An item in the Telegraph yesterday had the headline: “Pope forbids ash scattering in fear of New Age ideas about afterlife.” It goes on to state that “Strict new Vatican guidelines forbid a list of increasingly popular means of commemorating loved ones, from scattering ashes at sea to having them turned into jewellery or put in a locket, dismissing them as New Age practices and “pantheism”.
It so happens that cremation has been on my mind for the last few weeks, as my grandson, now in his 3rd year reading history at Trinity College, Oxford, is writing a thesis on Catholic views about burial or cremation. On his behalf I have been asking friends to contribute to his questionnaire. Along the way I have realised that some Catholics have very strong views on the subject and they are deeply opposed to cremation, even though the Church has permitted it since 1963.
The Church is pragmatic. Many people cannot afford the expense of a burial; sometimes a loved one has died abroad; the guidelines also mention “sanitary considerations”.
What matters, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith emphasises in these new guidelines, is not so much which mode of disposal of the body is chosen (though the Church still prefers burial) but whether the deceased person really believes in the essential Christian teaching on the resurrection of the body.
One clause of the guidelines especially interested me: “When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority.”
I am interested because I have chosen cremation – much to the horror of some of my strict Catholic friends. The reason is that our parish church, a “sacred place”, does have “an area” which has been “set aside” for the cremated remains of parishioners. It is a columbarium, which Wikipedia explains is “a place for the respectful storage of cinerary urns.” The word apparently comes from the Latin word for “dove.”
What clinches it for me is that the columbarium in our church is under a full-length facsimile of the Holy Shroud, to which our late parish priest, who built the church with the help of parishioners, had a great devotion. Catholics are not bound to accept that the Holy Shroud is the actual burial cloth of Christ (though all the evidence points that way), but I do. To have one’s earthly remains reposing near the tabernacle and beneath the image of Christ in the instant before His own Resurrection is very consoling.
To those who say to me, “What happens if your church closes down?” I reply, “Nothing lasts forever in this world, including graveyards.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.