Posted by Richard Rawlinson
As a blogger, I may seem as impervious to the ways of secular funerals as a civil celebrant is to the customs of Catholicism. But as a reader, I’ve mulled over ideas presented here to find they’ve struck a chord. While unprejudiced readers will already realise I value choice, whether religious or non-religious, it’s perhaps less obvious I can hold more than an ‘each to their own’ attitude, that instead of simply ‘agreeing to differ’, I sometimes ‘agree to agree’.
Poppy Mardall’s ‘Free yourself and take your time’ is a recent example of a blog that’s provided food for thought—for which I’m grateful. Discussing the service of her company, Poppy’s Funerals, she wrote that, after a simple cremation, ‘we then deliver the ashes to the family so they can hold the funeral ceremony, celebration of life or memorial with the ashes wherever, whenever and however they want’.
As someone who reveres Church teaching, who tries (but sometimes fails) to obey the fundamentals of the faith, a funeral without the body is not something to be embraced lightly.
The Order of Christian Funerals directly links funerals to the Baptism and Confirmation journey: ‘This is the body once washed in Baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the Bread of Life’. It goes on to say ‘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. Thus, the Church’s 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.’
Many here, of course, won’t give a fig about the granting of Church permission for steps taken at funerals. A non-Catholic has no need to consult an oracle which he/she doesn’t hold as a theological authority, and no doubt finds anathema such willing resignation of independence. As a Catholic though, I felt the need to check with doctrinal teaching to see if my sympathy with the option of a funeral without the body was okay or an error.
Until just 50 years ago, the Church forbad cremation due to the belief in the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1963, she waived this law, an example of how rituals of the Church adapt to the cultural needs of members as long as this doesn’t sacrifice basic beliefs. The Church continues to prefer and encourage the faithful to bury the dead, but supports the faithful in honouring the life of the departed in this different way. She accepts ‘one hat doesn’t necessarily fit all’, and this alternative isn’t a rejection of core values.
When the Church accepted cremations, she initially still required they be carried out only after the actual body was present at the funeral Mass. Ashes were not allowed in church as substitute for the body due to reverence for the body which carried the oils from Baptism and Confirmation.
However, in 1997, the Church recognised the need of relatives of those who had chosen cremation to have a tangible presence of the deceased during a post-cremation funeral Mass. She lifted the ban on having ashes present during the service.
This lenience was triggered by cases such as a person who dies suddenly a long way from home, and the family can’t afford to repatriate the body. The body is then cremated near the location of death, and the urn of ashes transported home more affordably. It then seemed insensitive to refuse those mourners a funeral mass with the ashes present. A memorial mass may be a comfort but some feel there’s something missing at the funeral mass without the presence of deceased in at least some form.
Despite condoning cremations and funeral masses with ashes—although still preferring burial of the body—the Church continues to forbid the faithful from scattering cremains or displaying them at home, insisting they be buried within an urn in a cemetery.
Footnote: Rome had to make minor revisions to liturgy to accommodate the new choices. The Order of Christian Funerals prescribes three separate rites to celebrate the journey from this life to the next, and to help mourners through this period of separation and letting go. The ideal sequence of this trio of rites is vigil (short prayer service at the bedside or funeral home), funeral mass (full mass in church), committal (short prayer service at the graveside or crematorium). Cremation before the funeral requires the vigil, committal (of sorts), funeral mass with urn of cremains present instead of body in coffin, committal proper (in cemetery). Prayers, therefore, no longer make specific reference to the body that was washed in Baptism, but to ‘earthly remains’.