Question: “A lot of Orthodox are converts to the faith. Inevitably, we will have situations within the family that would seem to be at best uncomfortable or at worst divisive. One situation would be the final wishes of parents that are not Orthodox desiring cremation as a “cost effective” solution to the high costs of funerals. As Orthodox, do we do our duty and follow their wishes, or do we state our opposition risking confrontation within the family during that time?”
Answer: Cremation is on the rise for three primary reasons. One, as you mention, is the cost of a traditional burial; but the other two reasons are the increasing ignorance among Christians as to why we do not practice cremation, combined with an increasing indifference to Christianity altogether.
We should talk about funeral arrangements with any family member that we are likely to end up being responsible for at the time of their death. If you have a parent that is a Christian, but says that they want to be cremated, you want to talk to them about why Christians do not practice cremation (because of our faith in the resurrection and respect for the body, see Stump the Priest: Cremation), but usually, the costs of a traditional burial are the biggest factor. This is often because they cannot afford to make the arrangements themselves, or because they do not want to be a burden to their family.
The cost of a burial can be kept down significantly by pre-planning. You can usually set up a payment plan with a funeral home, and get insurance that would cover the full costs, if the death should happen before it is all paid off. You can also save a lot of money by educating yourself about lower cost options. A great resource for this is the book by Fr. Mark Barna “A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition.”
Here are two articles that have some useful tips on how to save money on burial costs:
11 Ways to Make a Funeral Affordable but Not Cheap (Money Talks News)
Furthermore, you (and your siblings, if you have any) can either help with the cost, or cover them altogether. When my mother passed, she had made no arrangements, and so my surviving brothers and I made the plans together, and split it three ways. Doing this when the person has already died is the least cost-effective way to do it, but splitting the costs made it manageable. Ideally, however, you would want to work with the loved one to make the plans ahead of time, and keep the costs down.
Another point you can make with your loved one is that when they are gone, you would like to have a grave to visit. Cremated remains usually end up on someone’s fireplace mantel, and they often end up getting tossed out eventually. A grave is something that all the family and friends of the person will be able to visit, and to pray for them.
In most cases, if you explain the theological reasons against cremation, and address the cost issue, you will be able to persuade a loved one to not opt for cremation. However, if you have a family member who insists on being cremated, for whatever reasons they may have, it seems to me that you would have to respect their wishes, regrettably. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.
Glory to God for all things!
Christ is Risen!
Dear Father John,
I am currently in this discussion with my mother. We live in the US. She wants cremation, and I’ve expressed my being against it. She is to identify another person to sign off on that. If she doesn’t I will proceed with burial (against her wishes). Yes, the cost will be high. I have 2 brothers that cannot afford it, so the burden is on me.
There is also my father who currently lives in Puerto Rico, frail, and will eventually pass. Same situation, but there is no one assuming the burden for him and the situation extremely difficult due to language barrier and overall corruption on the island. I pray for time so that I can figure this out for both of them (it’s hard enough for my mother). It’s very overwhelming with the other activities that I have going on, but I want to do the right things. Your article has reminded me that action is required, but unfortunately so is money.
Prayers and guidance are required!
K. Stephen Gomez