Q: During Bible Study, we discussed what our resurrected bodies would look like and this led to the subject of Catholic burial. Some of us do not understand the Catholic Church’s stand that the cremated ashes of a Catholic can only be kept or deposited on holy ground which today means in a church columbarium. It rules out sea burial or the quiet, respectful deposit of ashes in a natural spot that has special significance to the deceased.
If we are all God’s creatures and the whole of creation belongs to God, then isn’t every place God’s place and therefore holy? If for some reason places are deemed to have been made unholy, doesn’t it just takes the power of our Christian prayers, delivered through a priest performing traditional church rituals similar to those performed at columbariums, to restore the original state of holiness and hence make the burial acceptable?
Keeping ashes in a porcelain jar in a columbarium does not fulfil the “ashes to ashes” idea. How long can a church keep on storing ones ashes? Certainly not beyond the time when the money runs out, when all niches are full and no more income is forthcoming.
Ultimately, our ashes have to be returned to the elements, so why not now when we are able to express our wishes and when our children can carry them out? It’s a burden we would rather spare grandchildren and beyond.
Just as it doesn’t matter if we had one or seven husbands or wives in this life, in our resurrected state it’s not important where our ashes are. Is that correct? – Joan Kwok
A: A question such as yours is a relevant one as it affects every single human being, Christian or not, as we will all experience death. How our remains are handled, treated, stored and preserved has implications beyond our own death. The Church has always been clear on the dignity that every human person has, primarily based on the teaching that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and this “likeness” has to be respected from conception to natural death.
But what about after the point of death? Should dignity then be disregarded and the body of the deceased be treated with less dignity than when he or she was alive? Based on mere common sense and sensitivity alone, just as one does not toss the body of a dead relative into some river or landfill, neither then should we treat the burnt remains of our loved ones with disregard.
The Church’s rich tradition regarding the way that the bodies of the dead are given respect is evident in the special liturgical rites that have accompanied the burial of the dead. Central to the rites is the place and final deposition of the body, be it in a tomb or burial, and more recently, with the internment of their cremated remains. These places are signs of hope of the resurrection even as death “claims our mortal bodies” (Order of Christian Funerals, 1998 ed., No. 218, hereafter OCF).
As your question shows, there seems to be a tendency to detach the rite of committal surrounding the rites for the dead, or to even omit them entirely.
As for cremation, this was only permitted by the Church in recent times. Especially in places like land-scarce Singapore, this is a much more viable option. This in no way denies our belief in the resurrection of the body. But the need to have proper care of the remains of the dead remains. This, I believe, is the crux of your question.
OCF No. 417 reminds us that cremated remains must be placed in a worthy vessel, and must be interred or entombed. It specifically states that it is not permitted to scatter cremated remains over a favourite place, nor is it permitted to keep the remains in one’s home. So too, are the remains to be kept with its integrity intact. This means that it is not permitted to divide or separate the cremated remains and inter them in more than one place.
These are the teachings of the Church. But I think we will only be accepting of such teachings when we understand that at the heart of this is both faith and love.
As disciples of Christ who value prayer and who are also people who are always aware of our physicality and sensate nature, it helps us make the very important connections when we have a physical location that helps us focus our minds and still our hearts. Coming to a church to pray helps this. Of course we do believe that our God is omnipresent, but when we make that effort to come to church each Sunday, and when we see the similar efforts taken by our brothers and sisters in the faith to do this with a shared sense of dedication, our faith is undeniably strengthened and it reignites our ardour. Our love for God and for our fellow man and woman becomes more apparent.
The same must apply to the way that we treat the remains of our deceased loved ones. Going to a physical place where they are respectfully interred helps us to make that all important connection with them. More than that, it also reminds us of our own mortality and our need to keep our faith alive. Merely knowing that grandpa’s remains are scattered on some favourite park or hill doesn’t often aid this well.
The fact that there is income from the sale of columbarium space in churches should never be the reason that some have such facilities on their premises. Those churches that have such facilities are always aware that there will be a need to find new and equally respectful ways to treat these remains if the rules governing the existence of such places change.
Fr Luke Fong