….I have regularly criticized cremation for many reasons: see here, here, here, and here. My purpose here is to focus on cremation as the act of deliberately destroying a human body.
The fundamental difference between earth burial and cremation lies in the exercise of human agency vis-à-vis a human body. The dead bodies of sinful men and women will (barring a divine miracle of incorruptibility) decompose and rot.
But that process is fundamentally different in earth burial and cremation. An interred body will decompose by itself at its own “natural” pace. Cremation, on the other hand, involves affirmative human agency, a certain amount of direct violence, to eliminate human remains not in any natural way and not necessarily to leave anything behind. As elsewhere in the culture of death, we’ve even coined a neologism to mask what we are doing: leftover ashes are now “cremains,” a fusion of “cremated” and “remains,” except that there are far fewer “remains” than burial yields and that reduction is the result of deliberate human action.
Yes, many ashes are sealed in urns and set to rest in columbaria: diocesan cemeteries have developed a whole (and probably lucrative) new line of business there, suggesting another reason the Church is chary to criticize cremation.
But the very fact that someone decides that there is no inherent obligation to respect the integrity of a human body after death means that the sealing and burial of ashes has become a choice, not a duty. Family members might afford the deceased a “final resting place.” Or they might not.
They might decide that mom belongs on the fireplace. They might decide that, the cost of burial still being “too much,” Uncle Joe be best left on the closet shelf. Succumbing to too many Hollywood movies, they might decide that Cousin Mitch is best scattered on his favorite beach, fishing hole, or woke protest site. Or, because family wants to keep Mom “close,” they turn her ashes into a broach, “keepsake jewelry” being the latest spinoff of the “funeral industry.”
The point is that cremation not only undermines the intrinsic physical integrity of the body, but it purports to empower someone else to do that. While many people will claim it’s what Uncle Joe or Cousin Mitch or Mom “wanted,” the truth is that it is often what the keeper of the ashes wants, prefers, or finds most convenient as regards his costs, time, interest, and commitment. Instead of the deceased having a “right” to a funeral (which includes interrupting other peoples’ lives to note his death) and a grave, the deceased is now wholly dependent on the convenience of his “mourners” and the evanescence of memory.
Because ashes significantly reduce what “remains” of a deceased human person, it also significantly undermines the idea of a “resting place.” I know where my father, mother, and grandparents rest. I do not know where my cousin Wayne rests. His ashes long ago blew off the Connecticut field where he was scattered: cremation has reduced him to a nobody who is nowhere. Cremation reinforces contemporary dualism, treating the “person” as some kind of idea or memory, which is the only thing that “remains” or “matters” (even though there is no matter remaining).
I emphasize cremation as a technical “solution” to the problem of what to do with a rotting human corpse because it leaves us something to have to deal with. It’s not a body, created by God which evolved according to the laws of human nature, but a humanly produced artifact of that body. Despite the human effort to reduce the remains, something is left over.
And we don’t like leftovers.
Cremation opened a door. If it is legitimate for someone deliberately and violently—because burning is violent—to destroy the integrity of a human body, even after death, then the fact that cremation leaves something behind is just a technical hiccup.
Almost 20 states allow alkaline hydrolysis as a way of disposing of human remains. Alkaline hydrolysis is essentially a chemical breakdown of the body under high temperatures so that nothing is left but a few gallons of fluid (“effluent”), unless it is deliberately crystallized. On October 20, Dubuque Archbishop Michael Jackels even announced his approval of this method, rationalizing that as long as we show “respect” to what we have done to the body, it doesn’t matter whether the “body” (what “body,” Your Excellency?) is “laid to rest” “in the earth, water, fire, or air, cemetery or not.”
So far, nobody has suggested we “bottle” liquefied Aunt Lucy like we put Uncle Joe’s ashes in an urn. The truth is the effluent is usually just treated as waste water (although one company specializing in the technique suggests it could be a good fertilizer). We have arrogated the right to pulverize a human body into nothing. But we should show “respect” while we do that.
Deseret News poses the usual too-late American question: does alkaline hydrolysis cross “an ethical line?” The truth is that ethical line was crossed when, by accepting cremation, we accepted the idea that what had been a living “temple of the Holy Spirit” could be deliberately broken down by human hands. Perhaps in a Church that closes and sells off parishes to the highest bidders, that might no longer be so shocking.
But our “pragmatic” and “cost-effective” solutions of the moment usually come with long-range cultural prices. The reduction of the human body—in life and even in death—to a commodity to be changed by technology to accommodate human desiderata represented a mega-cultural shift for which the naïve optimists who opened the door to Christian cremation are partly responsible. “To bury the dead” is a corporal work of mercy, but burial is not just a culturally conditioned custom. How we treat a human body says something about our humanity.
The above comes from a Nov. 2 article in Crisis magazine by John Grondelski.
Another problem with cremation and alkaline hydrolisis is that by disintegrating the body it makes it more difficult for God to restore the risen body in the general resurrection.
But seriously, when the Church offers free burials, then it can speak with authority against cremation. Just as when the Church offers subsidies to large families it can speak with authority about contraception.
Another problem— “makes it more difficult for God to restore the risen body . . .”. Are you serious? Your comment is anthropomorphism (attributing to God the qualities/limitations of human nature) at its worst. Remember the Scripture verse “as far as the heavens are from the earth, so distant are My ways from your ways. . .”?
Your ideas about the Church’s right to teach on abortion and contraception are even more primitively irrational: moral right or wrong is determined by who pays?
nothing is difficult for God. He is all powerful.
Nothing is impossible for God. That doesn’t mean everything is easy for him; just not impossible.
“But seriously, when the Church offers free burials, then it can speak with authority against cremation. Just as when the Church offers subsidies to large families it can speak with authority about contraception.”
Since when does the Church “speak with authority” against cremation? And since when did witnessing to the truth come with the condition of financing it? Using that logic, doctors shouldn’t advocate healthy diets and not smoking unless they’re willing to work for free.
And what does contraception have to do with cremation (unless there is just an ideologic axe to grind about the Church in general and any topic can be mangled to that end…)
Bishop Jackels, we clergy were ordained to preach Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for salvation from sin for goodness, from death to eternal life, and from isolation to communion with God and one another. Be careful of these type of statements, bishop, because they will be the only ones that the press will report. Stay the course with speaking of Jesus, his miracles, his work in salvation history, and how he is saving you. Don’t give ammo to the secular world to distract from the Savior.
I was actually going to defend the bishop until I read this:
But, is it more offensive than the process involved in embalming the body, dressing it
up like a child’s doll, and applying make-up to it? Or is it more offensive than the
Church practice of cutting a saint’s body into pieces for relics? And isn’t traditional
burial disrespectful to God’s good, green earth?
Holy cow…I can’t believe a bishop wrote that and I very much bet he didn’t. A chancery employee undoubtedly wrote that as that statement is in stark contradiction to the highly educated and polished profile of even the most progressive bishop…no way did he write that himself.
The least expensive rate for a Catholic funeral and burial in a Catholic cemetery today, may run nearly $8,000, nationally. Usually, though, costs run higher, especially in California– maybe $10,000-15,000, or more. Plus, families of the deceased often have medical bills, and other bills, to pay off. Many Catholics today, view these funeral and burial expenses as an exhorbitant, unnecessary financial expense, and do not want to burden their families, so they may choose cremation, for financial reasons. A cremation and urn often costs about $2,000. But you have to pay much more, to place the urn of your loved one, in a Catholic cemetery. Many Catholics who work in the Catholic funeral home and Catholic cemetery industries, say they make “pre-plans” for their own cremations, instead of Catholic burials, to spare their families unnecessary expenses, at their life’s end. It all boils down to today’s economic situation! About 60 years ago, (before 1963) cremations were not allowed by the Church. Almost anyone could afford to get married, have large families, own their own home, give weekly tithes to the Church, and send all their children to Catholic schools– and bury all their family members, with big Catholic funerals– even on a modest salary. Catholics also were much better catechized, at that time. But today, the situation is so different! Very sad.
About 30 years ago, an elderly man died at our church, and we were invited to his funeral. Just a few days before his death, I had seen him walking slowly with his cane, all dressed up, led by his wife, into the church, for Mass. They both looked so elegant! Then, I had a terrible shock at the funeral Mass! Instead of a coffin, there was a big, very fancy, decorated urn! And I had never seen one before!! The poor man had been cremated– and they didn’t even wait until after the funeral Mass, to cremate his body! The Church says it is right to have the entire body of the deceased present at the funeral Mass! Then, another big shock! We were all invited to a big celebration, with lots of food and drink– and afterwards, to all get onto a yacht down at the bay– and scatter the poor man’s ashes onto the bay– along with liturgical rites of the Church, “Vatican II style” — which I think were made-up, with lots of silly balloons and decorations– and were not legally endorsed by the Church!
My comnent of Nov. 5th at 8:33 pm was edited. I will add one last thing, that was left out by the editors. I politely declined the last part of the funeral rites, with scattering of the ashes, etc. But they later had photos of it, at the church. I was sorry, though, for the poor elderly widow, now coming to Mass all alone, grieving. To be a widow or widower, is very, very painful! And the pain is always there, throughout the rest of your life, though Time softens many painful wounds.
I’m sure the widow is consoled by your judge mental attitude. Not. Nothing they did is against Church teaching. Just not the preferred route. Sometimes people do the things they do because it is very expensive to do it the way you might prefer. Sometimes they do things because it is the wishes of the deceased. Your judging them isn’t helpful.
You are not supposed to scatter the ashes.
The Church prefers that the body be present for the full funeral liturgy and the cremation to take place after the liturgy. However, if it is not possible for the body to be present at the Funeral Mass, having the cremated remains present at the Funeral Mass is acceptable.
MAY I SCATTER THE CREMATED REMAINS?
A: No. The practice of scattering on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home is not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.
Burial at sea differs from scattering. An appropriate container, heavy enough to be sent to its final resting place, may be dropped into the sea. The Church requires the placement of cremated remains in a container that sinks to the bottom of the sea and does not release the remains in such a way as to be scattered across the surface. State and local jurisdictions may limit burial at sea. Families
what about the diplomatic use of the
old wood chipper or the bishop of Dubuque
should be familiar with the hog industry; why not
just send the dearly departed down the road to the nearest
rendering plant … good for the economy, good for the
Good Lord, the barbarians are INSIDE the gates!
i failed to mention
being shot from a cannon
Farmer John, do you still advertise with the Los Angeles Dodgers? I loved your bacon. Mmmmmmm….. But I don’t live in L.A. anymore.
I wrote a take-off on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour called Magical Disappearing Body. My sentiments against the practice of cremation.
With thanks to The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour/ Songwriters: John Lennon / Paul Mccartney
Magical Mystery Tour lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
No need to roll out the old-fashioned casket
No need to roll out the old-fashioned casket
(Don’t say cremation!)
Ashes, ashes, who’s got them?
Where’s the final location?
In time it’s a family mystery,
A magical mystery tour
That’s waiting to take you away.
Waiting to hide, hide away.
No blessing, no incense, no sprinkling.
No tears for the beloved face.
No mention! Body or Resurrection?
This magical mystery tour
Is hoping to take you away.
The body forgotten
Ashes, we all fall down.
Cremate, but don’t say it,
Don’t say cremation
Don’t roll out that casket
To go to the new dimension
Who needs the Resurrection?
The magical mystery tour
Is coming to take you away,
Spiriting your vapor away
Dying to take you away.
Take you today.