An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
During one of our recent choir practices, a particular phrase appeared in one of the hymns we were practicing that really caught my attention. It had the Prophet Isaiah announcing: "The dead shall arise and they that dwell in the tombs shall be raised up, and all those born on the earth shall rejoice exceedingly." (Matins of Holy Saturday, Irmos of Canticle 5) It occurred to me, after singing it, that popular notions of the dead rising from their tombs typically does not bring to mind any sort of rejoicing, but rather the procurement of firearms, creating barricades, and running for your life away from those who would have an undead need to devour your brains. Now, of course, we all know that zombies are not actually the dead come back to life, but rather the undead (reference any quality zombie flick). But my point remains, that if you but say the words: “the dead shall arise from their tombs” the images most likely to be created involve zombies or perhaps vampires. Either way, it’s a horror story first to the popular mind, not an event for exceeding joy.
I suppose this is another theological arena where Orthodoxy has forced me to examine some of my presuppositions. Besides watching too many B movies, there is something more in our collective conscience that makes us mysteriously and exceedingly apprehensive about dead bodies doing things they normally don’t do (e.g. moving). So what of Resurrection in the Christian sense? In my evangelical experience, the “general” Resurrection was for the most part something about which we rarely talked. Yes, occasionally we would reference it in passing, as long as it was always accompanied by the immediate disclaimer of sorts that emphasized that the resurrected bodies would be “glorified.”
Referencing our Lord’s post resurrection “superpowers” we are happily reminded that we also will be able to walk through walls – sort of like trans-dimensional mystery beings. Of course, I don’t think this is necessarily untrue or erroneous, but in hindsight it just seems as if we were making efforts to deflesh the event; to spiritualize it.
I’ve mentioned here before that I believe a significant proportion of theists – particularly in the west (?) – are unwittingly Gnostic or Platonic in their beliefs with regard to the body. We hear it all the time in popular references. For instance, who has not attended a funeral where the person is said to now be “free at last”? There’s never any mention of the unnatural state into which the deceased has entered by having soul and body torn asunder, but rather warm thoughts of escaping the “shell” or the “confinement” of the flesh. This is NOT a Christian understanding of death! The real celebratory act of freedom will be when the body is reunited with the soul and is raised in INCORRUPTION on the last day.
I recently read a brief article from Fr. Georges Florovsky entitled “The Gospel of Resurrection” and in it he reminds us of the fleshly nature of our religion. Contrasting the early Christians with the Hellenistic gentiles who saw the body as a form of imprisonment, he notes that at that time we were derisively referred to by some as “philosomaton genos” or a “flesh-loving crew.” I believe much of Christianity has lost the right to the title today, and instead far too many teach us to identify more with Plato than Christ on this point.
Perhaps not so Orthodoxy…at least I think not as I sing these Holy Week hymns in practice: empty tombs abound! And consider that this Saturday we particularly celebrate the rising of Lazarus. Really it has all the makings of a classic “Mummy” horror movie: who cannot but recoil as people remind Jesus (how ironic) that after so many days the body will have begun to stink! Imagine the horror of a wrapped and decomposing body staggering out from the grave! Will the food he would likely need after his four day fast include typical zombie fare? RUN!
Clearly we must escape this mindset. The dead returned to life isn’t a horror story, it is our GREAT HOPE! Prior to Orthodoxy, the full scope of what Jesus does here was lost on me because I really don’t believe that I associated death so intimately within the equation of salvation! Salvation meant having contractual and legal justification before God, and not so much God pulling me up out of my grave. The problem of death was “solved” when God’s righteous wrath was satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice and any notion of God kicking death and the devil’s butt on Holy Saturday was perfectly unknown to me. For me, Jesus’ raising up Lazarus was little more than one of His more impressive miracles – a precursor of His own perhaps, but certainly not of my own.
Anyone can compare and contrast Orthodox traditions to popular modern funeral customs to see again how the Orthodox Church is a “flesh-loving crew.” For the Orthodox, cremation is strictly forbidden except where required by law. Open caskets and a final kiss of the deceased are all apart of the funeral liturgy. In contrast, cremations are growing in popularity, fueled by utilitarianism while more and more people are repulsed by the idea of viewing their deceased relative. “It weirds me out” or “I don’t want to remember them that way” are all offered as reasons. But Orthodoxy wants us to face the bitter reality and sadness of death. But much more than that, as is noted in Florovsky’s essay when he quotes a Russian author speaking of the phrase: “ ‘We must also wait for the Spring of the body’…There are no words which could better render the impression of jubilant serenity, the feeling of rest and unbound peacefulness of the early Christian burial place. Here the body lies, like wheat under the winter shroud, awaiting, anticipating, and foretelling the otherworldly eternal Spring.” Thus we must recall that no matter what state the body eventually finds itself in, we are not done with it. It still retains its image of God, though broken. We honor it; we do not throw it in the garbage or as the environmentalists are now making a big to-do about, we do not recycle it back into the natural world.
Death is something to be conquered and defeated, and this act of salvation is of course accomplished in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Far more than simply a proof of His Divinity (which was my evangelical understanding), to the Orthodox the Resurrection is efficacious in and of itself for our salvation! As we sing on that great and glorious VERY early morning: “We celebrate the death of death!” because Christ is “trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!”
And so when we hear the odd phrase “Dawn of the Dead” we should perhaps think first of Pascha and not so much of famed zombie movies? Empty graves are not an ominous sign; they are our expectation and our hope as Christians. Indeed a cause for exceeding joy!
If we shouldn't be recycling or cremating bodies... what of the monastic practice of collecting the bones? Parting out relics? Seems like there's more gray here than you're allowing. Isn't it true in Greece that they bury the body for a few years, then exhume the bones for storage elsewhere, to make room for the next deceased? This doesn't conform to the "kernel of wheat under the winter snow," but isn't it a time-honored Orthodox practice?
The wholeness of the body is the supposed concept here. You don't part it out for spare parts. You dont' distribute it like a loaf of bread, you don't burn it up.
Modern cremation has as its philosohpical premise that the soul merely haunts the body. Once Uncle Jack's soul departs, the body is nothing more than a leaving, kind of like an old snake-skin, is not Uncle Jack. Obviously, this is hostile to a christian view of the person. We believe in an incarnation, not a soul haunting a body.
But then, as you say, it seems a bit too inflexible to say that every body must be permanently preserved, made to look alive, encased in a cement vault that will preserve the body as long as possible, etc., just in order to preserve the idea of wheat kernels. Like I say, in Greece, there seems to have been the practice of exhuming the body. This practice, it seems to me, is not even an attempt to conform to the image of the spring time wheat kernel. It seems like the earth and burial are simply used as the most efficient means to accelerate natural forces. The real "image" that the charnel houses seem to represent is the idea of a "house of the dead," with all the femurs, skulls, everyone sorted out into piles, awaiting the resurrection. This is a time-honored practice, and it has been, as it were, "baptized" to be an icon of a church awaiting bodily resurrection. Maybe the cremation ceremony could likewise be christianized, somehow. Depends on the context, and as you rightly say, the underlying "statement" being made about the body.
But, to revisit a point, there were saints whose bodies were completely parted out as souvenirs, "relics." What kind of statement is that making?
A question and a comment: 1) What's the Orthodox Christian stance on donating organs/body parts after death? 2) Did you read about the mom who is harvesting her dead son's sperm so she can have grandkids? I don't know about you, but it makes me shiver with horror...