Cremation in the Armenian Church
Lately, several parishioners have approached me and confided that they have left instructions in their wills that their bodies be cremated at their deaths. They have then inquired about the Armenian Church’s position on this practice. Also, the remains of a few other parishioners have already been cremated.
Why have people been choosing cremation? It would appear that the overwhelming reason is one of economy. According to the funeral directors with whom I have spoken, the cost of cremation is one tenth that of the traditional funeral.
Another reason seems to be personal preference. Some have said that they do not want to be “buried under ground.” But yet they let their bodies go through an inferno!
The position of the Armenian Church in this matter is very clear. We do not believe in cremation under any circumstances, and will not offer any prayer or religious service over cremated remains. All funeral services must be in the presence of the body of the deceased for the following theological reasons.
1) In the Book of Genesis we learn that God “formed man of dust from the ground.” (Gen.2: 7). And when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit in paradise, God cursed them saying; “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19) The Armenian translation of that verse is, “You were earth and to earth you shall return.” Both readings have the same meaning, because earth and dust are organically the same substances. But there is a fundamental difference between Dust and Ash. Dust is part of the earth and is therefore a natural substance, but ash is a product. It is the residue of a natural substance that has been burned, and by being burned it has lost its natural properties.
Some proponents of cremation are quick to quote Genesis 3:19 to show that cremation has its roots in the Bible. They either do not know the difference between dust and ash or do not know the Bible, because the Bible says ‘dust to dust,” and not “ashes to ashes.”
Therefore, according God’s command, we should return to earth with our earthly bodies. Cremation is a disobedience or a turning away from the teaching of the Bible.
2) Another reason that people should return their bodies to the earth is that the body is not an unimportant vessel or object that one can deal with capriciously. One should remember that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the incarnation of the presence of God, because God made man in His own image (Gen. 1:27.) The human being not only has a character of his own, but also carries within him the image of God, which means that God is a living presence in that person. It was that same body that felt the water of Baptism, was marked with the oil of salvation, and nourished by the bread of life, the Holy Communion.
Therefore, as good Christians we ought to honor the bodies of our deceased as holy vessels and return them to the earth, just as they are, with dignity and respect. We must be sure to return to God what belongs to Him. One day he gave each of us life in a human body, and that body now should return to Him intact.
3) The third theological argument is the doctrine of Resurrection. Resurrection is central to our Christian belief. It forms the heart of the Church’s preaching, worship and spiritual life. Christ rose from the dead and promises the same to all who believe in Him. During the liturgy every Sunday while reciting the Nicene Creed we proclaim with faith, “We believe in the resurrection of the dead.” Let us consider the manner of Jesus’ resurrection. We read in the Gospel of a process. Laying the body in the tomb is part of that process. After his crucifixion they laid his body in the tomb, and after three days he rose again. Resurrection presupposes an intact body, not ashes.
In conclusion, cremation is contrary to the doctrine of resurrection and denies the dead the right to be risen and be with Lord.
By cremating the bodies of our loved ones, we deliberately impede their entry into eternity. Furthermore, by spreading their ashes, we are behaving as though they did not belong to our time or never existed. Cemeteries may be sad places but they do serve as witnesses to human existence.
Furthermore, cremation and scattering the remains does not bring closure. On the other hand, grieving in the presence of the body can help people to deal with loss.
We exhort our parishioners to adhere to traditional Christian burial practices and abjure the practice of cremation, which has long been considered a pagan practice and remains so today.
Rev. Fr. Nerses Manoogian