The Church is against cremation. Yet at our parish the storing of ashes nourishes faith and encourages prayers for the dead

Vaclav Havel's widow holds an urn containing his ashes (CTK Photo/Roman Vondrous)

I don’t think this is an inappropriate subject to raise, given that we are approaching Good Friday and the death of God – but in case people hadn’t noticed, the Church in Italy has promulgated new Funeral Rites. What interests me is what is said about cremation in the appendix to the revised rubrics: the Church, “although she does not oppose the cremation of bodies, when not done ‘in odium fidei’, continues to maintain that the burial of the dead is more appropriate, that it expresses faith in the resurrection of the flesh, nourishes the piety of the faithful and favours the recollection and prayer of relatives and friends”.

This is classic Church-speak: courteous, laborious, indirect – but with a firm fist under the velvet glove. So the Church is really against cremation and would prefer her members to be buried? This leaves me in a quandary. I had never given the subject a moment’s thought but probably, being innately of a conservative disposition, would have veered towards burial if challenged. This was until, as a family, we moved, some years ago, to our present parish. Its pastor was a holy and eccentric priest (the two characteristics are not unknown in the priesthood) with a great devotion to the Holy Shroud – hence my recent blog on this subject, for which I thank the posts that agreed with me as to its unassailable authenticity.

This priest, who had built his parish church by hand, with the devoted help of his parishioners, included a full-length facsimile of the Holy Shroud on a wall adjacent to the altar. Behind the photographic negative of the image, always illuminated during Mass, was a columbarium – specifically designed to contain the ashes of dead parishioners if they were so disposed. The purpose was that their remains would rest as if near the entombed Christ, awaiting the sure hope of the resurrection of the body as stated in the Creed. It seemed such a beautiful idea that I signed up to join the list.

So why does the Church still think burial is more appropriate when the practice, in our parish at least, fulfils all the norms? Our columbarium shows faith in the resurrection, nourishes the piety of the faithful who often place flowers in front of the Shroud in remembrance of their loved ones, and the dead are prayed for during Mass.

It could be because Catholics being human, and humans being capricious, ashes sometimes get scattered all over the place (or even kept on the mantelpiece in the living room). The new Rites observe: “Cremation is considered as concluded when the urn is deposited in the cemetery.” This is because although the law does allow ashes to be scattered in the open or conserved in places other than a cemetery, “such practices… raise considerable doubts as to their coherence to Christian faith, especially when they conceal pantheistic or naturalistic beliefs”. The Church, as always, has to protect the faithful from its tendency towards the bizarre and wacky sentimentality.

According to the Vatican Information Service, Bishop Alceste Catella, President of the Episcopal Commission for Liturgy, explained that the new Funeral Rites book “…is testament to the pressing need to cultivate memory and to have a specific place in which to place the body or ashes, in the profound certainty that this is authentic faith and authentic humanism”.

My last question: are there really people who deliberately choose cremation in odium fidei (hatred of the faith)?