By Clive Turner
So, at last, after 14 years of lobbying, the cremation bill has been passed, along with the regularising of funeral parlours and embalming. It’s taken an unconscionable time, and endless re-examinations of re-examinations all of which the government considered was vital before the House could be asked to vote on what was felt to be a contentious and sensitive issue. The church was always opposed to cremation although the archbishop told me three times that he wouldn’t stand in our way, but that he couldn’t support a move which he believes is totally against the practice and belief of the Greek Orthodox faith.
My view has always been that this faith isn’t compromised by progress but by the rigor mortis of one of the country’s most powerful institutions. Were the archbishop to delve into the internet he would discover that in post-Mycean times and also in the Archaic period, cremation was relatively common. But the ashes were buried. From the Hellenistic period there is plenty of evidence showing cremation was commonplace, with royal tombs in Vergina found carrying cremated remains. Certainly in the Western world cremation on open fires was introduced by the Greeks (yes, by the Greeks!) as early as 1,000BC when it was associated with value, virtue, and military glory and regarded as the only fitting conclusion for an epic life. This isn’t meant to turn into a history lesson, but it is interesting that the Iliad makes plain just how elaborate and important cremations were considered – and Zeus himself was involved. It is averred that cremation goes back to the Stone Age. There is certainly evidence that it was a practice as far back as 8,000BC.
I mention these historical facts because one does wonder if the archbishop is aware of these bygone practices which were believed to be an entirely fitting, dignified and time honoured farewell. It was thought fire freed the soul from wandering and searching and indeed purified the departed person’s soul. Earth burial was believed unhygienic.
The archbishop might ask himself today if it is not hypocritical happily to allow disinternment after a five year grave ‘rental’ period is up. If the relatives are not present, the remains can simply be thrown into a dump? I’d regard that as an extreme and macabre process and I ask the archbishop how he can close his eyes to such legally endorsed indecency as compared with a sensitively conducted cremation? How, in these circumstances, is the soul “dignified, protected and given a respect for the Holy Spirit within the body” in a disinternment? No way, Archbishop!
I contend there are millions who would propose cremation be explored anew, in light of the fact that the practice’s association with paganism and gnosticism is no longer a reality. It’s also a less expensive way to dispose of a body. In Cyprus burial plots are scarce, exceptionally expensive, and cemeteries are grossly crowded, with coffins tipped in sideways, under as little as two feet of earth, and floating up in the rains, until and unless a heavy stone block is put in place. How dignified is that?