Michael Cahill, "Don't Bury Death: A Catholic Argument Against Cremation," U.S. Catholic, December 2006. Reproduced by permission.
Michael Cahill is the past chair of the Chicago Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, and an adjunct faculty member at Mundelein Seminary.
The Catholic Church traditionally has taught both that the human soul is immortal, and that the body will be physically resurrected when Christ returns. Cremation, in that it destroys the body, indicates a lack of faith in the physical resurrection of the body. For this reason, cremation was forbidden to Catholics until 1963, and is still discouraged. In addition, because the body is sacred, it should be preserved, be present at the funeral for mourners to see, and be buried with respect, rather than whisked away to a crematorium to be destroyed.
I took my usual deep breath before heading into the funeral home. I both dread and look forward to wakes and funerals. I dread them because they so vividly remind me of my own mortality. I look forward to them because I get to see the "guest of honor" one more time, say goodbye, pay my respects, and pray for their resurrection.
When I walked into the parlor, I immediately saw the kneeler and headed toward it to pray. Suddenly I stopped. Something felt awkward and strange. Then I realized what was wrong. There was no body. I stood frozen, not sure what to do. A friend approached and said, "There she is." But I still didn't see her.
My friend walked me closer to the kneeler, then I saw the urn. The family had decided on cremation and had cremated her before the services. I turned toward the kneeler again but then moved on, unable to kneel. I couldn't pray before the urn because it wasn't truly her, any more than Chicago's Wrigley Field would be the city's baseball shrine if it had burned to the ground.
For many centuries the church has taught the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.
Standing at the back of the parlor, I felt guilty and old-fashioned all at once. It wasn't that I was consciously refusing to kneel or trying to make a statement. Yet I knew what I had failed to do was at best politically incorrect. But still I couldn't kneel.
Cremation and the Resurrection of the Body
For many centuries the church has taught the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. Until 1963 it also condemned cremation because it was thought such an act indicated a lack of belief in resurrection. Although the church now allows cremation, the Catholic Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) reminds Catholics that cremation "does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body."
Even when the family chooses cremation, the church recommends that the body be cremated after the funeral Mass since "the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the church affirms in the [funeral] rites."
While it is true that cremation is part of a religious ritual in other religions, it is decidedly not Catholic tradition, especially not in 21st-century American Catholicism.
What are those values? "The church's belief in the sacredness of the human body and the resurrection of the dead has traditionally found expression in the care taken to prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial," according to the OCF.
Burial Is Preferable to Cremation
Does this mean that I am making the case that burial is preferable to cremation, and that in the case of cremation, it must take place after the funeral? Absolutely. The heart of that case lies in two phrases quoted above. The first phrase, "the care taken to prepare the bodies," has to do with us, the living; while the second, "the sacredness of the human body and the resurrection of the dead," has to do with the dead.
While it is true that cremation is part of a religious ritual in other religions, it is decidedly not Catholic tradition, especially not in 21st-century American Catholicism. There may be understandable and good reasons to choose cremation, including cost, the environmental impact of burial, and the wishes of the deceased. In the U.S. church, however, cremation most often serves as a way to move through a death quickly with as little bother and fuss as possible.
We are a society with no time for death or for the slow and sacred rituals that accompany both the dead and us to our loved one's final resting place. We have long been removed from the personal care of the dead body, with the body prepared out of sight at the mortuary. Even more, cremation, usually performed in private with few if any family present, leaves little or no physical reminder of death at all.
What better sign of our belief in the resurrection of the body than our preparation, physical and spiritual, of that body to meet the Lord.
One Chicago parish has responded by having a bereavement ministry through which parishioners actually come to the house of the deceased and help the family bathe the body one final time and prepare it for burial.
Perhaps most of us are unlikely to become engaged in the physical preparation of the body, but at least we should ensure such care is taken. We should witness it and continue that care through the rituals, formal and informal, that make up the wake and funeral. We are, after all, a sacramental church, and what better sign of our belief in the resurrection of the body than our preparation, physical and spiritual, of that body to meet the Lord.
When I was young, I was taught that my body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. There are a lot of messages about the importance of our bodies embedded in the culture today, but few, if any, honor the body's sacredness. Many, in fact, objectify our bodies so as to make them devoid of personhood. No wonder it is more difficult to persuade people to bring the body of the deceased to church. After all, what difference does it make? Can't God raise a cremated body as easily as one that was buried? That's true, of course, since resurrection is more than mere resuscitation.
But the preservation of a loved one's body has more to do with us than it does with God. Our loved one's body is a sacramental sign of our belief in the resurrection. As the OCF puts it, "This is the body once washed in Baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. Indeed, the human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body."
The woman whose wake I attended, for example, I had known for almost 20 years. She was a physically large woman, and her loud laughter could fill a room. Her later years were plagued by much depression, and her large physique ironically made that depression stand out. At times it made her look small. It was that embodied spirit, the sacramental sign of her body, that I missed at her wake, a sign that spoke of both her joy and her pain.
In a recent issue of the archdiocesan newspaper of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George [the archbishop of Chicago] recounted a story that St. Teresa of Avila [a sixteenth-century Spanish holy woman] told about the devil appearing to her disguised as the risen Christ. Teresa immediately understood there was an imposter in her midst and told the devil she knew he was not Christ "because you have no wounds." The cardinal went on to remind his readers that "the resurrection of the body is harder to imagine than the immortality of the soul but both are truths of faith," and that "too seldom do we think of risen bodies, glorious and eternal. We will bear our wounds for eternity, but we will do so joyfully and with complete freedom."
Saying Goodbye to the Body
Last summer I attended another wake and funeral, this time for my mother. What a contrast it was to my friend's. My mother died from Alzheimer's disease, and one of my sisters insisted that she was laid out with a scowl that accurately described her attitude about having suffered from Alzheimer's. As I looked at Mom that evening, I wondered how someone so small had borne seven children. I marveled even more that someone whose mind and body had both shriveled in recent years had once been so formidable a woman. I delighted in the memory of her beautiful singing voice, which could immediately hush a room.
My sister Meg insisted on seeing the casket being closed for the final time. I stayed in the parlor with her while the room cleared out. In the last months of her life, my mother's right leg became permanently locked in the shape of an upside down V. We simply couldn't straighten her leg. So when the funeral directors had to open the bottom half of the casket lid in order to close the whole casket once and for all, there was that right leg sticking up. My sister Meg turned to me with a sad smile and said, "It was good to see that leg one more time."
Meg lived right across the street from Mom. She lived with that leg, that body, every day for many long years as the disease ravaged Mom's mind and body. She had, in a sense, taken great care "to prepare the body of the deceased for the funeral." Now, with grace and humor, she got her chance to say goodbye to that sacred body, that temple of the Holy Spirit, one last time just before we left to celebrate Christ's Resurrection, and with it, the resurrection of the body.