Here briefly stated are the burial traditions of the universal Orthodox Church:
- Man is made in the image and likeness of God.
- The aim of the spiritual life is the sanctification (indwelling of the Holy Spirit) of the entire human person (body, mind, soul, and spirit).
- We do not practice cremation. This practice is completely outside of our tradition and considered to be an abomination by God.
- Funeral services pertain to the burial of a body; therefore, a Funeral Service cannot be celebrated unless a body is present. Once a cremation has occurred, there is no body to be buried, and no ceremony can be celebrated.
- All the sacraments of the Church are celebrated within the four walls of the church. Baptisms are the lone exception, which by exceptional permission of the Bishop, may be held in running water.
The theological basis for these practices is the deification of man, which is our spiritual aim in life.
Church sanctuaries are sanctified places, being consecrated by the local Archbishop (e.g. St. Katherine was consecrated by His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2011).
During the consecration ceremony, a) the church and its altar are washed, anointed, dedicated and graced with the Holy Spirit, in much the same way a person that is received into the Body of Christ is received through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and b) the altar is enshrined with relics of the Saints.
St. Katherine’s altar table holds the relics of the following saints: St. Panteleimon, St. George, and one of the martyrs of the St. Sava Monastery (Sava’s namesake).
The primary reason that all sacraments are celebrated within the sanctuary of the Orthodox Church is that the Divine Eucharist, as the focal point of the Divine Liturgy (during which the Divine Body and Blood of Christ is consecrated and offered to the faithful), is regularly celebrated there.
Furthermore, all sacraments are rooted in the Eucharist, and therefore, were historically celebrated within the context of the Divine Liturgy. In modern times, through accommodation, non-eucharistic sacraments have been separated from the Divine Liturgy.
Finally, we celebrate all sacraments within the sanctuary so both “The Church Triumphant” (those who are with the Lord), and “The Church Militant” (the living) can participate as eyewitnesses in the services.
The body, as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, whether united with its soul or not, yearns to be united with God and to worship with the Saints.
I cannot state this emphatically enough that this also applies to the Funeral services of our Church, which are one of the Divine Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Orthodox Church.
Incidentally, this tradition of holding funerals within the Sanctuary is also true for Catholic Churches.
Hopefully, this information is helpful to you. May the Lord bless.