If you are in St. Andrews, Scotland, on a Sunday, you will find that the famous Old Course closes to golf for that day and opens to anyone who wants to walk it. Consider this old tradition a gift of John Knox to the world. That austere Reformer was surely wrong to forbid games on Sunday. Yet it seems eminently right to ask even golf to testify that something else is greater. Be that as may be, the course becomes a town park for the day.
One Sunday I was there and walking the course briskly, gaining on a group several hundred yards ahead. I was shocked to see a man in that group disposing of his old lunch on the course. Or so it seemed from a distance. He would at intervals reach into his sack, and toss what seemed crumbs onto the fairway. This angered me. So, I walked even faster, so that I could ask this man to stop spoiling, through his thoughtlessness, the common good of this beautiful terrain.
When I got close enough, I saw that it was not crumbs but human remains (“ashes”) in the bag. My anger converted to pity. As I overtook them and exchanged greetings, the man explained that his father loved golf very much, and that he and his siblings had journeyed from the States to St. Andrews, to honor his father’s wish of scattering the ashes on that course. I was constrained, of course, to say something upbeat and sympathetic.
I was put in the position, so common, of knowing objectively that my fellow man was doing something deeply wrong, yet having the opportunity, in a superficial exchange, of addressing only the man’s subjective intentions.
Let’s be clear that what they were doing was, objectively, deeply wrong. First of all, my initial impression was not inaccurate: that man was, after all, doing the sort of thing one would do with an old lunch. Yet he was doing this to the remains of his beloved father! Secondly, those remains were tossed to the ground, exposed, and for all I knew, I had already trampled them underfoot!
As the old Catholic Encyclopedia puts it in the article on “Cremation”: “[The Church] holds it unseemly that the human body, once the living temple of God, the instrument of heavenly virtue, sanctified so often by the sacraments, should finally be subjected to a treatment that filial piety, conjugal and fraternal love, or even mere friendship seems to revolt against as inhuman.”
Thirdly, the man in his actions was testifying to something false. I do not know what he individually believed. But our actions often have a meaning and testify to something regardless of what we believe. The scattering of ashes inevitably testifies to pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism. In this case, it was some kind of pantheism – the false religion that the golf course is itself hallowed, and that, through the scattering, the deceased father can become united to this idol.
Now, on these points, I find that the Catechism, as on other matters, is correct as far as it goes but liable to mislead by omission. “The Church permits cremation,” it says, “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection.”
Let us admit straightaway that the resurrection of the dead cannot be defeated by “the mode of sepulcher” (as it used to be called). The Jewish people never cremated the dead. The Romans were open to cremation as well as burial. In this context, the early Christians uniformly and definitively followed the Jewish practice. But they insisted equally that they did not do so out of any necessity – “as if God could not raise the dead as easily from a handful of ash as from dust in the earth.”
So cremation is not excluded; that is true. Yet at the same time, as the Code of Canon Law puts it, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed.” (1176, §3) Or, as the USCCB website puts it, quoting a Vatican document: “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body.” (no. 413) Even when the remains are cremated, the body should be present at the funeral, and the remains must be preserved in a fitting manner and placed in a holy location such as a cemetery.
It is fitting to reflect on these matters during the Easter time. In fact, To Rise with Christ is the name of the instruction on cremation, issued by the CDF on August 15, 2016, and approved by Pope Francis. Its language is very strong, “Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.”
The Instruction continues, “By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body.”
“My greatest pleasure is to go to the cemetery and say my beads,” Fr. Damien of Molokai used to say. And the Instruction praises devotions centered on cemeteries.
It ends on a sobering note: “When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith” – raising the matter to the objective not merely a subjective plane – “a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.”
*Image: The catacombs and columbarium at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City