‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’
God sternly tells Adam in the Book of Genesis, reminding him of how he created him out of dust from the ground. The same words a priest utters on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, during the liturgy of the imposition of ashes on the worshipper’s forehead. A powerful penitential symbolism, again alluding to man’s inescapable mortality.
Lately, the Vatican also has spoken of ashes. Cardinal Gerhard Mueller has urged Roman Catholics who have the bodies of their loved ones cremated not to scatter their ashes privately, nor to keep them at home, but to store them in suitable locations approved by the Church, like a cemetery or in another holy place.
Mueller is the head of the influential Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Holy Office or the Inquisition. Today it is the Vatican’s highest doctrinal authority. Hence the faithful are expected to listen to what Mueller says.
‘The model we follow is Jesus Christ’, the Cardinal explained. Indeed, the official document he presented is entitled ‘Being resurrected with Christ’. His point was that after his death on the Cross Christ was buried in a tomb and later rose again. The Christian practice of burying the dead favoured that pattern, as opposed to cremation. In an interview, Mueller linked cremation to ancient paganism, as it happened in the Roman Empire. Actually, the Romans followed both uses. A body could be either placed in a sarcophagus and enclosed in a grave or be burnt, and the ashes, collected in an urn, kept in a grave chamber, or even shared amongst mourners. It is said that it was the dictator Sulla who, afraid of what the people might do to his body after death, chose the funeral pyre instead and therefore gave cremation a wider impetus.
However, according to the Cardinal, a sinister connection exists between the modern popularity of cremation and the materialist and Freemasonic ideas which surfaced in Europe during the so-called Enlightenment.
By presenting cremation as a more rational, hygienic and acceptable custom than burial a secularist ideology aimed at attacking the Christian faith. But Mueller also recognised that today there might be less objectionable reasons for cremation, in which case the Church tolerates the practice. The only qualification is that the ashes of the dead should not be disposed of in an unbecoming way, like in a wood or thrown into the water. Why not? Because the Church desires that ashes should be preserved in a place for public memory, so that the dead person may retain his social dignity.
Whatever might be the psychological qualms about destroying a human body in fire, Christian theologians affirm that God’s omnipotence is in no way hindered by the manner of body disposal. Cremation cannot touch the human soul and so it poses no intrinsic threat to the belief in survival after death and in the Resurrection of the body. But the Church also respects ancient tradition and so her preference has been for burial. The Vatican since 1963 has permitted cremation – probably it realised it was impossible to stem a tide – and so no sin is entailed. Well, ‘no mortal sin’, Cardinal Mueller qualified. A mortal sin, of course, is one that imperils the eternal salvation of the person, whereas the lesser, ‘venial sin’ does not. He was concerned that ashes should not be simply thought of as the property of the relatives, warning against the ‘privatisation of religion’. The deceased still ‘belongs’ to God and to the all church community. Keeping ashes in a private home disregards that principle.
But what about relics? A part of a saint or holy person’s body, kept as an object of reverence? Relics are an important cult in popular Catholic spirituality worldwide. And they are often worn or preserved by individual believers. It would cause a huge uproar amongst the faithful to target them. Anyway, it is unlikely that a traditionalist like Cardinal Mueller would wish to discourage that ancient form of spirituality.
As to other monotheistic faiths: the Islamic position appears to be that cremation of a human body is forbidden. Burial is the norm. Some Muslim authorities also claim in support that burying a body is better for the environment. As for Orthodox Judaism, it also abhors cremation on biblical and rabbinical grounds but Liberal or Reform Jews tolerate it.
The Anglican Church has no objection to cremating a body and the scattering of the ashes of a dead person is allowed in a parish churchyard. When I was a Curate at Chiswick Parish Church, it once fell to my duty to do that. The relatives about me looking devotedly on, I then realised how large a quantity the ashes of a dead body can amount to. Moreover, it helps if there is no wind, as the scattering could go in the wrong directions… Still, it was a pastoral privilege to conduct the ceremony, because such had been the will of my departed parishioner.
The Vatican’s new pronouncements came just in time for the Feast of All Souls on November 2nd when the faithful traditionally pray for the departed. ‘They are not dead but they are alive in the Lord’, as Scripture bracingly declares. An eternal, saving truth.