‘There they go again, telling us what to do’, ‘They have little to worry them!’, ‘They are not going to tell me what to do with my loved ones ashes, nor my own for that matter!’ ‘My Mum’s ashes are on the sideboard and that’s where they are staying!’ These were just some of the reactions that came my way when the Church recently presented some norms regarding the burial and cremation of our loved ones. In a way these reactions are not surprising, and in my view are quite understandable.
Unfortunately as a Church we are inclined at times to issue regulations or norms, and then seek to explain what we mean and why we are saying such a thing afterwards. Surely it would be better to do it the other way round. If we first did a little bit of ground work by way of explaining and trying to help people understand our reasons for a particular approach, then there might be a greater openness or acceptance towards what we are saying. Instead we behave in a way that gets people’s back up. In this way we shoot ourselves in the foot, and play into the hands of those who want to portray us as a Church of Thou shalt not!
For our part, we as members of the faith community, have certain basic responsibilities. We at least owe it to ourselves and the Church to find out what exactly has been said. Unfortunately, at times, we settle for Church teaching as presented in the tabloids or the gospel according to Google! In this sense, the so called Information Age, can fail us and make us intellectually lazy. The Church up until three weeks ago had not addressed the topic of cremation since July 5th 1963. With the growing number of cremations the present statement is timely.
Perhaps given the mis-information that is out there and the prevalence of emotive sound bites it might be helpful, first of all, to state what the Church is not saying. The Church has not banned cremation. The Church has not judged, nor sanctioned those who in the past, have, in good faith, scattered their loved ones ashes. There is no threat whatsoever in the recently issued norms. The Church has not said that cremation interferes or denies God’s plan for our bodies after death, namely the resurrection from the dead. That said, lets now be clear what the Church has in fact said.
The Church has a clear preference for the burial of our mortal remains. Why? To begin with we need to remember that for us as Christians, because of Christ, death has a positive meaning. Put simply death is not the end. The Church argues that burial is the best way to give the faithful departed the honour and dignity they deserve. For me one of the most convincing points in this argument is that burial in a cemetery allows the person to be remembered in a prayerful way by the whole Christian community. This happens on occasions such as the Annual Cemetery Mass and the many visits people pay during the year, including at other family member’s funerals. Ashes kept at home can very quickly become a private affair. I can understand how some people get comfort from having their loved ones ashes on the table or on the dresser. However I often feel that this can represent an unhealthy denial, inability or unwillingness to let go. The Church is aware of some terrible things that have happened regarding the private keeping of ashes, and earnestly seeks to prevent such things.
I believe regardless of language or methodology the Church is trying to preserve the honour and dignity of the human being, including the body, in both life and death. Surely any sane person would be appalled by Keith Richard’s admission that he ‘snorted’ some of his fathers ashes. Now whilst this is an extreme example I am aware of other stories of disrespect, granted most likely not intentionally so. Ashes misplaced in kitchen accidents, ashes found in the attic after the last person in the house has died. The idea that ashes are divided up between family members, retained in, or forming part of, jewellery or ornaments are all cited by the Church as lacking the respect and dignity that our beloved dead deserve. Where we make a decision in favour of cremation the Church asks us not to scatter the ashes on earth, sea or sky.
So to summarise, at least the Church has provided clarity in this matter. In my view the onus is on us, with regard to this, or any Church teaching, is to first of all be clear that I know precisely what the Church is saying: to take this away and to pray and reflect on it: to have a discussion with a priest, pastor, teacher or someone who might help us formulate our response: to ask the Holy Spirit’s guidance and grace to respond. Personally in this, as in all things, for us as faithful members of the Church, the notion of going a different direction, should not be undertaken lightly – if at all!