it is consciously inconceivable for a Greek Orthodox to choose burning.

Even the christians abroad would say this. Those who ask for the imposition (behold their democracy) of burning at the expense of our ethnic tradition belong to the “outside”, where they want to make laws …most democratic, even for those on the “inside”. Because some welcome the example of Maria Callas [popular Greek singer who was cremated in France in 1977], I state that neither the blessed singer, nor the blessed Dimitri Mitropoulos [a popular Greek singer who was cremated in Italy in 1960] who preceded, is the measure of faith and Greek Orthodox conscience. Respect for the offering they gave to the people is one thing, and the imitation of their choices is another.