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Author Topic: Question about Orthodox burial practices  (Read 3347 times) Average Rating: 0
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MBZ
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« on: April 10, 2005, 09:34:53 AM »

Hi all!

So, I was watching the Bishop of Rome's funeral last Friday on TV (which Israeli TV carried live) & I was struck by how one of the officiants referred to the late Karol Wojtyla's being "committed to the ground" or some such language. It hit me; he's not being put in the ground at all. His embalmed corpse was placed in a multi-layered coffin (one of which, I heard, was made out of zinc), which will be in some kind of vault, i.e. his remains will never come into contact withe bare soil.

The (orthodox) Jewish way of death could not be more different. Embalming the deceased is absolutely forbidden by (orthodox) Jewish law (as is cremation).

If you, legitimately, ask how this jibes with what Genesis 50 tells us, I've heard the following explanations: 1) The events of Genesis 50 occurred before the Torah was given; the rules were a little different then. 2) Joseph had Jacob embalmed only enough so that his body would not start to decay until it had been duly buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron; 3) Given his holiness & sanctity, Jacob's body, in any case, would not have begun to decay until it had been buried in the Holy Land & Joseph had his father embalmed as per the foregoing so that the Egyptians would not think that the Hebrews were sorcerers when they saw that Jacob's body was not decaying; & 4) Ditto 2) above for Joseph himself, with his body miraculously not decaying until laid to rest in Shechem (Nablus) many years later by Joshua.

So, as I've said, Embalming the deceased is absolutely forbidden by (orthodox) Jewish law (as is cremation). Jewish law also requires that no cosmetics of any kind be applied to the deceased, that the deceased not be displayed in any way whatsoever & that the deceased be buried as soon as possible after death, even the same day. (Coffins are only used where required by civil law; otherwise, as in Israel, the deceased is interred wrapped in an opaque white shroud.)

American Rabbi Maurice Lamm (author of The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning) writes:

Quote
For example, the prohibition of both cremation (the unnaturally speedy disposal of the dead) and embalming (the unnatural preservation of the dead), bespeaks a philosophy of man and his relationship to God and nature:

Repugnance for the mutilation of a body expresses a reverence for man, because he was created in God's image.
(...).

"As he came, so shall he go," says Ecclesiastes. Just as a newborn child is immediately washed and enters this world clean and pure, so he who departs this world must be cleansed and made pure through the religious ritual called taharah, "purification."

The taharah is performed by the Chevra Kadisha (the Holy Society, i.e. the Burial Society), consisting of Jews who are knowledgeable in the area of traditional duties, and can display proper respect for the deceased. In addition to the physical cleansing and preparation of the body for burial, they also recite the required prayers asking God for forgiveness for any sins the deceased may have committed, and praying that God may guard him and grant him eternal peace.

Jewish tradition recognizes the democracy of death. It therefore demands that all Jews be buried in the same type of garment -- a simple white shroud. Wealthy or poor, all are equal before God, and that which determines their reward is not what they wear, but what they are. Almost 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Gamaliel instituted this practice so that the poor would not be shamed and the wealthy would not vie with each other in displaying the costliness of their burial clothes.

The clothes to be worn should be appropriate for one who is shortly to stand in judgment before God Almighty, Master of the universe and Creator of man. Therefore, they should be simple, handmade, perfectly clean, and white. These shrouds symbolize purity, simplicity, and dignity.

(...).

Cremation is never permitted. The deceased must be interred, bodily, in the earth. It is forbidden -- in every and any circumstance -- to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium. It is an offensive act, for it does violence to the spirit and letter of Jewish law, which never, in the long past, sanctioned the ancient pagan practice of burning on the pyre.

The Jewish abhorrence of cremation has already been noted by Tacitus, the Roman historian of the first century CE, who remarked upon what appeared to be a distinguishing characteristic that Jews buried, rather than burned, their dead.

In ancient days, the Talmud informs us, fragrant flowers and spices were used at the funeral to offset the odor of the decaying body. Today, this is no longer essential and they should not be used at Jewish funerals at all.

Link: http://www.aish.com/literacy/lifecycle/The_Jewish_Way_of_Death.asp

One of my rabbis writes:

Quote
Upon death, the soul goes through a painful separation from the body, which until now had housed the soul. This process of disengagement occurs as the body decays. When the body is buried, it decays slowly, thereby giving comfort to the soul as it disengages from the body.

This decay is crucial, which is why Jewish law forbids embalming or burial in a mausoleum, which would in fact delay the decaying process. Also, Jews are buried in a wooden casket, which decays more rapidly. Similarly, Jewish law dictates that burial take place as soon as possible after death. (In Israel, funerals are often on the same day as the death.) All this is for the benefit of the soul.

One reason that Judaism prohibits cremation is that the soul would suffer great shock due to the unnaturally sudden disengagement from the body. As the Talmud says: Burial is not for the sake of the living, but rather for the dead. (Sanhedrin 47a)

What about the millions of Jews cremated in Nazi ovens? The Almighty certainly guarded their souls from needless agony. I think similarly in this case, where the man did not ask to be cremated, his soul is not accountable for what transpired.

Link: http://tinyurl.com/4dasa

We see embalming as sinful because it a) retards the Biblically-mandated process of natural decomposition and b) it is tantamount to mutilation of the corpse. On both counts we see it as a gross affront to the deceased.

So, my questions for my Orthodox friends are:

1) Does Orthodox doctrine have an official position regarding embalming and/or cremation? If either are permitted, a) why and b) are they optional/mandatory? I'm especially curious about embalming, because a cursory glances at sites such as http://www.wyfda.org/basics_3.html tells me that the widespread & routine embalming of corpses is a fairly recent practice.

2) What does Orthodox doctrine have to say about displaying the deceased? Is it optional/mandatory/forbidden? (Displaying the deceased is likewise absolutely forbidden by Jewish law.)

3) Could someone please either describe for me, or guide me to a website (parallel to this one http://www.jewfaq.org/death.htm) that would explain, Orthodox custom & practice regarding the death-burial-mourning process? I am curious & would like to learn.

Thank you!

Be well!

MBZ
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« Reply #1 on: April 10, 2005, 10:26:05 AM »

MBZ,
In answer to your questions, according to Orthodox tradition.
Embalming and cremation are forbidden.
Before the funeral, a vigil is held over the displayed body, during which the entire book of psalms is traditionally read over the body if the departed were a layman, or the Gospels if the departed was a priest. A white shroud marked with a cross and often with prayers written on it is placed over the body, with the face exposed until the time for burial has come, when it is pulled over the face.
The burial of monastics follows an even stricter order, for example, the body is not fully washed after death, with only a sponge dipped in water wiped in the form of the cross over the face, hands, feet and knees, and the monk or nun's outer garment torn to form a shroud which is then sewn to cover the entire body and face.
I have no idea where you can find this on the web.

George (Australia)
« Last Edit: April 10, 2005, 10:27:12 AM by ozgeorge » Logged

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« Reply #2 on: April 10, 2005, 04:15:06 PM »

Hello brother MBZ,

I will try to answer your questions.

1) Does Orthodox doctrine have an official position regarding embalming and/or cremation? If either are permitted, a) why and b) are they optional/mandatory? I'm especially curious about embalming, because a cursory glances at sites such as http://www.wyfda.org/basics_3.html tells me that the widespread & routine embalming of corpses is a fairly recent practice.

Orthodox Church has a tradition to bury/inhume human corpse.
Embalming and cremation is not allowed at all.
There are only two cases that something that resembles embalming is allowed (not really a full body embalming) for medical reason only and is performed by doctors. This serves disinfection purposes and preservation purposes only for medical reasons and should be made in a matter that will permit the decomposition of the body.
The burial is allowed only during the day time and is absolutely forbidden after the sunset. Usually the burial is performed the next day after the death, but in rare cases could be performed in the same day. Usually the death body is left one night unburied.
Coffins are not obligatory but today are almost mandatory to use and I thing that coffins were introduced and are still in use for practical and hygiene purposes. They have nothing to do with Christian doctrine.

2) What does Orthodox doctrine have to say about displaying the deceased? Is it optional/mandatory/forbidden? (Displaying the deceased is likewise absolutely forbidden by Jewish law.)
According to Orthodox doctrine the display of the body of the deceased is mandatory. The face of the dead person is covered during the night by a piece of clothe.

3) Could someone please either describe for me, or guide me to a website (parallel to this one http://www.jewfaq.org/death.htm) that would explain, Orthodox custom & practice regarding the death-burial-mourning process? I am curious & would like to learn.

You can find the Christian Orthodox doctrine about life after death in this page http://www.pelagia.org/htm/b24.en.life_after_death.00.htm. Unfortunately some chapters are not included.

Of course there are local customs and traditions that differ from place to place but the main doctrine is the following:
Death is instant and the separation of soul and body becomes instantly. Time is not required in order the soul to "leave" the body. After death the body is believed to still belong to the dead person. It is treated with deference and it is believed that indeed the same buried body will be resurrecting in the Second Coming of the Messiah Jesus Christ in Judgment Day.
« Last Edit: April 10, 2005, 04:16:31 PM by lpap » Logged

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« Reply #3 on: April 11, 2005, 06:37:57 AM »

Dear MBZ,
I recently visited the monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos and learned that they had had a funeral for one of the monks just a couple of weeks before. If you are not familiar with the monastery, it is built on top of a smal area of rock. As such there is very little soil free to use for burials as every patch of earth available is pretty much used for growing vegetables for the needs of the monastery. This being the case, the small area used for burials has to be reused as there is only room for about six graves. Just prior to the recent burial, the remains of two former "occupants" were exumed to make room for the latest resident. The graves themselves are lined with stone around the sides but not on the bottom, so the monks bodies are laid on top of earth. Rather than fill the grave with eath, large flat slabs of stone are placed over the grave (sitting on top of the stone wall lining the grave) and then the remaing 30cm or so is filled in with earth. This allows their bodies to decay easily and makes exuming their remains some years later a much easier and less messy affair.

The attached photo is of the ossuary at the Monastery of the Transfiguration at Meteora. There is even less soil for burial here, with room only for two graves I believe.

John
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« Reply #4 on: April 11, 2005, 01:29:54 PM »


 His embalmed corpse...
MBZ

I was surprised to read that Pope John Paul II was not embalmed. I know the last 3 were, because of what happened to Pope Pius XII, whose body began to darken and his nose (shudder) fell off. I guess the Vatican was so embarassed that they started to have the popes embalmed.
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« Reply #5 on: April 11, 2005, 03:30:07 PM »

"It hit me; he's not being put in the ground at all. His embalmed corpse was placed in a multi-layered coffin (one of which, I heard, was made out of zinc), which will be in some kind of vault, i.e. his remains will never come into contact withe bare soil."

He was not embalmed. He was placed in three coffins, cypress, zinc, and fir, which will placed in the earth under the Oratory of St. Longinus in the Crypt of St. Peter's Basilica. He will not be placed into a vault or stone sarcophagus above ground as most popes have been.

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« Reply #6 on: April 11, 2005, 04:22:22 PM »



I was surprised to read that Pope John Paul II was not embalmed.  I know the last 3 were, because of what happened to Pope Pius XII, whose body began to darken and his nose (shudder) fell off.  I guess the Vatican was so embarassed that they started to have the popes embalmed.


Embalming does not really keep one from decaying, at least not as long as popularly thought.  It really only staves off natural decomposition by a few days, unless the embalming fluid is changed regularly.  As a more modern example of extreme embalming, Lenin has kept up somewhat of a "normal" appearance for a corpse because of a regular bath of special embalming fluid.  Generally, however, after a month or so in the ground, most embalmed people end up looking like someone who wasn't embalmbed. 

Personally, I find embalming and most the funerary business to be quite a racket, which is why I'm going unembalmbed in a simple pine box.
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