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Last Word - March 2012

Cremation and the Resurrection of the Body

“I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” I am sure you recognize these words immediately: they come from the Creed we recite at Mass every week. With the new translation of the Roman Missal, we are, I hope anyway, paying more attention to the words we say in the Mass, including the words of the Creed. This is important, in this case, because I sometimes hear people of good faith say things and do things which seem to be in contradiction to these words.

For example, in the words of remembrance after Holy Communion at a funeral, I sometimes hear people read poems or say in their own words things which, if scrutinized carefully, seem to ignore fundamental teachings of Christianity regarding eternal life. They speak of the deceased as living on in the memory of the mourners. Or they speak of the beloved living on in the talents and other attributes that he or she has passed along to his or her descendents. Or they may speak of the deceased as somehow continuing to exist, present in the wind or the warmth of the sun or some other natural phenomenon. Those are all fine, I suppose, up to a point and are certainly not manifestly heretical. But they miss what is most important in our faith, namely the true personal and individual survival of the beloved after death.

I am not talking about and the Church is not talking about living on in memory. Let’s face it: most of us will not be remembered 100, 200, 500 years from now. I remember nothing about my great, great grandfather, not even his name, and no one else (except God) does either. I am not talking about and the Church is not talking about living on in the talents or the gifts the beloved had or in the way in which he or she contributed to who I have become. That person I have become is myself, in my personal and individual existence, not the departed in his or her personal and individual existence. And I am not talking about and the Church is not talking about the beloved having become one with nature, one with the cosmos, with the universe. I am talking about distinct, personal, individual existence: our loved ones are still personally and individually alive. I believe and the Church believes they are alive. One theologian refers to this as “the permanence of the ‘I’”. “I” will continue to live, independent of anyone’s memory (other than God’s); independent of anyone else’s talents, gifts or character; distinct, my identity is not lost or not dissolved or absorbed into nature or the universe. “I” am permanent and endure.

The other part of what the Creed says is that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Now I concede this is harder than thinking about everlasting life. It is indeed and remains a mystery. The best and most revealing point of reference for this resurrection of the dead is the clear evidence that on Easter morning the tomb of Jesus was empty. His body was not there. The teaching is clear enough, however much mystery remains: our bodies are destined for redemption and will rise again.

The problem can come when cremation has been chosen for the deceased. As we all know, for centuries the Church prohibited cremation for Christians because, historically, cremation had sometimes been chosen as an explicit denial of the worth of the body of the deceased. There were those who chose cremation as a way of thumbing their noses at what they regarded as the nonsense that the Church taught about the resurrection. Today most people do not choose cremation for any such reason. Both my own parents were cremated and, I assure you, they definitely believed that they — that is, their bodies - will rise again. People choose cremation for financial reasons, for ecological reasons, and for personal reasons, such as a fear of being buried underground.

But once cremated, the question arises of what to do with the cremated remains. And here people sometimes slip into practices which are not consistent with the nature and destiny of the human body. Our bodies are sacred: temples of the Holy Spirit. We are not angels, not pure spirits, we have bodies and we work out our salvation in the flesh, through our bodies. The second-century theologian Tertullian stated very unambiguously that “the flesh is the instrument of salvation.” As such, our bodies are to be reverenced and cared for in this life and even after death are to be treated as sacred. But that sacredness is based not merely on what our bodies were but on what they are to be in the future. They will rise again. They will be glorious bodies.

While there can be a kind of core individual existence after death without our bodies, nevertheless, without them we are somehow incomplete. We are by nature embodied spirits. Without our bodies, we are impoverished. The dead therefore “look forward,” as the Creed says, to the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the body, which is to come, according to the Scriptures, when the Lord returns in glory.

We all know, of course, that dead bodies decay. Put them in the ground or in a tomb for a generation or so and they decompose. Cremation simply speeds up that process. In the long run, whether we are buried in the earth or cremated, our bodies end up much the same: “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But on the Day of the Resurrection, in some mysterious way, are bodies will be restored to us. And the body returned to us will be our bodies, our bodies transformed. As St. Paul says, “This perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Just as Adam was created from the dust, so our bodies will be re-created from the dust on the Day of the Lord. Now, I am not going to try to tell you how this all will happen. It is a mystery after all!

In view of that resurrection, we treat the remains of our loved ones, whether corpses or cremated remains, with great care and reverence. The preference of the Church is to bury the bodies of the dead, in imitation of the body of the Lord which was placed in a tomb, where, as if asleep, they await the resurrection. And we treat the cremated remains with exactly the same care with which we would treat the body of our deceased loved one. We do not put them in an urn on the mantle over the fireplace where they are dusted and respected for a generation or perhaps two but ultimately may well end up in the landfill somewhere when the old house is cleaned out. Would you do that with someone’s body, kept at home in a box in the living room? We do not scatter the cremated remains over the river or the ocean or the national park as though they simply become one with nature, where they will no longer be recognizable and distinct, which contradicts the notion of individual, distinct, personal existence after death. We do not divide the remains, shipping half to California and half to Virginia. The very thought of chopping up the dead body of your beloved so as to ship parts to different states is repulsive at least to modern people; no less the division of his or her cremated remains. And, God forbid, we do not have the remains made into jewelry. I am serious. There are companies that will do this. What do you suppose becomes of that jewelry 100 years from now when everyone has forgotten “Oh, that’s great grandma’s body, of course.” It is tossed out or sold in a garage sale.

Rather, we show our belief in the resurrection of the body by either burying the remains or placing them in an urn in a columbarium, that is, a niche which serves, like a tomb or a grave, as a permanent resting place, a permanent place of remembrance, a place to await the resurrection.

These statements of the Creed are not merely abstract and esoteric statements of theology, thought up by men and women in ivory towers. They are statements with real effects and implications in daily life. I believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal