Can Catholics reconcile scattering ashes and the resurrection?

Cambridge, MA. The year is darkening, it is getting colder, and we settle in gradually for winter. Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have already directed our attention to death and what mysteriously lies beyond it.

Sunday’s Gospel, from Luke 20, though simply part of the three-year cycle in the Common Lectionary used in Catholic and many other Christian churches, is fitting to the month of November. Isn’t it rather absurd, the Sadducees seem to suggest, to imagine life beyond the grave? Suppose, following Leviticus, seven brothers in turn marry a woman, all dying with begetting a son? Whose wife will she be in the next life? Does she get to pick one, and try again to have a son, in Heaven? Ha!

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We ought not to blame the Sadducees, even if they probably are also trying to trip up Jesus, ready to blame him whatever answer he gives. We often speak of life beyond death, as we seek to console those who mourn, and we proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body, indeed every Sunday in the Creed, too. But we hardly know what we are talking about. If, as science tells us, our bodies are recycled, every atom reused in other living beings, how do we get a body back at the resurrection of the body? What a chaos the resurrection would be! And is Heaven a place like earth? We do we do there for all eternity? What age will we be—how old we were at death, or as we were at our best? Or better than ever?

Jesus puts aside such conundrums, pointing rather to the fullness of risen life that is hardly what we can imagine:

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” (Lk 20:34-36).
 

This is because, more deeply, God is not the God of the living and dead—those who were, are and will be—but a God simply of the living: “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (20.38)

Jesus is daring the Sadducees—who fall silent—and asking us, to put aside our narrow, truncated experiences of life in this world—always touched by limitation, fragility, and death—and imagine an existence that is fully alive, beyond the survival strategies of this world.

We do not really know what this means, so Jesus offers a familiar illustration, the burning bush approached by Moses: Bushes die, and burning bushes die quickly. But by the power of God, this bush is aflame, and is neither killed nor damaged; it is alive, because it is where God is. Like that, we are faced with a great mystery: What dies and decays shall also be raised, to live forever. Or as St. Paul puts it:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (I Cor 15:51-53)
 

But still we die, and our bodies seem left behind, to be disposed of. Here, I suggest that we turn for a moment to a document that came out a few weeks ago from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the instruction “Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo,” “regarding the burial of the deceased
and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation” (dated Aug. 15, 2016—notably the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary body and soul into heaven). The document reaffirms a 1963 permission for Catholics to be cremated:

To rise with Christ, we must die with Christ: we must “be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). With the Instruction Piam et Constantem of 5 July 1963, the then Holy Office established that “all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed”, adding however that cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion” and that no longer should the sacraments and funeral rites be denied to those who have asked that they be cremated, under the condition that this choice has not been made through “a denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church” (No. 1).

By the burial of the dead, the document reminds us, 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” (No. 3). It hearkens to the symbolism of burial, a return to the earth that suggests a hope for eventual resurrection. Ideally, even cremated ashes are to be placed in graveyards:

From the earliest times, Christians have desired that the faithful departed become the objects of the Christian community’s prayers and remembrance. Their tombs have become places of prayer, remembrance and reflection. The faithful departed remain part of the Church who believes “in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church” (No. 5).

In other words, though we cannot really imagine what life after death is like, the way we treat even cremated bodies should mark our faith in the great mystery of our restoration, body and soul.

The C.D.F. document is also pointedly concerned—and this seems to drive the document—to forestall not only any inadvisable disposal of the ashes but also what it perceives to be contrary views of death and the body:

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 (No. 3).
 

And later on,

In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects (No. 7).
 

At the Oct. 25 press conference releasing the document, we hear that “Msgr. Angel Rodríguez Luño, referring to the question of the scattering of ashes, remarked that it is a decision that ‘often depends on the idea that with death the human being is completely annihilated, as if it were its final destiny.’” None of these charges are footnoted, so we do not know quite that the C.D.F. or Msgr. Luño have in mind. But even if we rule out using the bodies of the deceased to argue for beliefs the church has never recognized, we ought not hastily to rule out the motivations driving the search for alternative ways of disposing of human remains. What is at issue is a legitimate concern about how to use the material at hand—in this case, the body of the beloved deceased—to symbolize, to sacramentalize, our basic beliefs about existence beyond death. A desire to return to nature need not be labeled “un-Christian.” Ashes to ashes, after all.

Here, I think, there is more work to be done. Just as the Sadducees found absurd the idea of bodies and lives reassembled in heaven, many in our culture find implausible the cartoonish images of graves opening and bodies rising from them on the last day. Other ways of disposing of bodies, as by cremation and the scattering of ashes, need not be reduced in some crude sense to “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.” Such views can also be noble, and not incompatible with our faith, if we learn from them before dismissing them. At issue may be a desire to respect the reality that our bodies—our selves in this present age—are parts of much greater cycles of nature, to which, in a way that can be as beautiful as it may be frightening, we return at death. With some imagination, we may be able to find ways to celebrate at death the restoration of the body to the cosmos of which we are all part, without intending any disrespect for the mystery of Christian resurrection.

And certainly, we can do much better than mindlessly perpetuate the current funeral home disposal of bodies, embalmed, waxed and stuffed, and placed in needlessly expensive coffins, as if to keep decay at bay for a decade or a century or more. In the Catholic News Service report on the document’s release, Cindy Wooden notes better alternatives:

Asked specifically about the growing trend in his native Germany of “forest burials,” where people pay to have their ashes in urns interred at the base of a tree in a designated forest burial ground, Cardinal Muller said the German bishops were not thrilled with the idea, but accepted it with the proviso that the tree be marked with the name of the person buried at its base.In the United States and other countries, a growing number of Catholic cemeteries set aside sections for “green burials” for bodies that have not been embalmed and are placed in simple wooden caskets that eventually will biodegrade along with the body. “We believe in the resurrection of the body and this must be the principle of our understanding and practice,” Cardinal Muller told Catholic News Service, noting that there is a difference between allowing for the natural decay of the body while protecting the environment and seeing the body of the deceased primarily as fertilizer for plants and trees.

I will be at the mercy of some local Jesuit community when I die, but I would love a simple version of green burial, perhaps a biodegradable container placed in the ground, right near the trees at the edge of some cemetery. Not merely as fertilizer, but certainly—why not?—fertilizer, too, to help our beleaguered natural world flourish a bit more richly. In Christ, we find even in death new ways to share and celebrate life.

Something to ponder in this month of remembrance of death and dying, life beyond life.

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Crystal Watson
1 year 9 months ago
When my mother died we had her cremated and her ashes scattered over the San Francisco bay. We couldn't afford a regular burial and we thought the scattering was something she would have liked better. But when I told a priest this, he was horrified. It's an interesting subject, dualism, the soul and the body and how they're connected, whether the soul can exist without its original body after death and what resurrection bodies will be like.
PJ Johnston
1 year 9 months ago
Thanks for this meditation. I was a little off-put by the tone of the CDF guidance and this manages to articulate some of the feelings I had too and allow me to put them in order.

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