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

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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.

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