It’s time for the Greek Orthodox Church to Look Inwardly

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Judge notSource: The National Herald

Originally published on May 14, 2016, page 14.

By Chris Chiames

I have worked for over 30 years in the field of public relations, including high profile assignments in government and industry. Effective communication is a two-way model. It often starts with listening before speaking in order to assess, understand, and connect with your audience. Not simply to say what someone wants to hear, but to be able to engage and create a conversation and build the relationship.

When church leaders look out over empty pews and come up short on fundraising goals, they might want to look inwardly, start listening, and factor in their audience’s point of view before talking.

The Faith Teachings column in the April issue of the Orthodox Observer is one example of the misconnect between parishioners and Orthodox Church elders, and the missed opportunity for effective dialogue.

Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver used the recent Teachings column to illuminate us on the Church’s rules on suicide and cremation. Now, the metropolitan did not author these teachings, he’s simply the messenger of sorts. Even so, his point of view has been espoused by many of his colleagues and one many of us have heard before. Specifically, readers were told in the column that when it comes to an Orthodox funeral for a church member who commits suicide, “the only interpretation that the Church can give is that such a person [who commits suicide]rejects the life
given them by the Holy Spirit” and thus, the Church does not offer a funeral service unless a doctor provides a “reputable statement that the person committing suicide was not in his or her right mind.”

Most people who commit suicide are not thinking rationally. Whether it be from mental illness, the pain of emotional events, the rejection of loved ones (and sometimes even the Church) or a host of other reasons. Whatever the source of that pain, the events that lead an individual to go into the darkest of emotional corners and take their own life are numerous and rarely based on rational thinking.

So, getting a “doctor’s note” is relatively easy. What is the point of this lesson, except to pass judgment and add more angst and guilt to the survivors of a suicide victim?

Then, the metropolitan moves on to the subject of cremation and the lessons of the Church forbidding cremation because it is an act of desecration of the body. “It is also important to note that the Orthodox Christian funeral service is written on the premise that a body is present. Consequently, whether a body is cremated, lost at sea or otherwise absent, the funeral service cannot be conducted,” he writes.

What does that mean? If there is no Orthodox funeral, there is no eternal life? So the nearly 1,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks that were never identified aren’t going to heaven because there was no body to bury?

During my career in the airline industry, I was the first executive on the scene of an accident that killed all 20 passengers and crew. The commuter plane exploded on impact and burned completely. Nothing left except soot on the runway. So, if there were Orthodox Christians on that plane, they would have not been granted a funeral? When the bones of our great-grandparents were dug up from the village cemetery, placed in a tiny box and put on a shelf in the church in order to make room for the next round of burials, was that somehow better? And what exactly is going to heaven? The box of bones? We’ve been told that when we reunite with our loved ones in heaven, it will be glorious. Will I be going as my 80-year-old self, unable to hear and walking with a cane? Or in my 25-year-old body, dancing and rejoicing?

And what about the impact these “lessons” have on the survivors? At a time when the Church can be a source of strength and faith, it is instead creating confusion and adding more sorrow over the loss of a loved one. Even when the exception is made, it still requires a special procedure to allow the funeral to take place. So we are then forced to entertain special requests for a funeral, rather than focus on providing empathy.

Our young people are not equipped to unilaterally accept teachings that lack rationale and relevance like the immigrants of 100 years ago who simply accepted Church doctrine, even if it made no sense. We have taught them to be critical thinkers and they have access to unlimited sources of information and points of view.

Stop lecturing. Start listening. Stop judging. Start engaging. We need the comfort of a loving God, not the manmade rules and interpretations of what mortals thought 1400 years ago.

Chris Chiames is a member of the St. George parish in Bethesda, MD and has served in a number of executive roles in public relations.

Related Articles
Regardings Suicides and Cremation – Orthodox Observer

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3 Comments

  1. Dear Chris,

    I’m grateful that you responded to Metropolitan Isaiah’s article on cremation and suicide burials. The article bothered mee too because I lost a friend to suicide and a cousin who was cremated and not necessarily his decision.

    Why do our clergy continue to harangue the faithful with their pharisaisms and hypocrisies? Where is “grace” in the Orthodox Christian message? I believe it’s lost and so I’m not surprised to see our pews sparsely filled.

  2. Christos Christomos on

    Since the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and via the sacraments (Holy Eucharist) the human body is “holy.” So, even in death, the body is to treated with respect. Therefore, cremation is not respectful nor of the tradition of the Church in the Mediterranean area. However, on Mt. Athos where there is little land, monks are buried in a plot for a year, then dug up when only their bones remain and the bones are stored in an ossuary. At the end of the world when Christ comes, ALL human remains will come together again, even those dismembered. With that understanding, cremation is not an issue.

    Regarding suicide, most people are not in their right minds taking this action. Whether due to mental illness, or a person riled with pain and suffering, taking one’s own life is the same as “self murder.” We do not have the right to take life which is “holy.” Only God has this right. For this reason, the Church won’t bury someone who commits suicide. A person who is near death and may be filled with pain, the priest can say prayers “For the Leaving of the Soul.” The priest must evaluate each suicide to see if the Church may say prayers for this person at their burial – prob. not in the Church and not a full burial service as if this death were normal.

  3. kosta Langis on

    Typical ignorant Greek reporter who probably never even attended an Orthodox funeral. A person who dies and the body is never retrieved can certainly have memorial prayers said, sing the memory eternal, kolyva prepared for him and so on. On the other hand the funeral service requires the body as its presense is integral for the service. The last kiss which is the climax of the funeral service becomes kind of nonsensical if there is no human body to kiss. In Secondly cremation is not of our tradition just as burial is not of Buddhist tradition. Traditions that practice cremation tend to believe in reincarnation, no need to preserve it as you will never need it again. In Orthodoxy you are to return back to the earth of which the physical originated from. Hence why we offer and eat kolyva at every memorial service. That the body is like that grain of wheat that falls into the earth and sprouts anew.

    Suicide for no apparent reason other than to escape the conflicts one creates in life (barring mental illness or to preserve oneself’s integrity from an enemies onslaught) is self-murder and a last act hurting those alive without time to set things right.. The church shows the severity of such an act desecrating that which was consecrated at baptism yet this allows the faithful to pray more fervently for such a soul remembering his end. And even then eikonomia allows to bypass this rule if necessary and hold a funeral.

    Next time this reporter should do some research as the ignorance of his own heritage is shown.

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