The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Instruction on the Burial of the Deceased (Ad resurgendum cum Christo), released October 25, is a welcome restatement of the Church’s preference for earth burial over cremation. It is essential to seize the “teaching moment” this document affords: rather than just focus on the “do’s” (do bury a body in a cemetery) and “don’ts” (don’t scatter ashes or keep them at home), Ad resurgendum offers a prime opportunity to address the “theology of the body” that the Catholic way of death proposes. If attention focuses merely on the document’s specific prescriptions, important as they are, we run the risk of demanding adherence to rules without understanding their rationale.
Cremation has grown in popularity: one survey suggested, for example, that at least 40 percent of deaths in New Jersey end in cremation, and that the percentage of Catholics resorting to cremation is not fundamentally different from the general population. Without vouching for the data, anecdotal observation suggests it may not be far off the mark.
I have previously argued in these pages that the growing acceptance of cremation is worrisome because it tends to erode several basic Catholic teachings. Ad resurgendum suggests as much, because it argues for the Catholic preference for burial precisely on similar grounds: Jesus’ Resurrection; the communion of saints; and the significance of the body.
Cremation is not necessarily opposed to resurrection: God can reform ashes as easily as dust. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century materialists promoted cremation as a statement denying resurrection, but that was a particular phenomenon at a particular time. As long as these are not a person’s motivations now, the Church does not oppose cremation.
That said, earth burial is best connected with the Resurrection because it is also connected with Christ. Jesus lay in a grave. His passion and death are as much a part of the Paschal Mystery as his resurrection. Explaining the Church’s preference for burial, then, ought to begin with the imitation of Christ. We are, after all, imitators of Christ by virtue of our baptism: we are baptized into his death in the hope of resurrection (Rom 6:3).
The Church also prefers earth burial because of the communion of saints. The Church is not just a concrete congregation assembled at St. Stephen’s at 10 o’clock Sunday morning. It is all those who love God, be they on earth, in Purgatory, or in Heaven. The communion of saints is a sign of ecclesiological solidarity: together in life, together in death. A Catholic cemetery is an expression of belonging to the Church, both among “those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith” as well as of those left behind with the vocation of praying for them. We ought not to underestimate the significance of a cemetery as a sacramental, especially in a culture that embraces death while simultaneously hiding it away.
Cremation has tended to individualize death. The cemetery is gone, especially when ashes are scattered or kept at home, two abuses Ad resurgendum identifies. Oftentimes in cremation cases, funerals are put off and viewing dispensed with. Death itself “disappears” from human view, rendered invisible.
Most importantly, however, cremation fosters a false anthropology. It encourages a mentality that sees the body as sub-personal, a tool or husk that is shucked off. Instead of being seen as sacred, a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” the body is seen as an attachment of the “person.” Consider the symbolism: we bury treasure, we incinerate trash.
A misguided environmentalism which fixates on man’s place in the material world to the exclusion of his dominion over it also exacerbates this false anthropology and is often heard from proponents of cremation. The human person is a creature with one foot in the material world, but he is qualitatively different because he has a soul and a Divine mandate to exercise dominion over that world.
It would be wise, in the wake of Ad resurgendum, to review these doctrinal perspectives with the faithful, particularly because most contemporary Catholics have limited religious knowledge and the Church is bucking some very powerful contemporary trends. November, with its dedication to prayer for the faithful departed as well as the eschatological focus of the end of Ordinary Time/beginning of Advent that occurs in that month, lends itself well to such catechesis.
I will admit a certain hesitance about Ad resurgendum. In presenting the document, Prefect Müller reportedly said that “shortly, in many countries, cremation will be considered the ordinary way” of handling the dead. Perhaps. But in pushing a reaffirmation of the Church’s preference for burial while acquiescing in the growing phenomenon of cremation, I wonder whether the Church has not learned its lesson from its weakening of the discipline of Friday abstinence. There, too, the Church spoke of noble motives—imposing an appropriate penance and self-discipline on one’s self rather than relying on the habitual Friday abstinence—but, in practice, many more Catholics heard the message “you can order steak” than the message “you should mortify yourself.” I fear an analogous situation could prevail here.
A final note: while bad philosophy may in part be spurring the trend towards cremation, there is also a utilitarian argument driving its acceptance—cost. A constant rejoinder I have received in comments about my writings opposing cremation has been economic: traditional funerals can cost up to $10,000. We cannot ignore this. Clergy who speak about the theology of burial while keeping silent about the cost of the American way of death are failing their people. Practical reflection on the reality of and planning for death should go together with the theology. In the wake of Ad resurgendum, parishes, priests’ associations, dioceses, and the USCCB should undertake a real dialogue about how to make Christian burial affordable.
(Photo credit: New Orleans Above Ground Cemetery / Shutterstock)