Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Cremation and Suicide: A Comment

In a recent issue of the Orthodox Observer, Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver commented on two controversial issues, that of cremation and suicide. I don't know exactly what prompted the thoughts of His Eminence, but from the reaction online by various laypersons and, at least, one clergyman, his comments have struck a chord.

His Eminence has found critics for his position on both issues, for various reasons.  I suspect that some of those in the "blogosphere" would find fault with whatever a clergyman stated.  The sole clergyman's comments were more appropriate, for His Eminence seems to disregard a position of the Holy Eparchial Synod taken some years ago in favor of the position of the Holy Church prior to and throughout much of His Eminence's life regarding suicide and funeral services.

When I was ordained it was the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (and much of the Orthodox world to my knowledge) to refrain from offering a funeral ceremony in church for persons who took their own lives.  Metropolitan Isaiah is absolutely correct in his reason for this position, despite it appearing to be a rather harsh response to a tragic and heartbreaking situation for the survivors of the person who committed suicide: the funeral service presupposes that the deceased, at least in principle and ideally aspired to live according to the teachings of the Church, no matter how short in practice they may have come in doing so (we ALL fail to some degree).  However, suicide is a form of homicide.  To offer a funeral ceremony for someone who consciously and deliberately ended their own life in this age renders the very text of the ceremony void, as His Eminence demonstrates.

The real issue is the exception that His Eminence mentions: those suffering from mental illness and cannot be held accountable for their actions have been permitted funeral ceremonies.  And in accordance with earlier practice, His Eminence notes that the ceremony would be offered if the person was professional diagnosed as mentally ill.  This means that the Church, according to that practice, presumed the person was acting "in their right mind" unless proven otherwise."

The problem is that the clergy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America were informed some years ago that the presumption of motive for suicide would change.  Today--and this is the certain practice of the Metropolis of Chicago--the presumption is that a suicide is mentally ill unless the pastor is aware otherwise.  If Metropolitan Isaiah had written this, much of the criticism would be moot.

In fact most suicides can be attributed to some form of mental illness, either chronic (ongoing) or acute (some medications are known to result in suicidal thoughts in some patients).  Our understanding of mental disorders is far more advanced than in ancient times, or even compared to the 19th century.

However, it is also a fact that some suicides occur when people are acting "rationally" or at least are not acting out due to a mental illness or disorder.  There are suicides made for political reasons; there are suicides effected for religious reasons as the encounter with radical Islam demonstrate; and then there are suicides for reasons of hopelessness, fear and despair.  These present a more difficult challenge.

In the day of modern medicine, the phenomenon of suicide to avoid pain and suffering of a terminal illness is increasingly documented and even dramatized in the popular media.  This is a sad reality, and many medical ethicists suggest that it may be an ethical and "rational" decision.  More challenging, of course, is the mental state of someone already experiencing great pain and suffering--at what point they are acting "rationally" may be debatable.

In any case the rejection of suicide by the Church has been consistent for the same essential reason cremation is rejected: our body is not our own. It is the Lord's.  We do not have the "right" to do with it whatever we want.

Largely due to economic reasons, cremation has become more popular among Americans in recent decades for one important reason: it is cheaper.  I think there is a legitimate debate as to where the process of cremation carries the same meaning in contemporary culture than it may have in others, and whether there is a consciousness of desecration.  Be that as it may, the position of the Church on the matter is rather clear: when it is a physical option (and it usually is even if not desired), burial in the ground is the practice of the Church and always has been except in extreme and rare circumstances.  Financial reasons are probably not a good reason for the Church to change any practice, least of all that of such pastoral importance.

Indeed, the insistence of the Church on burial and rejection of cremation today probably makes the position about the dignity and care for the body in the Orthodox tradition even more clear, especially in a day when we de-sacralize the body in so many ways: treating it as a canvas for artwork (tattoos), for ornamentation and means of self-expression (piercings and various enhancements) which in the end are nothing more or less than expressions of self-concern and vanity.

In the end, it does seem somewhat paradoxical that in life we have come to pay so much attention to the body--fitness, self-expression, health--but in death, or in some cases the face of impending death, we tend to disregard the inherit dignity of this gift from our Creator. But then perhaps this is related to the relative narcissism of our age (social media postings and reality television being symptoms as well).  We are indulgent of the needs of our bodies, but can disregard those of others (cremation, euthanasia, voluntary abortion).

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