In my family I am alone as an Orthodox Christian Priest and I wonder, at times, what that must be like for all of them as they try to understand why I am what I am and believe as I do. There’s really very few categories in our common world where Orthodox Christian Faith fits, and how do you explain the life of a Faith that is neither Roman Catholic or Protestant, neither liberal or conservative as they are commonly defined, and whose vision draws life from ancient roots and ideas sometimes unknown in the West?
For the most part, I think, we just live and let live and that’s not a bad thing. I love my family, nuclear, immediate, and extended, and I have no desire to force anyone to believe as I do. I follow an ancient way, a way sometimes incomprehensible in today’s world, but I have found it to be nourishing, deep, and also, interestingly enough, remarkably practical because it’s based on the lived experience of the Church in the world for many centuries. At best I hope my life is at least some kind of invitation to consider this way, at least I hope it’s not too much of an obstacle for those I love to overcome.
This can be challenging at such times as funerals. I am honored that my family would want me to be part of these events and I’m grateful for the invitation. Yet, there are times, as per the way I am following, where I cannot go exactly where that invitation would lead. When that happens more than anything else I want my family to know that I do love them, I do respect them, and what I do for the sake of my own conscience is not designed to judge them or the state of their souls.
The ancient Orthodox Christian Faith teaches that the human body was created by God as good and integral to what it means to be a human being. The “real” us is not just something housed inside of a shell of flesh but rather a unity created by God and designed for communion and relationship with God. It is therefore to be treated with respect before birth, throughout life, and even after death. The taking of human life by doing grievous harm to the body, for example, is always sin because it is an affront to life and the One who gives life. What my Protestant and Catholic friends and family may not know is that this respect for human life, for the human body is so deep that even in cases where a human life is taken with legal justification there is a penance, a time of reflection and repentance, required of the person who takes that life. If a Priest, like myself, takes a human life, even accidentally or with “legal” justification, they can be removed from their ministry. Deliberately harming or inflicting injury on the body, before or after death, is also considered to be a sin because the body is God’s creation and such acts are a kind of desecration of what God has created to be “good” a goodness not erased by death.
The human body, in the ancient Christian Faith, is also the temple of the Holy Spirit, a place where God dwells and grace is received and shared. Therefore it takes on the quality of the sacred, a holy place. The human body is essentially, in the ancient Faith, a church of a kind sanctified by God’s presence within. Sometimes people erroneously think that Orthodox Christians “hate” their bodies but that is never the case. Our desire to flee from using our bodies in the cause of sin is actually a continuing consecration of that which is a temple of the Holy Spirit and direction of that which God has made “good” towards that goodness for which it was designed.
Finally, our bodies are, in the ancient Christian way, the very bodies that God will raise again on the last day. They are not a carcass or a shell or a container but rather the very fabric of what will one day be a great miracle as God transforms them from whatever state they are in to something holy, good, and numinous. Our bodies which die, the temporary separation of the soul from the body, will one day be reunited with that soul in fashion where we have only a limited understanding but it will be good and it will never die again. Therefore such a body but in life and death be treated with reverence.
For all these reasons and more it has always been the practice of the ancient Christian Faith to physically place the bodies of those who are deceased into the ground, a body at rest in the hope of the resurrection, a body made good by God awaiting its final holiness, no mere shell but rather the very real substance that will be made beautiful and eternal by God at the end of time. Where people may see a cemetery full of old bones the ancient Christian sees a place of future miracle. Where people may see the body as something to be disposed of in the most sanitary and creative way possible we see a body laid to rest in hope like one who sleeps in anticipation of the waking at sunrise. Where others may see something devoid of life we see something, a body, that has been filled with the Holy Spirit, and one day will be returned to life by that same Holy Spirit.
And we bear witness to all of these things, these good and holy things, by the practice of burying those of us who have died (the actual unbroken practice of the ancient Church) and those who are Priests live that tradition by encouraging the faithful to walk through the time of death in this path, seeing in these things not some morbid attraction to the past for its own sake but rather the living witness to the wholeness of the human person, the sacredness of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of the resurrection.
That being said, we deeply love our friends and family, and we respect their right to make decisions we choose not to make. Our practice of avoiding cremation or any other form of disposing of the human body after death outside of burial should never be taken as a judgement on either the people who have made the decision or the person whose mortal remains have been care for in this way. God alone knows the souls and hearts of us all. Yet in the same way as I am joyfully called to bear witness to Faith in every aspect of my life I am also called to bear witness at the end of life, and I will mourn with you, support you, and I will try to do all forms of kindness but in the unique role of a Priest I stand not just as my own person but also as symbol of the living, ancient, Faith of the Church and as such a witness I cannot participate in the formal services of a person, whoever they are, who has been cremated or has had their body disposed of by means other than intact burial.
That is a hard thing to say because I do love and I do care and I find myself, at times, in an uncomfortable position with people close to my heart. If there was nothing larger at play I would not worry and accommodate as best I could. Yet there is something larger at stake, an ancient witness to the reality of the human person and the greatest of human hopes. In these times such a witness is so necessary. That being said, I hope, some day, you can understand but until then know my heart is in deep sympathy, prayer, and caring for those who have departed and those mourn even if I, myself, for reasons I have tried to explain, is not at the front of the church.