Questions and Answers:
- Why is it that the Orthodox Church does not allow cremation of the dead?
Questions & Answers on the Divine Liturgy:
- What is the proskomidia?
- Why is it necessary to use water and wine in the proskomidia?
- Why are the gifts at the prothesis (the oblation table) covered?
- What is needed for the celebration of the Patron Feast Day – Krsna Slava and how is the celebrant and his household to prepare when it falls on a fast day?
Why is it that the Orthodox Church does not allow cremation of the dead?
Thank you for asking this very important question. We Orthodox in America live in a society where the planning of our own funeral services is vital (to the extent that it is possible) in order to guard the precepts of our Faith and to exercise the stewardship of God’s gifts. The traditional burial of our bodies is only one aspect of our stewardship.
First, let me say a few words about cremation. Cremation (coming from the Latin word cremo which means “to burn’) is a process in which intense heat is used to burn the body to its basic elements. This is done in the cremation chamber with the temperature approximately 1400 degrees to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit (760 to 1150 degrees Celsius). The cremated remains consist of bone fragments, which usually weigh from three to eight pounds. They are then finally ground into small pieces. It must be noted that the small particles will be left inside the cremation chamber and therefore mixed with the next body to be cremated.
State laws regulate crematoriums providing that only one body be cremated at a time. However, there were many cases where two bodies of total strangers were cremated together and the remains divided equally and given to the respective family members.
The National average for cremations in 2005 was 30.88%, and it is projected that by 2010 it will be 38.15%. In the state of Montana where I have ministered, the funeral directors that I contacted told me that over 50% of funerals today are cremations.
This of course represents another challenge for Orthodox pastors and our flocks. It often happens that a pious parishioner makes the funeral arrangements without consulting the local priest; and so when the parishioner dies, the family or the funeral director might inform the priest that the person was cremated, leaving him in an awkward position having to minister to the grieving family and not being able to perform the funeral service.
So why is it that we do not perform a funeral service for those who are cremated? In short, because the body is “a temple of the Holy Spirit”, as St. Paul states. Christ with his Incarnation, Resurrection, and physical Ascension, glorified the human body and raised it above the angels. Our bodies are gifts from God and have the potential to participate in the transformation and renewal of God’s creation. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, was buried in a traditional way (read Matthew 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). The relics of thousands of saints in Orthodox churches worldwide, affirm the sanctity of the human body and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
During the age of Enlightenment which spanned the late 17th through the 18th century, those who lost faith in God and left the church, chose to be cremated as to deny their belief in the resurrection and life eternal. Essentially, those who choose to be cremated today do likewise.
The only ostensibly justified reason for cremation would be the cost. The average cost of cremation is $2,300.00 to $4.500.00, while the traditional burial $3,500.00 to $10,000.00. Every funeral director I talked to (twelve of them in four different states) say that a payment method can be arranged. Six years ago I had a case where the children could not afford the funeral fee for their mother, so in the obituary, they asked family members, friends, and parishioners to make memorial donations for the funeral expenses. Within two weeks, they were able to collect enough funds to cover all the expenses; therefore, the cost excuse is out the window.
Another excuse for being cremated is made by someone who battled a certain disease (such as cancer) for a long time; cremation is consequently seen as a way to overcome it and have a final victory over it.
It is a tragedy to see anyone suffer; this is why the church has the sacrament of Holy Unction for the healing of soul and body. Once we die, that is when the separation of soul and body takes place, the body is placed carefully in a cemetery (a sleeping place) and the soul goes, we pray, in a place of rest where there is no pain nor suffering, but life everlasting – the Kingdom of God (participation in the uncreated grace of the Triune God). On the second coming of Christ, our body and soul will be reunited. These new spiritual bodies that we will have will not be subject to illness, and according to the Holy Fathers of our Church, the age that they will be is that of Christ’s age around his death and resurrection (around age 33).
So in today’s practice, the priest can come and console the family, but no funeral service can be served for the cremated. In special cases, this rule can be bypassed (application of economia, ή οικονομία). In such a case, the parish priest will contact the diocesan bishop who will make a final decision, having all the circumstances presented to him accurately. However, this does not become the norm, but rather an exception to the rule.
Finally, before you make your own funeral arrangements or that of a family member, please talk to your parish priest so that you can make a good Christian decision that will reflect the life of a good steward of God’s gifts with a strong Faith in the Resurrection and life Eternal, which awaits all of us.
Questions & Answers on the Divine Liturgy
What is the proskomidia?
The proskomidia is a mini service during which a priest prepares the gifts of bread and wine for the Liturgy.
During this Office following the Sacred Tradition from the Mystical Supper, Bread and Wine is prepared for the Divine Liturgy and Prayers are offered up for the commemorations of the faithful, living and reposed, glorified and yet-to-be-glorified.
The Proskomidia is a Service which now takes place before the Divine Liturgy begins. The Office is served at the Prothesis table, usually at the Northeast corner, within the Altar (the area behind the Iconostas). Originally, it was performed by Deacons in a separate building from the Church proper (the Diakonikon).
It was there that the faithful would bring their gifts of bread and wine etc. Some of the gifts would be prepared for use at Divine Liturgy and others would be distributed to the poor and needy by the deacons.
To this day, in Romanian Churches, the faithful come to the north deacon door with a candle and loaf of bread and offer these to the Church. And a deacon or priest who is appointed this duty and attends at the north Deacon door to receiving these offerings of the faithful.
Why is it necessary to use water and wine in the proskomidia?
They both represent the water and blood that came out of Jesus side when the Roman soldier pierced His side (read the Gospel according to St. John 19:34). Furthermore, the wine represents the divinity and the water the humanity of Christ.
Why are the gifts at the prothesis (the oblation table) covered?
This is done to emphasize the fact that Jesus was not recognized as God the minute that He was born. Rather, His divinity was shown after the baptism.
What is needed for the celebration of the Patron Feast Day – Krsna Slava and how is the celebrant and his household to prepare when it falls on a fast day?
In visiting someone for their Patron Feast Day – Krsna Slava, one will immediately notice a divergence in their observance. I will briefly try to cover the main points below, because we are limited with space.
First, let me say that the celebration of the Patron Feast Day – Krsna Slava for Serbian Orthodox people, is one of the favorite times in the family/church calendar, after Pascha-Easter and the Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas.
Let me briefly review how the observance of the family Patron Feast Day developed among the Serbian Orthodox people. It is said that the Slavs (among them, Serbs), at the time when the Slavic missionaries, Ss Cyril and Methodius (IX century) brought the Christian Faith to them, worshipped many gods. To eradicate this pagan practice, the missionaries, in their sensitivity and missionary wisdom, taught the Slavs the lives of the saints; the Feast day on which they received the Christian Faith and were baptized, was adopted as their Patron Feast Day or Krsna Slava. So one is to believe that at first, this observance was Liturgical and therefore a community event. In other words, the celebration took place in Church by participating in the Divine Liturgy and partaking of Holy Communion, as that Feast Day became the household’s true birthday – a new birth in Jesus Christ.
However, during the Turkish occupation (XIV-IXX centuries) of Serbian lands, the number of bishops and priests was significantly reduced, thus the Divine Liturgy was not regularly served. Dictated by these external circumstances, the faithful (members of the royal priesthood) kept their role of safeguarding the Faith and continued the Patron Feast Day observance at their homes. Being that the number of clergy was very small and the education in the Faith was almost impossible, various practices in Patron Feast Day observances developed. Hence, the variances that exist today. The following are essential for the feast day observance; the Eucharist being the essence of it.
The Bread – Slavski Kolach, stands for Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, and the wine that is used to bless it, stands for Christ’s blood shed for us and our salvation. This in actuality is to remind us of the Eucharist and the correct way to celebrate your Patron Feast Day, i.e. by coming to Church and partaking in the Liturgy and Holy Communion. As remarked by one of our hierarchs, in the Eucharist we are united with Christ, but also with one another (the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Eucharist).
The candle of course, reminds us of the “Light of the World” – Christ (John 9:5) Who was at the center of the saint commemorated.
The wheat stands for the resurrection and is prepared for the memory of your loved ones departed from this life (not for the saint, as wrongly believed by some; they say that you do not prepare the wheat for the Feast Days of St. Elijah or St. Archangel Michael; this is wrong to say the least).
The icon of the Feast Day and the vigil lamp in front of it remind us of the Light of the World-Christ (John 9:5) and that the saint is already in the Kingdom of God which we are invited to inherit here and now. Icons have many functions, mainly to help us grasp the reality of the Kingdom of God where the depicted saint is. They remind us of the potential that we are called to achieve, i.e. become Christ like by grace; they lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize; they arouse us to imitate the virtues of the saints depicted on them; they teach us visually about the saint or feast day depicted.
As for your second question, I suggest you follow the Church calendar. For example, St. Nicholas (commemorated on Dec. 19 according to the Julian-Old calendar) is always during the Nativity Fast, hence all the food served needs to be lenten. St. Stephen the archdeacon and protomartyr (commemorated on Jan. 9), on the other hand, is during a so-called compact week (non-fasting time) regardless if it falls on Wednesday or Friday.
In review of what has been said, let me say that the most proper way to celebrate your Patron Feast Day – Krsna Slava is by having you and your household pray, go to confession, attend the Liturgy, partake of Holy Communion and have your parish priest pray for you and bless the bread and wheat (in some parishes, the priest visits the celebrants’ home, while in some parishes the celebrant brings the bread – kolach (and wheat) to the church; this depends on the size of the parish and the local custom). Upon returning home from church (plan ahead and try to get the day off), light a candle, sing or read the troparion (a short hymn that prayerfully describes the life of the saint or commemorated feast day) and continue the celebration set forth by participation in the Liturgy. Remember, if you have invited guests, you need to set the tone for them by reminding them that the Patron Saint – Krsna Slava celebration is about our life centered in the Eucharist – Christ, the Kingdom of God, commemoration of saints who are already the citizens of Paradise, community living and sharing, and emulating the examples of our saints.
May Christ our Lord be your salvation and may He, through the prayers of your Patron Saint, bless you and have mercy on you and your household! God grant you many years – Mnogaja Ljeta! Srecna Slava