Ensuring a proper care for our deceased loved ones is not just a concern for the family but also for the Church, our spiritual
home. “Is cremation allowed?” is the question I get quite often as I meet with people. It is not surprising, because in recent years, it has become a more common practice. In some cases, it is a preferred or even necessary choice due to economic considerations.
In simpler terms, it is less expensive (funeral arrangements can be very expensive). So, where does the Church stand in regard to cremation? To preface, we need to understand the belief in the dignity and value of the human body. As Catholic Christians, we hold that human persons are created in the imago dei – the image of God. Since each person consists of body and soul, the body itself has an esteemed value, for it is patterned after the divine. At the same time, we profess the belief in the resurrection of the dead on the last day; the body will be raised up glorious at the resurrection.
For this reason, the Church has always held that the body of the deceased is to be buried in a proper place. This is to make sure that it is laid to rest in a respectful and reverent manner awaiting the resurrection. Death, in our faith, is not the end; it is not a total annihilation of the person. Rather, it is a transitional period as we wait for the final judgment when the Lord comes. Therefore, the Church always prefers the practice of burying the body of the dead.
Does this mean cremation goes against the Church’s teachings? No, cremation, “objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo, 4) The Church does not object to this practice. However, we must be clear in the intention. Cremation cannot be considered as a quick and easy means to ‘dispose of’ a body. Even when the circumstance makes this practice a preferred choice, the cremated remains still have to be treated in the utmost respectful manner.
Now, as soon as people learn that it’s ok to cremate, one of these questions are almost guaranteed to follow:
~ Can I scatter the ashes in the ocean? I’ve always loved nature.
~ Can my ashes be scattered in the forest?
~ Can we keep the ashes at home? It’s comforting to know our loved one is with us.
As seemingly romantic and lovely as these ideas are, these are not acceptable options to having the cremated remains laid to rest. Aside from all the theological reasons given in part 1 about the dignity of the human body and the resurrection, let’s look at the practical aspects. To have the ashes scattered in the ocean or the forest, first of all, causes the remains to no longer be whole. Second, would anyone be comfortable knowing that their loved one can potentially become food for the fish in the ocean, or be rummaged through by the animals in the forest? That said, I think the impermissibility of having the ashes kept at home is the toughest thing for a lot of people to accept.
Everyone grieves differently.
For some, they do not feel ready to ‘let go’ of their loved ones. Burying the remains thus seems so ‘final’ that they’d like to keep the ashes at home and feel the closeness of the deceased presence. I totally understand and sympathize with that. But, I also need to call our attention to the practical considerations. Life is full of unknown possibilities. There are a lot of what ifs.
~ What if the house was broken into?
~ What if a cat or a dog knocks over the urn?
~ What if something happens to you or the next generations do not have the same regard for the ashes?
~ What if grandma ends up being stored in the corner of the closet, or tucked away in the attic?
In recent years, there are disturbing trends of dividing the ashes – 1/3 goes here, 1/3 goes there. Even more disturbing, ashes are being made into jewelry to be worn. This is a misguided sense of ‘love,’ and, quite frankly, a grave violation, no pun intended. A person ought to remain whole, whether in life or in death.
If I insist that I must have a part of the person with me all the times, I must wonder is it for the good of the dead person or is it my selfish need to hang on? These are some tough concepts to embrace. But the Church’s intention has always been to ensure and uphold the dignity of each individual – body and soul. The funeral rites are created for this purpose – to provide a dignified process to lay a person to rest.
The Vatican recently issued a very short document in regards to this issue. Should you need a helpful resource to read and reflect, you can look up this document on the Internet. It is called Ad resurgendum cum Christo (To Rise with Christ).
(Continued next week…)