Death is hard, but the ancient, hallowed ritual of the Catholic Church can provide lasting consolation

A Requiem Mass for Czech leader Václav Havel, whose body was cremated (Photo: PA)

November is the month of the Holy Souls. As I blogged earlier this week, my older brother died on All Souls Day itself, one of the very significant feast days of the Church. An article by Jim Graves in the current Catholic World Report reflects this theme: it is about the requirement to treat dead bodies with reverence, as temples of the Holy Spirit. In particular, he discusses the choice between cremation and full body burial.

For many centuries the Church banned cremation because pagan Rome was in favour of it as a way of rejecting any thoughts of an afterlife. This ban was finally lifted in 1963. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” The US Conference of Catholic Bishops re-emphasises this point in their comment that reverence and care for the body “grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God”.

I had not known that since 1997 cremated remains have been allowed to be present at Requiem Masses and are given the same respect as remains in the casket. I also had not known that the practice among many people of scattering the ashes of their loved ones in a favourite place – such as the Lake District, where the person enjoyed walking – is not permitted by the Church. It is a neo-pagan development, not recognising that the dead person still “belongs” to God and must be buried, just like a body, in a cemetery, crypt or other appropriate place. Keeping the urn on the mantelshelf at home is not permitted for the same reason.

Interestingly, St Dominic’s church in San Francisco has built a “columbarium”, a facility used for the interment of urns with cremated remains. I say “interestingly” because this practice is still very unusual. As I wrote in a blog some time ago, our own parish church at Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire has a columbarium for this purpose – but I think it might be the only parish church in the country to do so. The parish priest who built the church in the 1960s took advantage of the lifting of the ban on cremation to give parishioners the solace of knowing the remains of their loved ones stayed within the church where they had once worshipped. Of course, columbaria must be built with the approval of the local Ordinary; for instance, if the church were to close the ashes would have to be relocated. But graveyards can be neglected and become overgrown, after the first generation of mourners themselves die. At least in a columbarium within a church, the remains are a palpable, visible and constant witness of the Church’s reverence for the dead, who make their silent witness while the Mass, the consummate drama of death and Resurrection, is celebrated.

I recall with a shudder reading that dozens of urns had been salvaged from a lake close to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where many people, including some highly publicised journeys from this country, go to be “euthanised” – an ugly neologism for a deadly practice. Then there are the reliable reports of the remains of aborted babies being discovered in trash cans at hospitals. As the saying goes, the Church may be a hard bed to lie on, with her dogmas and commandments, her rules and regulations, her prohibitions and protocols, which are often very hard to live up to; but she is a soft bed to die on, with the solemn beauty of a Requiem Mass followed by the reverent committal of the remains to rest in a consecrated place. Death is hard enough as it is; but humans require more than secular rites of “closure” – and only an ancient, hallowed ritual can provide lasting consolation.