Cremation: The Denial of Human Bodily Integrity

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Damien Le Guay is a contemporary Catholic French thinker and author of two important, but unfortunately untranslated, books. Qu’avons-nous perdu en perdant la mort? (What Have We Lost in Losing Death?) questions how today’s funerary customs have erased death from human consciousness.

La mort en cendres: la crémation aujourd’hui, que faut-il en penser? (Death in Ashes: Cremation Today—What Should We Think About It?) argues that the widespread acceptance of cremation as a legitimate method of acting toward the human body, even among Christians, represents a radical change in the way we regard incarnation and embodiment, and whose implications we have not thought through, even as we continue to embrace it.  

As Catholics enter November and think about Christian death, I draw upon Le Guay’s inspiration to challenge our assumptions about proper treatment of the deceased human body.  

I have regularly criticized cremation for many reasons: see here, here, here, and here. My purpose here is to focus on cremation as the act of deliberately destroying a human body.

The fundamental difference between earth burial and cremation lies in the exercise of human agency vis-à-vis a human body. The dead bodies of sinful men and women will (barring a divine miracle of incorruptibility) decompose and rot.  

But that process is fundamentally different in earth burial and cremation. An interred body will decompose by itself at its own “natural” pace. Cremation, on the other hand, involves affirmative human agency, a certain amount of direct violence, to eliminate human remains not in any natural way and not necessarily to leave anything behind. As elsewhere in the culture of death, we’ve even coined a neologism to mask what we are doing: leftover ashes are now “cremains,” a fusion of “cremated” and “remains,” except that there are far fewer “remains” than burial yields and that reduction is the result of deliberate human action.

Yes, many ashes are sealed in urns and set to rest in columbaria: diocesan cemeteries have developed a whole (and probably lucrative) new line of business there, suggesting another reason the Church is chary to criticize cremation.  

But the very fact that someone decides that there is no inherent obligation to respect the integrity of a human body after death means that the sealing and burial of ashes has become a choice, not a duty. Family members might afford the deceased a “final resting place.” Or they might not. 

They might decide that mom belongs on the fireplace. They might decide that, the cost of burial still being “too much,” Uncle Joe be best left on the closet shelf. Succumbing to too many Hollywood movies, they might decide that Cousin Mitch is best scattered on his favorite beach, fishing hole, or woke protest site. Or, because family wants to keep Mom “close,” they turn her ashes into a broach, “keepsake jewelry” being the latest spinoff of the “funeral industry.”

The point is that cremation not only undermines the intrinsic physical integrity of the body, but it purports to empower someone else to do that. While many people will claim it’s what Uncle Joe or Cousin Mitch or Mom “wanted,” the truth is that it is often what the keeper of the ashes wants, prefers, or finds most convenient as regards his costs, time, interest, and commitment. Instead of the deceased having a “right” to a funeral (which includes interrupting other peoples’ lives to note his death) and a grave, the deceased is now wholly dependent on the convenience of his “mourners” and the evanescence of memory.

Because ashes significantly reduce what “remains” of a deceased human person, it also significantly undermines the idea of a “resting place.” I know where my father, mother, and grandparents rest. I do not know where my cousin Wayne rests.  His ashes long ago blew off the Connecticut field where he was scattered: cremation has reduced him to a nobody who is nowhere. Cremation reinforces contemporary dualism, treating the “person” as some kind of idea or memory, which is the only thing that “remains” or “matters” (even though there is no matter remaining).  

I emphasize cremation as a technical “solution” to the problem of what to do with a rotting human corpse because it leaves us something to have to deal with. It’s not a body, created by God which evolved according to the laws of human nature, but a humanly produced artifact of that body. Despite the human effort to reduce the remains, something is left over.

And we don’t like leftovers.

Cremation opened a door. If it is legitimate for someone deliberately and violently—because burning is violent—to destroy the integrity of a human body, even after death, then the fact that cremation leaves something behind is just a technical hiccup. 

Almost 20 states allow alkaline hydrolysis as a way of disposing of human remains. Alkaline hydrolysis is essentially a chemical breakdown of the body under high temperatures so that nothing is left but a few gallons of fluid (“effluent”), unless it is deliberately crystallized. On October 20, Dubuque Archbishop Michael Jackels even announced his approval of this method, rationalizing that as long as we show “respect” to what we have done to the body, it doesn’t matter whether the “body” (what “body,” Your Excellency?) is “laid to rest” “in the earth, water, fire, or air, cemetery or not.”

So far, nobody has suggested we “bottle” liquefied Aunt Lucy like we put Uncle Joe’s ashes in an urn. The truth is the effluent is usually just treated as waste water (although one company specializing in the technique suggests it could be a good fertilizer). We have arrogated the right to pulverize a human body into nothing. But we should show “respect” while we do that.

Deseret News poses the usual too-late American question: does alkaline hydrolysis cross “an ethical line?” The truth is that ethical line was crossed when, by accepting cremation, we accepted the idea that what had been a living “temple of the Holy Spirit” could be deliberately broken down by human hands. Perhaps in a Church that closes and sells off parishes to the highest bidders, that might no longer be so shocking. 

But our “pragmatic” and “cost-effective” solutions of the moment usually come with long-range cultural prices. The reduction of the human body—in life and even in death—to a commodity to be changed by technology to accommodate human desiderata represented a mega-cultural shift for which the naïve optimists who opened the door to Christian cremation are partly responsible. “To bury the dead” is a corporal work of mercy, but burial is not just a culturally conditioned custom. How we treat a human body says something about our humanity. 

[Photo Credit: Pixabay]

By

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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