Funerals “say” things. They do not just “do” something, i.e., dispose of the remains. When Christians gather to pray, to mourn, and to support each other over the death of a brother or sister, they mark a human life. When they do so in the presence of the remains of the deceased, they remember that the body and even the cremains is an integral part of the person, having shared in the person’s life and destined to share in his eternal destiny. A Catholic funeral liturgy reminds us of the dignity of the human person even in death.
No one brings a casket with a body home with them after a funeral – it is taken to a sacred place and respectfully buried. However with cremation becoming more popular, a new problem is growing, where some are keeping the cremains/ashes in their homes, or elsewhere, rather than buried. A graveyard conveys a sense of sacred final resting place until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; the same message is not sent when an urn with grandpa’s cremains is stuck on a bookcase somewhere. Treating human cremains/ashes as a thing depersonalizes the deceased; there is a need for a “resting place” for a loved one. Cremains placed on a shelf in someone’s home also convey the idea that the deceased “belongs” to the family, rather than to God.
Obviously, this entire tendency reaches absurdity in the more recent “service” offered by some funeral homes, where the ashes of the deceased are fused into a crystal and then made into earrings, pedants, rings and other types of jewelry. The human body and its cremains, once the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, should never be reduced to a piece of jewelry.
Scattering Ashes is also a growing problem as the culture has also embraced the “romantic” image of scattering the ashes of the deceased—on a favorite beach, in the Grand Canyon, in the sea. Plenty of movie moments have been made with such images. However, Catholic teaching on the dignity of the person obviously rejects such scatterings because the body/cremains is/are not just something to be disposed of in such a many, but to be laid to rest.
Current environmental consciousness perhaps fuels this movement as we want to express our oneness with nature. Again, this practice sows the seeds for introducing an unchristian view of humanity into the Catholic understanding of the dignity of the human person. Humanity is part of nature, but not just part of nature. The vision of humanity found in Genesis presents man/woman as God’s steward of creation.
A human person is not just $4.50 worth of various chemicals, with a couple gallons of water. A growing “green” movement is sadly obscuring the uniqueness of humanity from the rest of the world, in the end, does lessens or even destroys the concept of the high dignity God has bestowed upon the human race.
The likely response, in an American context, to intellectual arguments against cremation, will be: “Whose body is it anyway? Is it not my right to die and deal with my body as I want? It’s my body.” This exaggerated sense of personal autonomy, of course, stands behind the leading source of the culture of death in our country: legalized abortion. The “right to control one’s body” was the original justification for the “right to privacy” that underlay Roe vs Wade.
Such argument requires a challenge. The idea of an untouchable personal autonomy is not ultimately compatible with a Christian outlook. In response to “whose body is it anyway,” St. Paul’s answer is clear: it is God’s. He writes: “You have been bought, and at a great price. So glorify God in your body” (I Cor. 6:20).
What St. Paul states, the rest of the New Testament affirms: the Christian belongs to God; he/she is not his own. The baptismal liturgy affirms this, when the priest “claims” the candidate for Christ. This is why the connection between baptism and the funeral liturgy is so important: “On the day of his baptism, (name of deceased) put on Christ.” The funeral rites remind us that “this putting on Christ or belonging to Christ” does not end in death.
One of the great contributions of Pope Saint John Paul II to the modern Church was his “theology of the body.” His presentation about the dignity of the bodily person, starting with Adam and Eve in Genesis, challenged a number of powerful anti-Christian statements based in false philosophy, perverted theology, and godless bioethics which are popular in today’s world.
The late Pope provided the intellectual basis to defend Catholic teaching, for example, about sexual morality. But that teaching remains under attack in a world that regards the body/cremains as a mere husk of the “person,” a piece of nothing important left behind after death. Such thinking, in turn, encourages the modern “culture of death” which the Pope so frequently pointed out as a great evil. The type of thinking also promotes the idea that the body/cremains is a thing that “belongs” to me.