Ashes to ashes

Wednesday 2 November 2016 — St. Joseph Cemetery, Falmouth — All Souls’ Day

Let me tell you, dear readers, a story sad but true. It concerns my cousin Richie. He and I were about the same age. Growing up, none of we cousins were allowed to wrestle with Richie, as young boys are want to do. Richie wore a full body brace due to a severe congenital spine deformity. Cousin Richie was not expected to live beyond the age of 18. That’s not the sad part. Turns out he lived well into his 60s — a full and productive life. The sad part was his death. 

Richie didn’t have a funeral. His body was cremated (at his request). The urn containing his ashes was brought to the local tavern and plunked down on the bar for “a celebration of life.” His clients toasted my late cousin until the wee hours of the morning. At closing time, everyone stumbled home. I have no idea what they did with poor Richie’s ashes. He deserved better than that. Richie had dedicated his life to counseling alcoholics. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently issued an instruction pertaining to the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation. There have been op-ed pieces published in newspapers and man-on-the-street interviews on television. The Vatican document is spun as something completely new and worthy of debate. The brouhaha is based on an abysmal ignorance of the thousands of years of respect for the dead among human beings and certainly among Catholics. 

I read the document. I see an affirmation of a Corporal Work of Mercy ­— burying the dead. 

Have I ever told you, dear readers, that I have a ministry as a cemetery director? There have been 25 interments in my cemetery this year, all done with dignity. Not all of the deceased were parishioners. In fact, not all were Catholic. Most were full-body burials, but some involved cremated remains. We have even set aside a section of the cemetery for the interment of cremains. 

Although the Church has always preferred to inter the body of the deceased, cremation has been allowed since 1969. In such a case, it’s better for the cremation to take place after the funeral. Further, even those who have been cremated before the funeral should be honored with dignified funeral rites.

Even this is falling by the wayside. More and more families are not having funerals for their loved ones: “just some prayers in the funeral parlor” or “maybe say a few words at the grave.” Sometimes, not even that. 

I’m seeing another trend: scheduling a “Memorial Mass’’ in lieu of a funeral when a funeral could very well be held. People pretend it’s a funeral, but it really isn’t. At a funeral the Church honors the physical remains of the deceased (even in the form of ashes). In a nutshell: no human remains, no funeral.

The issue that precipitated a renewed emphasis by the Vatican on a dignified burial was not the growing popularity of cremation, but rather a world-view that human remains don’t really matter. 

In the case of cremation, what happens to the ashes? The  instruction makes specific mention of human remains being kept at home, flung to the four winds, cast upon the waters, or made into jewelry (my guess would be the congregation had lockets in mind). 

As a priest, I have seen all this and more. 

I suspect that many funeral parlors have unclaimed urns of human cremains stored in their garages. Some families place the funereal containers on the mantel or in a closet. I have seen, at the church door, an urn retrieved from the trunk of a car. 

I’ve heard of cremains being divided into Ziploc bags and sent off with various family members to God knows where. I’ve celebrated a Funeral Mass with cremated remains present and gone down to the church hall afterwards only to find the dearly departed on the head table at the pot-luck. I’ve come across cremated remains encased in a garden ornament. I’ve heard of a woman who bought a vase at a flea market only to find, once she got home, that there were cremains inside.

I know full well that when, while arranging a funeral, I ask the place of interment and get a vague answer that the ashes will probably be tossed somewhere over land or sea. Perhaps there are no plans at all. 

“Both in life and in death, we belong to God,” St. Paul wrote. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith finds cause to remind us of this. I suppose that if a culture has so little respect for life, as does ours, it will have even less for death. It’s a sad situation.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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