QUESTION: “My problem is that my husband, who was never a devout Catholic, laid down in his will that his ashes be dispersed in the elements. Now I know that the Church allows cremation, but seven years ago, when I approached my parish priest and told him of my husband’s request, I asked him to preside over the dispersal ceremony. The priest told me that he could not do so. He explained to me that the Church asks that, in keeping with a spirit of reverence, the cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.
I am a faithful Catholic, but I also wish to honour my husband’s wish. Not knowing what to do, I have kept the urn at home, but I can’t go on like this forever. What should I do?”
FRIAR RICK’S ANSWER: “The death of a loved one is never easy, and especially when it comes to one’s spouse. I am very sorry for your loss. After seven years it’s understandable that the more intense grief has passed. Do not be surprised, though, if at times you are caught off guard by a smell, a sound or any kind of memory that might trigger your grief again. This would not be unusual. Continue to be gentle with yourself, and even with regard to your husband’s ashes, you can take your time. It has been seven years already, it’s not like you are in a rush at this point.
A good place to start in our reflection is to remember how we, as a Catholic community, view creation and the human body. All of creation is willed and created by God. In that sense it is sacred. In particular the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. We are the pinnacle of creation. This applies to the whole person – including our bodies. As Catholics we believe that our body is an essential part of our identity. To paraphrase loosely the French existential philosopher Gabriel Marcel: There is no ‘me’ except a me that includes a body. According to God’s plan this body of ours is destined for glory in eternity. In the resurrection we will have some form of material identity or body. We get a glimpse of this type of body from the appearances of Jesus after the resurrection where at one moment he is difficult to recognise and at the other quite Himself, or at one moment cooking and eating breakfast with his friends and at the other appearing behind locked doors. Who really knows what it’s going to be like. But I, for one, am looking forward to it!
Since the human body is so sacred the Church has traditionally rejected any actions that would show disrespect towards the body or any action that would speak against our belief in the resurrection. For this reason the ancient pagan traditions of cremation were for many centuries rejected by the Church.
Today cremation is permitted, but only on condition that it is not done for motives of disrespect towards the body. In the same vein, the cremated remains of the human person should also be treated with respect, and entombed or buried.
Some people express the desire to be cremated and to have their ashes scattered to the wind as an expression of the sentiment of being reunited with the earth from which God created us. This runs contrary to Christian and Catholic beliefs. We do not, after death, simply return to some generic cosmic reality. We retain our individual identity, and some form of individual material body, and we remain in a personal relationship with God and with one another. That is why the Church invites us to retain and respect the personal integrity of the person even in burial.
Besides the Church’s understanding of the sacredness of the human body, it also makes good pastoral sense to bury or entomb the ashes. We who grieve our losses also need a place, like a grave, where we can cry, remember and pray. Trust me, your husband, God willing in heaven, will understand. Do what you need to do for yourself.”
(This article is offered for educational purposes. It should not be seen as a substitute for obtaining counselling.)
- from: “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, November 2012 issue.
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