A Commentary by Father Joseph Chamblain, OSM
Assumption Catholic Church
With Thanksgiving behind us and nothing left of the monster meal but a Tupperware container of green beans, most people’s thoughts turn to Christmas. The Scriptures, though, for the First Sunday of Advent are hardly joyful. That is because this season of Advent is not just a time to prepare for Christmas (or even the coming of Christ at Christmas). It is also about preparing for Christ’s second coming at the end of time and about Christ’s coming at the end of our time. Advent asks us to look forward and not backward. Advent is about developing a mindset that we carry throughout the entire year, that we are always waiting for the coming of Christ. So, maybe it’s not inappropriate on this Sunday after Black Friday that I bring up the recent instructions that the Catholic Church issued regarding cremation. Though we have only a small number of funerals at Assumption, cremation is a subject on which I get lots of questions.
Since 1963 the Church has permitted cremation, but only with the clear understanding that in cremating the remains of our loved one we are not in any way denying the resurrection of the body. Now, to be honest, no one knows what a resurrected body would be like (we only have Jesus to go on) and what difference it would make, when Gabriel blows his trumpet, whether what’s left of us is in a coffin or an urn. It’s God who is going to be bringing us back to life and God can do whatever God wants. The problem is that whenever in our history we have gotten away from the idea that we are somehow incomplete without our body, it has led to the denigration of the body. Many heresies have grown up around the idea that only our soul or spirit has value, and therefore the goal of existence is to escape the body and leave it behind. This line of thinking has led people to deny that God really took human flesh or that Jesus was really human (Surely God would know better than to sink to such a level). It has led others to claim that sins of the flesh do not matter, because things that the body does are irrelevant to salvation. So, to quote the Apostles’ Creed, “we believe in the resurrection of the body” and we make that article of faith explicit in our burial rites. We further believe that, as a special privilege, Mary was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory and that you and I will always be somehow incomplete until we too share that privilege.
While cremation in some form or other has always been around, modern life has made it more popular. Families are scattered. Seniors retire to Arizona or Florida. Shipping a body back up north for the funeral and burial is expensive, while cremains can be carried aboard an airplane. Families often dispense with evening visitation at a funeral home, making embalming unnecessary. Since 1997 we have been permitted to have a Funeral Mass in the presence of cremated remains, with a special Rite of Welcome for such funerals. A priest friend in Florida estimates that 75% of his funerals (and he does about 100 a year) are funerals with cremains.
The recent instructions from Rome do not add anything new. The Church’s concern is with practices that have grown up around cremated remains that are not in keeping with church teaching. The instructions emphasize that “the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery, or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose.” Because there is no urgency to bury the cremains (as there would be for a body), people sometimes keep cremains at home for years, or scatter them in different places, or divide them up among family members, or turn them into jewelry. The Church sees these practices as inconsistent not only with our belief in the resurrection but also with our long tradition of regarding tombs as sacred places of prayer, remembrance, and reflection for the faith community. During the age of the martyrs, Mass would be celebrated around the tombs of the heroes of our faith. So, I simply remind you that if you and your family are faced with decisions around the death of a loved one (or if you are being proactive and leaving instructions for your survivors), please be aware of what the Catholic Church teaches. You are part of the communion of saints for all eternity and you deserve to be treated that way.