Jul 19, 2011

Funerals: Cremation or not?

Rembrandt: Resurrection of Christ

The days of summer are for most of us a bit slower. The weather is definitely warmer which tends to slow us down a bit. But, if you live here in the Pacific Northwest we’ve barely seen any day above 80 in this so-called summer! To the folks back east, if you're looking to cool off, come our way!

In parish life we see weddings and the ever present funeral celebrations. Recently, after a number of funerals this summer I was struck by the increasing number of cremations that are taking place. None of the series of four funerals we had in two weeks had the body of the deceased present for the funeral liturgy. In fact, one funeral director told me that about 70% of funerals these days are cremation rather than whole body. I find this particularly troubling not because it is necessarily wrong but rather because I strongly believe that cremation minimizes our faith.

In the early days of Christianity the Christians distinguished themselves from the pagan culture around them. The pagans cremated their dead while the Christians did not and honored the deceased then buried them in the ground as a statement of faith in the Lord Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. We still believe in the resurrection of the dead. We proclaim this every Sunday in our Creed. Have we become so utilitarian so pragmatic that such a belief is no longer connected to our lives?

There was a time, of course, that Catholics could not be cremated. In fact that time was not long ago. But, as the practice has grown I fear it is becoming the norm rather than the exception in many parts. This, I think, is a concern. The reason seems to be merely financial. Yes, funerals can be expensive. Yet, we save for vacations, for education, for our cars and homes. Could we not set some aside for future burial costs and make adjustments to life insurance policies or insurance policies?

Let’s face it, the prevailing American culture is in denial about death. Still more, we live in a culture which names physician assisted suicide, “death with dignity.” The very concept of "physician assisted suicide" should send shivers down the spine of each patient. What sort of doctor would assist in the suicide of their patient?

We would rather think of life, youth, beauty, energy than taint such thoughts with the disturbing reality of death. Granted, I too do not find death an easy topic or one that I would make the subject of regular conversation. But, it is the one experience that none of us will escape.

So, rather than face it squarely on, which is a healthy thing to do, we tend to create some alternative. Cremation is a not pleasant process. The remains of the deceased are not ashes. But, it unconsciously avoids having to face the starkness of death. With no body present for the liturgy it appears the loved one has simply vanished. The person we knew and loved, with whom we spoke and lived is only present through a picture before the altar. The cremated remains simply don’t have the same impact as a body in a casket. So, it does deny us on some level the right of closure.

I well know that depending on the situation or the type of death, it may not be possible to have the body of the deceased present. We reach out in compassion always in such a situation. But, for the vast majority of times it is possible.

Without the body present, the signs of our faith that remind us of Jesus’ promise of eternal life are more imaginative than they are real. We have to stretch somewhat to “see” them. Yet, the Catholic funeral liturgy in the presence of the body of the deceased, in its prayers, signs, music, when done well, is most beautiful. We can see, feel and hear the promise of eternal life. The liturgy is not about death, essentially. It is about life and hope in the face of death. If the body is not present for the funeral liturgy, we unconsciously deny ourselves the power of a reality that can transform our lives here.

The introduction to the Catholic funeral rite contains these words of hope: “The Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end . . . Christians respect and honor the bodies of the dead and the places where they rest . . . The preparation of the body of the deceased should always be marked with dignity and reverence and never with the despair of those who have no hope . . .”

In other words, when our loved one lies before us in death we love them no less. When they lie before us in death we mourn but we are joined with them in the hope of eternal life. We who are alive stand before death and proclaim the hope of resurrection.

As much as a funeral service is about the deceased it is even more about what we believe as a people of faith. We Christians have a word of hope that we bring to a world which is so fixed on the temporary, the immediate, the usefulness of a person or object.

Funerals are also wonderful opportunities for evangelization. There are most often a number of non-Catholics present for the funeral liturgy.  For many, it may be their first Catholic Mass or first time in a Catholic Church. Why not offer them the privilege of witnessing to what we believe through the full signs of our faith and the way in which we treat the dead with dignity and respect around the body of the loved one. We indeed treat the cremains in a dignified manner but the full signs of our faith are not present in that case.

When the body is present for the funeral liturgy, particular symbols of our faith are used. The Easter Candle also burns before the cremated remains but when it does so at the head of the casket before the altar it reminds us even more that Christ is our hope and his victory over sin and death in the resurrection. It is our certain hope that this body we honor, this person who lies before us, will rise again.

The large white pall is placed over the body of the deceased in the casket as a reminder of the garment of baptism. No pall is placed over cremated remains.

The body is sprinkled with holy water. So are the cremated remains but the wording is fuller for that of the body: “In the waters of baptism N. died with Christ and rose with him to new life. May he/she now share with him eternal glory.” The wording over cremated remains is much shorter: “As our brother/sister N. has died with the Lord, so may he/she live with him in glory.”

We also have the option of placing a Book of the Gospels on the casket and a Cross as well. Both of these remind us that this person as a Christian was called to live by the word of God and was signed with the Cross of Christ in Baptism. No such symbols are used over cremated remains.

Incense is used at the end of the service to honor the body that is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that this person walked this earth and now, we pray, “walks” into eternal life. Though the cremated remains may be incensed, the appearance is not the same.

The rich and full signs of our faith have their best context when the body of the deceased is present for the funeral liturgy. So, I urge my readers to consider this. The Church, though it allows cremation, does not encourage it. It is preferred and more fully Catholic and Christian when the body of the deceased is present for the funeral Mass. In ground burial is preferred but if cremation is desired it should be done so after the funeral service then those remains interred in the ground or a mausoleum with dignity and respect.

Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our brothers and sisters
in the sure and certain hope
that together with all who have died in Christ,
they will rise with him on the last day. . .”

(Final Commendation of the funeral rite)