1989 (3) Synod Decision on Cremation
On the Question of Cremation
A Decision of the Council of Bishops
of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad
The Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad took up the question of the attitude of the Orthodox Church concerning the cremation of those who have departed.
From the reports that were given on this matter it became apparent that the Council of Bishops of the Russian Church Abroad made this question the subject of a statement in 1932. At that time it was decided not to allow the burning of Orthodox Christians in crematoria in light of the fact that the proponents of this practice are atheists and enemies of the Church. The Greek and Serbian Churches have also reacted negatively to this practice.
The cremation of the bodies of the dead is contradictory to that which was established in the Christian Church from the very beginning. It also contradicts the content of the prayers contained in the Orthodox funeral rite in which the burial of the dead is taken as a fulfillment of the judgement God passed upon Adam: Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:19). Only a few saints are freed from this consequence of the fall of our first parents. These saints, through spiritual struggles and good deeds returned their very bodies to their original goodness, and as a result the Lord gives their remains (termed holy relics) incorruption and miraculous grace-filled powers. The cremation of departed Christians would deprive us (and those righteous souls who reside in the kingdom of heaven) of a saving and consoling manifestation of God's mercy.
Additionally, the history of religion demonstrates that cremation was practised primarily by religions of a satanic, militantly atheistic character. In the last decades it has been disseminated under the influence of those who are unchristian and opposed to the Church.
On the basis of the above facts, the Council of Bishops forbids the children of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad to burn the bodies of their departed in crematoria. Priests are obliged to explain to their flock the UNCHRISTIAN character of such an action. They must not perform a Church funeral service over those bodies that are designated for cremation. The names of such departed may be commemorated only at the Proskomedia. Pannykhidas may not be served earlier than the fortieth day after their death. If anyone on his deathbed is stubborn in his desire to be cremated despite the council of his attending spiritual father, the priest must not give such a person Holy Communion because of his disobedience to the Church.
In the most extenuating circumstances an exception can be allowed in the, form of a burial service by proxy, when it has been undoubtedly proven that the incineration of the body is taking place against the will of the departed one, as a forced act against him. But even in these cases the burial service cannot be performed withou special permission of the diocesan bishop after his careful investigation of all aspects of the case.
Parish priests must explain to their flock the sinfulness of violating the law which has been established by the Church and accepted by all Christians, and in emulation of the example of our Lord and Saviour Himself they must give the bodies of the dead back to the earth from whence they came. Cremation has been adopted by only the worst of the ancient pagan cults and by contemporary opponents of the principles of the Christian Faith.
If any faithful Orthodox Christian, because of his ignorance directs his relatives to cremate his body, and then dies, not having received good council, and not having repented of his intention — then his instructions, being contrary to the laws and teachings of the Holy Church, are not morally binding on his relatives, as with all sinful promises. This is what the Church speaks about in Her hymns on the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist: "O Herod. thou grandson of lies, it would have been better not to have sworn, if, by swearing, thine oath was given for evil; it would have been better to have lied and received life, rather than to have kept to the terms of the oath and to have beheaded the Forerunner." If the relatives have promised the departed one to cremate his body, they can be released by the Church from this unwise oath by means of an established prayer for such cases. Upon death, the soul of the departed one, having seen the foolishness of its desire for cremation of the body, will be thankful to the relatives for such a decision.
Translated by Maria Naumenko
Orthodox Life 1989 (3)