24 August 2011

Thinking on death, and cremation

Yesterday the priests of the Springfield Deanery - in which I now reside - gathered for lunch and discussions regarding Catholic funerals and the rise of secular values within them and which are often encountered in the mourners who have lost a sense of the dignity of death and of the deceased.

Our conversations were very good and I enjoyed the time together.  As we talked about these concerns it became clear that we will need to continue our discussions together before we can begin to address them with our people.

What was surprising to me is the rise in the popularity of cremation.  In my six years as a priest, I think I have only encountered it two or three times, and for that I am grateful.

Since I have been awake since 3:00 a.m. (I went to be bed a little before 9:00 p.m. as I continue to suffer with jet lag) I have been trying to catch up on my blog reading.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a post from Father John Boyle on cremation.

Father Boyle reminds us that while the Church permits cremation (Catechism 2301), she "earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed" (canon 1176 § 3).

Given this strong recommendation, Father Boyle asks:
Given this grudging permission ("does not prohibit") how is it that cremation has become so common amongst Catholics? It has always seemed to me unworthy of the dignity of the body of a baptised person - being a Temple of God - to consign it to the flames of a cremator. As Christ himself descended into the tomb after His death in anticipation of His Resurrection, so burial is a more perfect imitation of Christ the Lord as our bodies rest in the tomb awaiting the resurrection of the dead at the Last Day.
I agree with him, and think if more people knew what really happens in cremation they would not opt for it (for example, after the cremation bones remain which are then pulverized into fine particles).


  1. Anonymous8:50 PM

    I suspect the popularity of cremation has a LOT to do with the cost of funerals and with the perception that a lot of the "trappings" of the traditional funeral are wasteful, unnecessary, and burdensome to those of lesser financial means.

    If you don't have adequate life insurance, live paycheck to paycheck, etc. the cost of purchasing a burial plot, a casket, and the services of a funeral director for an open casket wake (embalming, makeup, etc.) can add up pretty fast. Cremation, on the other hand, tends to be MUCH less costly.

    If the Church really wants to promote the practice of proper Christian burial then perhaps She ought to do more to emphasize that a Christian burial does NOT have to equal a prohibitively expensive one, and maybe do more to ease the burden of such funerals upon the poor.

    I know that there is a community of Trappist monks in Iowa that build wooden caskets from wood culled from their own forest, and these caskets are very simple but dignified. Some cost less than $1,000, and the community has been known to donate caskets to particularly needy families or when requested for the funeral of a child.

    One of the traditional corporal works of mercy is burying the dead. Perhaps parishes or dioceses could establish burial societies to help out families with funeral costs or provide funeral services to the indigent (especially important now that the State of Illinois can no longer afford to do this.)


  2. By the Church, Elaine, I hope you realize that every one of the baptized is called to practice the corporal works of mercy, among which is the burying of the dead.

    I know several Catholic funeral directors who work with the poor and who often provide their services without charge. In this way, the Church does attend to the burials of the poor.

    Each of us, in our ways and according to our means, must also take part in this effort.

    Various societies and groups could be formed by the laity to raise funds to assist the poor with the costs of funerals for their loved ones.

    As an institution, the Church assists the poor through her priests and deacons and by continually praying for the deceased, the greatest act of love and honor we can give.

  3. Anonymous8:59 PM

    "I hope you realize that every one of the baptized is called to practice the corporal works of mercy, among which is burying the dead."

    Father, I do agree with that. I didn't mean to sound as if "the Church" meant only "the hierarchy" or "organized Church institutions" to the exclusion of individual laity, and I apologize if I came off sounding that way.

    I can understand individual funeral directors not wanting to publicize the fact that they can provide their services at reduced or no charge, either because they simply don't want to call attention to their works of charity or because they don't want to be unnecessarily taken advantage of.

    But this means the general public, some of whom may be in the process of making decisions about their funeral and burial/cremation rites, aren't going to be aware of the fact that the Church does offer assistance in this regard.

    Maybe the best way to overcome this is just to mention, whenever the topic comes up in a homily or in a church bulletin, that there are means available to insure that no Catholic need be denied (or deny themselves) the dignity of Christian burial solely for financial reasons. Perhaps reference to a good book or website on the topic might also help.


  4. I'll see if I can't find a few web sites, Elaine.