An Easter Reflection on the Plague of Cremation

As Christians prepare to celebrate the Paschal Feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, we will hear a lot about the “empty tomb.” Indeed, this year—in which the Lectionary focuses on St. Mark—will be particularly stark: the women encounter the empty tomb and the “young man” and are “utterly amazed” (Mk 16: 1-7).

As we celebrate the Lord’s rising from the grave we should also ask ourselves: why are graves increasingly disappearing among American Catholics? Why, indeed, are funerals?

I am very concerned about the plague of cremation.

In the past two and a half years, I have lost two nonagenarian aunts. My aunts were not traditional: they all decided more than fifteen years ago that they wanted to be cremated. Their motivation was economic: cremation and an urn are cheaper than a coffin. Now, post mortem, my surviving relative has also put off their interment. That deferral of burial is also economic: there are several elderly aunts, and opening a grave to bury an urn costs a minimum of $500 each time.

I am not judging people’s monetary considerations although, once upon a time, alongside laying up treasure in heaven one also put pennies into MetLife to take care of “final expenses.” I’ve written about cremation a number of times and, frequently, the responses I receive cite economics: traditional funerals can be five figure fees.

I think there is a need for conversations—on the parish, diocesan (because dioceses have increasingly taken over from parish cemeteries) and episcopal conference levels—about what we can do about the rising cost of dying. I say that because, like sex, these matters that touch almost every Catholic in the pews seem to fall under some gag order that blocks any mention of it from the pulpit. I dare say also that the pastoral care of the bereaved in many places may be similar to our pastoral care of young Catholics: anemic at best, non-existent at worst.

That said, I do not want to focus primarily on costs. There’s a potentially bigger problem. I maintain that the plague of cremation undermines our Easter faith.

For one thing, the witness of the empty tomb becomes ever more esoteric the less that Catholics have real contact with tombs. Some will, of course, note that in proper liturgical practice even ashes should be placed in the ground or in a columbarium. But I suggest there is a palpable difference between a place where a body is laid and a place where something that does not resemble a body is placed. Cremation subverts the symbolism of the body.

Indeed, as we celebrate the Paschal Triduum, the 13th and 14th Stations of the Cross remind us of what happened on Good Friday at four o’clock. Mary receives the body of her Son, not some freeze-dried crystals. The Pietà would never have moved us if Mary was holding a can.

St. John tells us that Jesus was laid in a nearby garden tomb because “it was the Jewish day of Preparation” (John 19:42). As I think Stanislas Lyonnet, the exegete, observed: Jesus, the new Adam, goes to rest in the sleep of death, the punishment earned for us by the old Adam, in a garden from which a new creation will arise. Jesus was buried promptly, according to Jewish custom.

There is something to be said about that sequence and suddenness. Funerals interrupt our lives. In the past, people allowed their usual rhythm to be changed by the demands of death and in response to the respect due the deceased: we made time for the wake; we took a day off for the funeral.

But today’s deferred funeral, enabled in no small part by cremation, inverts that order. Rarely do cremations take place immediately, and so funerals tend to occur not at the time interrupted by the deceased but at the convenience of the mourners. There is a subtle but important shift here: the focus has moved from him who has died to me who has not.

Wakes (consider the traditional Irish wake) were a time for families to come together now to support each other and remember the dearly departed. But, with the wake in decline, the family support and solidarity role is increasingly thrust upon and confined to those immediate family members who had the greatest physical contact (yes, bodilyness matters!) with the deceased and the next-of-kin. Nor do I think it accidental that funeral Masses, when they occur, are exposed to greater pressure to serve as venues for eulogies rather than opportunities to ponder eschatology in the light of Resurrection faith. Without wakes, when does the task of verbalizing the significance of the deceased for those closest to him occur?

Death is part of life, but when people actually see death less and less, the vacuum enables all manner of non-Christian notions to take root. Jesus died for three hours on a cross, in full view of the biggest city in his country, for any passersby to see (and any enemies to gape). Today, we die frequently in hospitals, curtained away from loved ones: experience of a loved one’s deathbed is ever rarer (just poll your friends) and I am not so sure how many families still even encounter the body of their loved one in a hospital just after death. Now, with funerals put off and burials in decline—along with the (unjustified) hiding of funerals from children—there is a real question of a genuine lack of contact by more and more people with the reality we each must experience: death.

In this Easter season, I also fear that this American cultural trend makes our faith less experiential. Given our concealment of the corpse, a broken Christ laid in the arms of his mother may be seen by some as less a stimulus to reflect on our love for the Redeemer as an off-putting barbarism. A buried Jesus may be less our “first fruits” if we have no intention of following him feet first into a tomb. And the empty tomb itself may be increasingly unintelligible when cemeteries are moved out of town and there are no tombs there anyway, just urns in niches.

Consider this thought experiment: the image of Jesus, laid on the slab, surrounded by Mary, John, Joseph of Arimethea, Mary Magdalene, and others. Now consider the same company, assembled around a small metal container. Cremation undermines the body.

When the Church lifted its general proscription against cremation, she emphasized that burial of the body remains preferred. Like the “reform” of Friday abstinence—in which the removal of the prohibition on eating meat was joined to the expectation of some other form of meaningful, voluntarily accepted penance—it seems that Catholics heard what was no longer Verboten but not what was still expected. As we look upon the empty tomb and try to square it with the growing lived experience of many contemporary Catholics with cremation, asking what potential erosion this causes to the experience of Easter faith, perhaps it is time for the Church to consider another “reform of the reform.”

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Pieta” painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1876.

John M. Grondelski

By

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

  • JERD2

    Many good observations in this article. Thank you.

    I have watched another person peacefully pass from life to death. It was a profound experience, and enriching in a mysterious way. The body appeared instantly transformed from life-filled to lifeless inert matter. One could almost sense the soul rising to meet our Lord.

    Viewing a dead body is a real, unvarnished reminder of our mortality; but equally important, a lesson in Christian hope.

  • Veritas

    A well written article. But, I am not yet convinced that I should not be cremated.
    I can only imagine that if my kids follow my instructions and turn me to ashes, that I will be recomposed later, just as the box of bones must become a perfect body in Heaven.
    Funerals will always be a concern of the living, just as it is now. Still, your article will give me pause to reconsider.

    • Rev Mr Flapatap

      It depends on the reason and how the ashes will be treated afterwards. When my father died, we had the funeral Mass with the body and then we had him cremated in order to transfer him from California to Puerto Rico so that we could bury him next to my mother as soon as possible.

      Now, one time I was about to celebrate a baptism at my parish and there was a funeral Mass with cremated remains right before the baptism. The family and friends of the deceased gathered at the church’s vestibule before heading out to a house for a reception. As I was getting ready for the baptism, the baby’s godfather came to me carrying a wooden box; the other family had left for the reception and left grandpa’s ashes sitting on a bench in the vestibule!

      • St JD George

        Of course I don’t know the circumstances, but I can see where in the stress and anxiety of such a moment a truly human experience could occur of forgetting something such as that, particularly given that it is small. However, if it were many hours or days then I would start to wonder about the bond that existed.

      • Veritas

        “It depends on the reason and how the ashes will be treated afterwards.”

        The reason: save on expenses for my survivors, even though the article was not treating that.

        How the ashes will be treated: According to the wishes of the Church and kept contained in its urn. I haven’t decided if I want my sons to take a 3 day fishing trip and drop me in the ocean, but that would depend on regulations for burying an urn. I’m not motivated yet to do the research.

    • AugustineThomas

      If American Catholics had their priorities straight, there would be plenty of money for burials. (You only have to pay for one your whole life.)

      • Veritas

        I have the money and an insurance policy. My kids will benefit from having the money. Who needs to invest $10 grand or more? If the Church did not allow cremation, then I would instruct them to pay the money and bury me. God will take care of the rest as I began as dust and will return to dust.

  • Nel

    I had to fight tooth and nail to get the ‘mourning minister’ or whatever she styled herself to butt out and let our family have a Catholic Funeral Mass instead of some kind of Hallmark Greeting Meets Tupperware ‘celebration of the life of (N).’ She kept telling me that ‘We are just here to honor (N).’ And ‘It’s all about honoring (N).’ I tried to explain that the situation was delicate: (N) was not well-remembered as the ‘great guy’ he had posed as out in public. Eulogies and panegyrics might drive even more members of the family from the Church and alienate those who had already left the Church or the Protestant in-laws (all of whom suffered his egregious selfishness and verbal abuse) even further.

    I saw the funeral as an opportunity to focus a scattered, post-Catholic, Protestant, agnostic family on the dignity, truth and beauty of the Catholic approach to death – possibly for the last time in our family. She saw it as ‘having nothing to do with the people who tend the Mass; what WE are doing is honoring (N).’ Aside from the fact that ‘honoring’ a creature is never the aim of a Catholic Mass, I was left wondering who ‘we’ was – certainly not the family. She never asked what the family wanted, just kept talking about what ‘we’ will do and what I had to do to conform to what ‘our’ agenda and formula for ‘celebrating the life of (N) with eulogies and panegyrics.

    The priest took her side (‘she handles all of the funerals, without pay, and nobody has ever complained but you; I’m very busy and she takes a lot of work off my hands’) and was very hostile to me until I said, ‘Father, some people are not the same person at home as they are in public. This is a delicate pastoral situation that requires a PRIEST’S involvement.’ Finally, I think he got it, but relations were quite strained and he always acted like I was being unreasonably demanding to just want a Catholic Funeral Mass with a Homily and no eulogy. He kept asking my approval for every little decision, like I was being so unreasonable to say, ‘A simple, Catholic Funeral Mass with a homily that reflects the pastoral situation in this religiously blended family. That’s all.’

    We had to elbow that officious ‘Minister of Mourning’ out of the way constantly – for example, when without asking the family’s approval, she was about to announce a general public viewing of the body, which we had decided against. It was what ‘we’ do at funerals, and she was following her formula, not consulting the family, but badgering me to hurry up and choose this and decide that – even though the funeral was an astonishing 2 weeks after the death and there was plenty of time. She wanted me to choose readings, etc. in a hurry because she ‘needed’ that to make some kind of memorial scrapbook of the funeral – which none of us asked for or wanted. Her agenda and her formula must be served. No discussion, no asking the family, just DO IT, and HURRY UP because my schedule must be served. Horrible, and her officious attitude further alienated at least one member of the family who was still reeling over being given a ‘hard sell’ at another Catholic church when he was trying to arrange his mother-in-law’s simple service, and they were pushing him for the service that cost $500 for the absolutely fixed ‘price’ of the priest’s ‘stipend.’

    Priests need to assert what a funeral Mass is; what death is really about; what the four last things MEAN. They need to take back funeral Masses from lay party coordinators who haven’t got ANY pastoral experience and don’t have the first clue what the Church teaches about death and funerals.

    The priest in California (Sacramento diocese) told me that the Bishop actually has allowed short eulogies of 3-5 minutes. Caving in to the Protestant culture and how Catholics expect funerals to be based on TV, I guess.

    It’s all a mess and I’m glad I’m out of it and living in a Catholic country where the church never went weird after Vatican II.

    • Simple & Plain

      Interesting comments. It seems that our diocese is pushing to get away from the traditional Catholic funeral Mass, and is mostly using lay ministers to handle the service. They are then having a future Mass (sometimes months and months later) offered for that person. If people who aren’t regular Catholic members want to ‘rent’ the Church and do their service, fine, but devoted Catholics don’t deserve to not have a Mass.

      Edit: And then some people won’t have the Eucharist at their wedding or funeral Mass, in order to avoid offending those who aren’t Catholic.

    • AugustineThomas

      I’m sorry for your troubles. God bless you for trying to uphold the Faith!

      And which country? I’d like to move there.

    • Lisa Hurley

      To avoid this insanity we should think about having our funerals the way they used to be and should be. Some friends of mine have had funerals of their relatives conducted by clery of the FSSP. Not to be mistaken with SSPX.

    • Guest

      I have heard of this drama. Thankfully, when my mom died several years ago I did not have to endure this craziness. It was the same Church where I received all of my Sacraments and my Mom attended (my Dad is a fallen away Catholic-there is always hope). We requested the Deacon lead the Rosary since he had know my parents for years. I requested and received a full Catholic Mass with Communion. There was no question. My son and I did the readings. The Priest included some appropriate comments in his Homily about my Mom. There were no eulogies or long winded speeches. Funerals are about praying for the soul of the departed. Today they have become a spectacle for the living who are often more worried about what they are going to get than paying respects to the deceased or more importantly to God!

    • orientstar

      What is a “Minister of Mourning” ? How widespread is this practice? Is it even in the Code of Canon? I live in Japan where cremation is compulsory by law but it’s a priest who conducts a Catholic funeral mass for Catholics.

    • Mickey’O

      Nel, you describe a Protestant church…. If that’s what passes for Roman Catholic, it is no wonder that parishioner numbers have dropped like a rock since V2.

  • Nel

    The Church in the US could help by getting rid of the whole idea of fixed ‘costs’ for ‘renting’ the Church or the demanded ‘stipend’ of hundreds of dollars for a priest to celebrate a funeral Mass. My brother’s mother-in-law didn’t want a Mass, just a rosary (price: 300 dollars), but they kept pushing the Mass for 500 dollars. When the family arrived for the rosary, the deacon was leading it, not the priest, as arranged, because the priest got another ‘gig’ – a rosary and Mass, which would pay more. This kind of stuff is an easy excuse for Catholics to avoid marrying in the Church and to skip Catholic funerals altogether. It’s INSANE to think that a priest is earning 500 dollars for a couple of hours’ work. Who else earns that much? And you’re paying him for the LITURGY of GOD!?! It’s a scandal.

    Demanding HUGE amounts of money to use the church for a wedding or funeral; having set ‘prices’ for the sacraments is a scandal in the US. It is not the case in other countries, especially when parishes are run by religious orders. You don’t pay to rent the church for a wedding or funeral where I live; the stipend is voluntary, and unless you ask how much to pay the organist, they don’t say. Many people don’t pay anything (because they are clueless, cheap or resent the Church for ‘being too rich’ or are on a tight budget). Others make a generous offering. The collection takes up the slack, if any. But there is NEVER a sense that the Church is ‘selling’ the sacraments or that the priest has to be paid HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS or he won’t show up for a funeral or rosary. Hundreds of dollars! The priest my brother was dealing with in California earned for one funeral what I earn in a month (in a middle-European country, as a college instructor). What kind of lifestyle does he need to support on that kind of income? It boggles the mind and drives people away.

    • CE User

      While I agree with you in principle I’m guessing $500 goes a LOT further where you live than it does in California, especially anywhere near the coast.

    • MadMaxi

      When my father died 2 years ago, the priest and church asked for nothing. The secretary suggested a donation of $50, but only if we could afford it, to the priest was all. This was after my Dad went through several months of sudden diagnosis of cancer to death that wiped the family financially.

      None of the churches in my region ask for such ludicrous amounts for a funeral Mass or services, they trust the family will donate as they see fit. Those with more donating a bit more to help those with less who are wiped out financially from the death of a loved one.

      I would notify the Bishop of the area that this practice is going on.

      Sadly, there are some who think they should not give anything to help offset the cost churches incur, or are too cheap(greedy) to give freely to the church for the time and services it provides. But I never heard of preset amounts, which are forbidden, to have a Mass said. Maybe that area is known for families not giving anything to offset the cost of heating, air conditioning, having the body moved to the church, covering a post funeral lunch, etc?

    • Lisa Hurley

      As Jesus says, “you have recieved freely, give freely”.

    • Mickey’O

      Sounds like “paid for” indulgences are back in style in the RCC! Martin Luther must be roaring in laughter wherever he is!!

  • Daniel P

    As for the cost of burial, perhaps it follows from the simple fact that we legally require people to be buried in nuclear-resistant boxes. If everyone were free to be buried in a box like Pope John Paul II was buried, burial prices could be kept under four (much less five) figures.

    Are we really that worried about decomposing?

    • somebigguy

      Indeed. I recall the massive vault my diminutive grandmother was buried in decades ago; as a child, I couldn’t understand the need.

      My father-in-law passed away just a couple weeks ago; a protestant, he chose cremation. I told my wife I want to be buried; and to hell with the ridiculous, nested containers of steel and lamination; I wanna rot!

      • dtex

        It’s a against the to not be in a vault.

        • 1crappie2

          Thanks to the funeral home/ cemetery owners and their well paid political friends?

        • G. M. Pugh

          It is not against the law to be buried without a vault. Many times it is a cemetery requirement. Most times a grave liner can be used instead of a vault, which could save a family hundreds or even thousand of dollars.
          The reason some cemeteries require an outside grave liner is to keep the grave from sinking and becoming a maintenance issue.

          • JDan

            God forbid we should expect paid, unionized cemetery workers to deal with the problem of sunken ground. The last time I visited my grandparents’ graves in the Catholic cemetery, I had trouble locating them and then, with my shoe, had to dig out the grass and soil that covered the markers. In the neighboring non-Catholic cemetery, my other grandparents’ graves were beautifully tended. It may not be against the law to be buried without a vault, but I challenge you to locate a decent sized Catholic cemetery that will bury you without one. The typical Catholic burial these days will not allow one to return to the dust from which they came.

          • Jim in Pittsburgh

            You are correct about the maintenance issue. As to law – it depends on the state. Many (maybe most?) states have no such requirement. In those states the cemetery personnel are taught to say that it is legally required because they don’t know any better. It is required because it is a cemetery rule, a rule for a very practical reason.

            Because we no longer bury bodies six feet under (haven’t in years and years, in fact) “maintenance” also means satety. The vault lids are only 18 – 48 inches from the surface. Filling the grave with dirt requires less soil and labor. So, when the soil “settles” there is less sinking, hence safer for workers and others who might walk over the grave. Today, cemeteries might deal with twisted and broken ankles. Without the concrete boxes (vaults) the settling is deeper an presents a greater danger to all. Moreover, if the coffin is wood, it will decompose and “pancaking” occurs. Thus, the surface will drop much deeper presenting a greater safety issue.

            I spent 5 years working for cemeteries. It was an education, involving everything from learning that “six feet deep” is no longer the norm, to the necessity for vaults.

            Regarding the main topic of this excellent article: I agree that by “preferring” rather than keeping burial as the norm (except in circumstances of necessity and hardship) we have lost something of immense value.

            Starting back in the 60s, secular cemeteries really made out like bandits when diocese after diocese “preferred” rather than “required” Catholics to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. When salesmen would knock on doors and were told, “We’re Catholics. We have to be buried in A Catholic cemetery”, the salesman would whip out a copy of the new Church policy and say, “Not any more.” Thus did Catholic cemeteries begin to lose what every traditional business needs for survival: HERITAGE – relying upon new customers because of family custom. Loss of heritage resulted in loss of expected revenue; loss of revenue led to loss of maintenance and perpetual care funds, which led to the need for price increases. This sad tale goes on and on. It mirrors, in very tangible terms, the general decline in the Church in America. I could write much more, but the whole thing makes me tired.

            Easter is in three days. I’m taking time off from blogging to focus on, and celebrate, the first Catholic burial. That one lasted only three days!

            • Ronk

              Six feet (well 2 metres now) dug deep into the soil, and no “vault” is still the norm in Australian cemeteries.
              If someone twists his ankle due to subsidence, serve him right for walking on a grave! This used to be viewed as a very serious social faux pas. and great disrespect to the deceased.

              • Jim in Pittsburgh

                It still is a faux pas if it is intentional. At most American cemeteries a graveside service, which is the concluding part of the Burial Rite, it is almost impossible for participants not to stand on other graves. It’s not intentional, just a fact of life (or death) because the graves are so close together. Most twisted ankles are inflicted on workers, but some happen to visitors. Women in high heels, which are fine in church, are prone to have accidents.

    • AnneM040359

      This is the fruit of the “high costs” to funerals, so this does not come as a surprise.

    • hombre111

      It might be against the law not to be buried in a vault. At a funeral the other day, the vault was a visual masterpiece made of polished metal. I blame the mortuary for talking the grieving family into that kind of expense.

    • Joseph

      I agree. What would be wrong with being buried in a wooden box and no metal around? I long to decompose and become dust and earth. I worked at a cemetery for 2 summers. The whole concept of the vault is ridiculous. Why be buried in the earth if the aim is to try to keep your body as intact as possible? Is it to protect ground water from E.coli? If I cannot be buried in a box and no vault, then I want to be dust and ashes.

    • 1crappie2

      As a fishermen, I have little problem with worms and such….

  • JayRobThom

    Thank you so much for this article. Cremation also tends to reinforce materialism – we no longer see how different the body looks in the absence of a soul; the sand – like ashes seem to confirm t he idea that we are only a lot of chemicals with water added. I feel an innate revulsion at the idea of cremation as well – it shows an indifference to the Incarnate Word, to the reality that He took on the form of a servant.

  • St JD George

    Good article John, one worthy of even more discussion. I have to admit I don’t understand the desire for an expensive funeral. When I drive by cemeteries and I see huge monuments my first thought is, really, was that necessary? I don’t begrudge people spending their money as they see fit, but I have to admit I think to myself that it gives the appearance of vanity. Beyond that, I can relate to the sentiment in Europe (not that I hardly ever hold them up as a role model) that given enough time all the land will be consumed with burial grounds which is why they have time allotments. Like in Italy, you can’t hardly stick a shovel in the ground without hitting some piece of Roman antiquity. It’s even more complicated today with families dispersed due to economic realities. I’m of the mind set to be cremated and ashes dispersed, but I’m also still forming an opinion. Jesus’s saying “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go proclaim the Kingdom of God” resonates with me on this.

    • John Grondelski

      Cremation is one thing, dispersal another. This IS, after all, the remains of what was the temple of the Holy SPirit.

      • St JD George

        Thanks John, I do understand and have evolved on this. I was mostly characterizing my pre Catholic feelings.

  • Dick Prudlo

    Yes, it all hits the dust so-to-speak, has it not? Past disciplines are just not worth our time or, I guess, the money. The final things are no longer thinkable in the Church, but what is thinkable was until recently unthinkable. While the Vatican spins the latest yarn by our President or I mean Bishop of Rome the laity yawns and goes back to the business of leaving Mass before the Last Gospel. Oh, I forgot we disposed of that foolishness 50 years ago.

  • JP

    Very good essay. It reminds me of an old Wallace Stevens poem, The “Emperor of Ice Cream” :

    ” …Take from the dresser of deal,

    Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet

    On which she embroidered fantails once

    And spread it so as to cover her face.

    If her horny feet protrude, they come

    To show how cold she is, and dumb.

    Let the lamp affix its beam.

    The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

  • justanotherlittlesoul

    As someone who once documented sacramental records for a parish, I can attest that cremation opens the doors to a host of abuses which I witnessed on a regular basis. The number one abuse was the refusal by the bereaved to inter the “cremains.” In the Diocese where I worked, we were rightly forbidden to allow a funeral Mass to take place without the family agreeing to inter following the ceremony. Many people would not comply. They felt they owned the ashes — that it was their RIGHT to keep the remains in their living room, bedroom, garage, or sprinkled about from place to place. This Temple of the Holy Spirit, this shrine of the soul, the image of God, was frequently reduced to the status of a souvenir. Where was the thought for the deceased, who has a right lay to rest in property consecrated by the Church? Where was the thought for friends and other relatives who may wish to visit the grave of their loved one? Where was the thought for the respect of the remains in the future, once those who are keeping the ashes die? It broke my heart to see the dignity of the human person so degraded, so frequently.

    • John Grondelski

      There is a company that will turn your loved one’s ashes into crystalline necklace “so he can be close to you.”

      • mark

        Enterprising little capitalists that they have become, they will continue to push every boundary they can , money ,money ,money

        • 1crappie2

          So thirty pieces of silver now have become necklaces? Who would have guessed with so much progress man hasn’t changed his fallen nature very much at all?

  • Vinny

    Goes hand-in-hand with the disintegration of the family. There is the physical separation of living long distances away. hence, more than one day off from work and expensive travel. In addition to that, many don’t have any real connection or bond with each other. Remember, “family” is however and whatever you define it.

    • somebigguy

      You got it, Vinny.

      The hallmarks of today’s faithless world– contraception, pornography and divorce; absentee parents and parentless children; abortion and euthanasia– all contribute to and follow from the breakdown of the family. Our rituals of death are no different.

    • Mickey’O

      A funeral home in the town where I live now allows distant relations to “attend” the services via Skype or other video conference services. Talk about can’t spare a minute for the deceased!!!

  • Reasonable_Opinion

    While not preferable, cremation is certainly allowed. More catechesis is needed–sorry Father, that’s your responsibility–but also the laity. The monetary consideration is no small point. Of greater concern is how all can gather in the time immediately after a death, but none (or precious few) take time and make the effort to be with the parent/loved one BEFORE death–then survivors are left without support in the weeks and months afterwards. A good Parish Bereavement Ministry is more important than ever before in these hardened hearts times.

  • GHU

    With my husband’s death (attended by my children and myself at the hospital), I had a day for visitation (wake) and an open casket at the funeral home. Then his body was taken to Church for a funeral mass. He was cremated afterward and interred in a niche in a Mausoleum at the cemetery led by one of our Deacons. Funerals are not cheap and this gave me some financial relief. I intend this for myself as well. I think having the actual body at the Mass is important. Cremations can be abused by people who refuse to bury the ashes of their loved ones (scattering over a lake, or kept on the mantle, etc) and I think the Catholic Church should make this clearer.

    • Carmelite

      This is the way my Dad had his funeral planned as well. The time to gather and mourn while viewing the body was not removed, nor was a funeral Mass removed.
      As Bob says below, it is accepted by the Church, otherwise we would not choose this option.

  • Pat Denzer

    JMJ I will have a Requiem Mass. My remains will be cremated and final resting place in the Sacred Heart Chapel where daily Mass is said, and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I want my remains to be close to Jesus, and when family and friends visit, kneel and pray for me. My hope is that the Fire of His love will enkindle a deeper faith in them. Viva Cristo Rey

    • LCG

      Exactly right. My wife and I will be cremated and our ashes will be in sight of the tabernacle. If I were in the ground, what is left of my physical reality could not be near the Real Presence or my family and friends. And you are quite right, having your name on the niche is a powerful reminder for those who see it at least to say an ejaculation for your soul. Maybe the Church should specify that a body may only be cremated if the ashes are to be interred in a columbarium either inside or connected to a church building.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Fire cleanses and ashes are clean and when one’s ashes are scattered ‘at a favorite spot’ – one has ‘redeemed’, absolved and reintegrated oneself into ‘nature’. I am my God and I am the God of my death as I was a pitiful ‘God’ to myself in life. Something rather ‘Hellish’ about it.

  • somebigguy

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but wasn’t the funeral pyre the method of pagan societies?

    For me, cremation has an unsettling finality about it. It’s a disposal; the end. Burying a body is somehow different, at least for those doing the burying: it leaves something for God. To resurrect.

    • dtex

      So if you burn to death are lost at sea God can’t find you on fudgement day? No one will be missed on that day!

    • John Grondelski

      As I said, what we do is symbolic: we bury our loved ones, we burn trash.

      • somebigguy

        Roger that.

  • AnneM040359

    With God, “nothing is impossible”. He can and He will resurrect the body, regardless if the body is buried in the ground or creamated.

    • somebigguy

      Of course, but I think you’re missing my point.

      • AnneM040359

        No I am not.

    • crimsoncat

      I totally agree. Having exhausted their resources due to protracted illnesses, there wasn’t $20,000 left to bury them and that was 20 years ago. Also, where’s the ‘remember man, thou art dust and to dust thou shall return’.

      • dtex

        That was my thought also. We are a soul in an earthly body. Once the body dies the body is an empty shell and returned

        to dust. It wouldn’t have mattered if Christ had been cremated he still would’ve been resurrected a whole mean.

    • John Grondelski

      True. But we are Catholics, and Catholics are symbol-prone…and the body is the primordial symbol we are undermining. Already happened with sex (go back and read Paul Quay’s great book on this), now with death. In that sense, at least, Uncle Freud got it right–sex and death have a lot in common.

      • AnneM040359

        ….Yet, in the end, the “symbols” have to give way to “real” and the future resurrection is that “real”.

  • Utah Rose

    I was at the deathbed of my father, although he too chose cremation. One of the reasons he did was our family is scattered around and no one to take care of a gravesite. He also didn’t want to expose the family to a viewing at a funeral home. Although that’s difficult, it enables the family to say goodbye. Another thing to consider is that some Catholic cemeteries are now located in urban areas that are dangerous to visit. In some of these cemeteries, even 50 years ago because of lack of space they were burying caskets on top of caskets! I’m a senior and i think if you desire cremation now, the Church recommends a rental of a casket for the Church funeral. Then if cremation occurs at a later time the ashes should still be buried in a Catholic cemetary. This is reasonable to me. After all, many people’s bodies weren’t retreivable in deaths at sea or even homicides, but we will still be resurrected. I do think though that some parishes and priests should be ashamed for charging anything for a funeral or a Rosary! Certainly some donation should be offered, but this type of thing harms the Church! a friend of mine lost her husband many years ago, and the parish wanted an expensive stipend too. Outrageous!

    • Michael R

      At my parish a funeral is $650 for the mass and music. This does not include any food. Moving the body is done by the funeral director who is paid additionally. The fee for confirmation $350. I think the fee for a first communion is the same. For confirmation the confirmandi receive a book and instruction at the church. When my children received first communion , the parents instructed them at home with materials from the parish

      • dtex

        I had no idea it cost you to do that!
        That just doesn’t seem right. There is no example of that in the Bible!

  • blablabla

    The funeral Mass is truly beautiful and touching especially when it comes to the Blessing of the Body. I really like the mausoleum compared to the grave.

  • Bob

    I hate to deal with vague notions such as “expected” or “preferred”. Cremation is either found to be acceptable by the church, or found to be unacceptable. If acceptable, then I am free to choose this option without fear of recrimination. If unacceptable, I personally would not choose that path.

  • John Flaherty

    How on earth does a funeral Mass wind up costing over $10,000?

    All you really need is a box, a few people to move it, and prayers for the repose of the soul of the deceased.
    Given that we don’t all need to rebuild the Taj Mahal, there appear to be rather few costs really required.

    I’m not sure if the average wedding even needs to run over a few thousand.

    • Martha

      I agree, John. Does it have to do with red tape? Perhaps one just can’t do those things without the ‘proper’ authority.

    • John Grondelski

      Call your local funeral home.

      • John Flaherty

        For what purpose?
        My parents may be growing elderly, but they aren’t quite that old. ..yet. Given that I’ve already seen what they intend using for their remains, I think they’ve already got this worked out.

    • Denton

      I lived in a parish where the pastor refused to accept stipends for anything. He said “it was his job” to bury the dead, perform marriages, etc. No wonder everyone loved him.

  • Objectivetruth

    Both St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and St. Maximillian Kolbe were cremated in the concentration camp ovens of World War II. A part of me finds something beautiful about these two saints sanctified ashes flowing from the horror of nazi holocaust smoke stacks, and circulating through the prevailing winds and air currents blessing the world. Beauty coming from evil.

  • SnowBlossoms

    What happens to the poor who can not afford anything?

    • AnneM040359

      That is a very good question. Funerals are never cheap and it is the poor who cannot afford such costs.

      • Mickey’O

        Long, long ago and far, far away, before Vatican II, the poor were buried by the parish. All the parishioners tossed their tithe in the collection basket every week, some of which paid for burying the poor of the parish.
        Unfortunately, few tithe any more. Costs to keep the doors open have skyrocketed (court settlements driving that, mainly). That’s why the poor get a quickie secular service. Only the very wealthy can afford a faux Catholic burial mass. (see Nel’s comment, above, on how his dad’s church routinely handles funerals.)

  • hombre111

    I had my doubts at first, but not too bad. Still, there is something strangely compelling about the urn. Don’t we say, dust to dust? And here is the dust. And in the face of this dust, we say, “I believe in the resurrection.”

    The thing I don’t like is the scattering of ashes. It leaves a family with no place to go to. A cousin asked me to scatter his ashes over the rim of a steep canyon. I did. A huge gust of wind blew the ashes back over my head and all over a wheat field. Another time, a parishioner asked me fly with his son in an airplane to scatter his ashes over a beautiful mountainous area. Even though I wrapped the ashes in a plastic bag, the slipstream blew the ashes back into the plane and, when we got back, I swept them up with a small broom and hiked back into the area to deposit them on the ground.

    I could also tell you stories about the parishioner who reached into her purse and pulled out her husband’s ashes, or people who have actually paid to have the ashes turned into a small artificial diamond.

    Maybe ashes are not such a good idea. If you have to scatter ashes, save some and bury them so that family members have some place to go.

    • Denton

      “Someplace to go?” My husband’s father died in 1959 and my husband has not visited his gravesite in over 50 years. We’ve relocated more than a dozen times and it’s simply too far away to visit. My mother has been dead nearly 40 years and the last time I was at her grave site was at her funeral. We are a mobile society and many, many of us do not live in the town we grew up in. We intend to be cremated. Why be buried in a hole in the ground? Over time, there is nothing left but a few bones. By the way, the Church frowns on separating the ashes; they must be kept together.

      • hombre111

        That is the practical reality in a mobile society, and thanks for mentioning it. Being mobile can also mean we are rootless, weeds on the wind, and that might be very unhealthy. No wonder it is so hard to hang onto faith. A return to roots is an incredibly valuable experience. I traveled 800 miles to stand at the place where my pioneer ancestors built their cabin, and left in a thoughtful mood, much better for the experience. Do you hope your kids will carry your ashes with them wherever they go?

        • Denton

          I’m sure they won’t do that. Our church has a columbarium to store ashes so we may wind up there. Even so, the kids won’t travel here to look at a columbarium. The time to see people is when they’re living, not after they’re dead. Repeat that last sentence a few times.
          Fire changes everything. I learned in grade school that if you have sacramentals (things like scapulars, prayer books, palms from Palm Sunday) that you want to dispose of, you can’t toss them in the dumpster. You either have to burn them or bury them. If you burn palms, it’s no longer a palm. You have ashes that WERE palms or ashes that USED TO BE a prayer book. It’s the same with people. The ashes once were a person but are NO LONGER a person, just a pot of ashes. So why does it matter if I want to be thrown to the wind or spaded into a flower bed?
          Finally, dust off your bible and read first Corinthians, chapter 15 and take heart.

          • hombre111

            Nobody has any say over how the ashes are treated after they are dead. If there are tight family connections, the ashes will be respected. If not, what the heck. Oh, by the way, a dead body is also no longer a person, just a decomposing mass of tissue. But if it is the body of someone you love, you will respect it.

            • John Grondelski

              Should respect only be a function of love?

              • hombre111

                Good question. We must respect the ashes and their glimpse of human mortality.

    • JDan

      Many Catholic cemeteries push the interment chapel for the final commendation. The body is then buried in a grave after all the attendees leave. That does not leave a sense of “place” to me at all.

  • 1crappie2

    I just wonder if the natural order of thing hasn’t been mostly corrupted because few have a true understanding that death isn’t final–but a passage?
    If a person’s faith is so warped by modernistic thought (and poor catechesis) that they believe a soul is not to continue on, then funerals (like marriages) have little meaning other than nostalgia–thus easily become mere impediments to the survivors’ daily life.

  • schmenz

    I’ve only heard cremation mentioned from the pulpit once. The priest said, “You burn garbage. You don’t burn God’s creation.” I can’t think of a better statement than that.

  • wc4mitt

    Nothing wrong w/cremation – check Catholic Catechism. Reality is that it is cheaper. But also what of all the people who died in 9/11 Twin Towers whose remains could not be found? Or the millions of others who die in a plane crash; or earthquakes; or mudslides; or tsunamis; These are real people who die from real issues of living on the earth.

    • Mickey’O

      wc4mitt, the Catholic church has always recognized that people die in thousands of different ways and in thousands of unreachable places.
      What the Catechism refers to is, IF the body is available, THEN here is what we do.
      There are different rubrics for commending the dead who’s remains are lost to God.

  • Ann G.

    After reading your article, I feel a new gratitude that my parish has its own cemetery, with even a very few graves dating to the late 1800’s. I never considered what a gift it is to pass these tombs on a more than daily basis. To now see these graves in light of the Resurrection will make driving past them this Easter Sunday a hopeful sign.

  • Kate

    My beloved husband of 54 years, is buried in Consecrated Ground in New England, I plan to be with him. I moved to CA. to be near my son and his family, By the time I hired an undertaker to pick up my dead body, embalm it. buy a casket,transportation to airport, extra cost for airlines to New England, Hire another undertaker to pick up the body, transport it to the church for Funeral Mass, then another cost to transport to cemetery……the cost would be extremely expensive. Cremation, family could carry the ashes, arrange a private Mass, buy the flowers, use their rental car to transport to cemetery, Give an offering to Priest to come to cemetery, and donate the savings to the starving children in Africa,or whichever part of the world where donations are most needed
    Certainly, I would prefer to be laid to rest in a casket, but the cost is prohibitive for a cross country burial. I would prefer to help provide fresh drinking water for poor, parched people
    in the desert of Africa, or the abandoned children in India.

  • Crimea1920

    To be sure, to be sure…but I live in Europe and when my dear mother died in the United States I chose cremation because there was no one in the family who would have tended her grave nor would I ever return to the place in which my mother would be buried. She now rests in peace in a cemetery in the European town in which I live and where I and the rest of my family will also rest. I fail to see how in this case cremation was not the better choice.

  • JR

    Let’s face it; there are really two main reasons why people opt for cremation. Both have to do with money. Either the family really doesn’t have the money or they do but don’t want to spend it. What bothers me are the families where there are more than adequate assets in cash or property or insurance, but the family is only interested in the bottom line quote on the price of a traditional funeral and burial vs. direct cremation and they just want the funeral director to “do whatever is cheapest.” The average cost of cremation is about half that of a traditional funeral and burial mainly due to not having to purchase a casket and burial vault. They are fine with having Mom or Dad cremated in a cardboard carton without any viewing; people can just look at the nice urn they picked out. What bothers me more is that even though the Church allows cremation, it prefers that the cremated remains be either buried in the ground or at sea or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. It discourages the practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased. Yet, many families don’t want to spend the money on a grave or niche, so they either keep or scatter the remains. And in order to be “pastorally sensitive” the pastor seldom if ever tells the family that’s wrong (and that saves him from having to bother doing a cemetery service too).

  • SOLOMON

    I’m suspicious about the $$$ HUNGARY RC CHURCH. If it were not for the INDULGENCE SCANDAL (rich could buy there way into heaven) exposed by Luther we would not have had Protestantism!!! Did the Funeral Directors fail to pay their annual tribute to the Papacy and they were punished by the Pope permitting cremation??? Maybe Frankie (he likes informality) can find more money laundered in the corrupt Vatican Bank and Peter’s Pence can be abolished!

  • peaceplease

    Two years ago, we had my brother cremated for financial reasons. His ashes were in an urn, we had his picture next to it, in the church for the funeral mass. Also, we had interment at cemetery following the funeral mass. HIs ashes were buried in the same plot as my dad in our parish cemetery. I made the arrangements along with my younger sister.
    My elderly mother has dementia and told us we were making arrangements that my brother stated that he did not want to be cremated. My younger sister said that was probably because that was at a time that the church was not too accepting of cremation. Given my mother’s dementia, there was a good chance that my brother may have not said that. I wish I that we were allowed more time to make a decision, as the funeral director told us that if he was going to be embalmed that we must do it within a very short time frame. We could not even have 24 hours to make a decision. We did not think we would have enough of money from his insurance to have his body buried. Unfortunately, we found out that his insurance was just a little short of that. I regret the decision that we made, as my mother will ask frequently if my brother was buried. In fact, she will ask often, what happened to him, and ask if he is still alive. I wish that we would have buried his body instead of his ashes because it is possible that he did say that. And, I regret that I did not inquire about financing through the funeral home.
    I am bothered by this more because I believe in honoring a person’s wishes on these matter. My husband and I will be cremated and ashes buried. My mother does not want her body shown and no calling hours. She just requested a mass. I told her that we could have closed coffin at church, and receive people shortly before the funeral mass. She agreed with this. She even told me of the funeral director that she wanted and did not want a certain one. Strangely, she did not like the way he made up people, and she does not want to be shown. Again, my younger sister said that we can not go to the person she requested because she was very slow in paying him off. I never knew about that because my brother had insurance policy, but she took care of all of that. Regardless of what she wants, I will respect my mother’s wishes. I am her caregiver. My sister will be okay as long as she does not have to meet with the funeral director.
    Prior to the death of that brother, we lost our other brother, eleven years ago. He lived a distance. His body was flown to airport and picked up by funeral director. We had calling hours with his body, his body was present at funeral mass. Then, he was cremated. My two sisters took care of those arrangements. My older sister took the ashes and distributed them. She gave some to a friend, and she kept the remainder. She placed some of his ashes at my father’s gravesite. At the time, I was iffy about the ashes. None of us were practicing our faith at the time. I was somewhat New Age, and so was my older sister. And, my younger sister held on to Catholic beliefs, but was lax about church attendance.
    I have returned to the church a couple of years, ago. I am really bothered by the way my brother’s ashes were distributed. I did mention this past year, that the Church requires the cremains to be buried in cemetery. I told her that I heard that the priest was not happy that my sister did not bury the cremains through the church. My sister still has her own beliefs, and not necessarily in agreement with the Catholic church about many things.
    I know that my older sister took my brother’s death hard.(oldest brother who dies eleven years ago) They were closer in age, and shared some of the same friends. However, we all grieved him. My older sister feels closer to him by keeping his ashes. It is too late, to do the right thing with his ashes, as they were divided. I guess all I can do is pray that my sister will return to the church and talk to a priest about this someday.
    I wish that it was not so expensive to bury somebody. I think most people choose cremation due to financial reasons.

    • peaceplease

      My apologies that my post above does not have spacing between paragraphs. I thought I spaced it when I typed it. I do not see an edit button.

  • David Forte

    There can be good Christian reasons for delayed funerals and eulogies.

    Most families in the United States are scattered, as are friends. Delaying the funeral (or the funeral mass) allows many to gather to condole, worship, and yes, honor, the deceased. Otherwise a rushed funeral would commonly have only a few attendees with most others simply sending a sympathy card.
    Eulogies remind all in attendance that the life that was ended was not fungible with everyone else’s. Rather, that life was unique, precious, conflicted, and possessed a particular vocation. A eulogy asks those in attendance to view the deceased with respect and love, just as God does and just as God commands.

  • Ohso

    I found this information for Veterans and their Spouses & Dependents:

    “For Burial in a National CemeteryBurial benefits available include a gravesite in any of our 131 national cemeterieswith available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a Government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Some Veterans may also be eligible for Burial Allowances.
    Cremated remains are buried or inurned in national cemeteries in the same manner and with the same honors as casketed remains.”
    http://www.cem.va.gov/burial_benefits/

  • RaymondNicholas

    At first I though an article on the “plague of cremation” might be about burning aborted babies for fuel. I guess I was wrong.

  • mdawd123

    Bravo, this rather good idea is necessary just by the way https://terracycleuscs.zendesk.com/entries/66468774

  • Joy

    What does the law say about family cemeteries on private property? I don’t think you can bury bodies, but you should be able to inter cremation remains and place a headstone. That is a very economical option.

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