The month dedicated to the rosary came to a close on All Hallows Eve, thereby commencing the month in the Church dedicated to praying for our beloved dead. At the forefront of November are the last things: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. The festival of All Saints directs attention to Heaven, while the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day) focuses on the reality of death and judgment.
On December 8, 2015, Pope Francis will inaugurate the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Be assured the sacrament of Penance will be emphasized from the pulpit and the corporal works of mercy will be given due attention. One of the accorded works of mercy includes burying the dead. Praying for the dead, especially by attending funeral rites for our relatives and friends, is the most concrete way to live out this corporal work. Unfortunately, in our contemporary era, we need to emphasize the literal meaning of the phrase “bury the dead” because for so many the dead are not being buried on account of the rise in cremation.
As a priest, I have witnessed this first hand or hear about this from disgruntled family members who disagree with what other relatives are doing. Cremains are being kept in people’s homes. In some cases, when one spouse predeceases the other, the cremains are kept until the other passes, and are jointly buried. Some relatives are looking at catalogues in the waiting room at the funeral home and are purchasing jewelry with a portion of cremains in it. Another person I know wants to divide the ashes among her children while another wants to be scattered at sea.
Contained within the Church’s teaching of the corporal works of mercy is the mandate to bury the dead. This is a merciful act undertaken for our beloved family and friends (CCC 2300). Canonically speaking, the only reference to cremation pertains to permission for it: “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (Canon 1176.3). The canon does not explicitly state cremains should be buried, but given the qualification permitting cremation, it should be assumed that they must be on account of our Church’s pious custom of burying the dead. Further, canon 1180 sheds some light on this issue: “If a parish has its own cemetery, the deceased members of the faithful must be buried in it.” The deceased must be buried in a cemetery as Church law dictates, thus not permitting the keeping of cremains in one’s home. Lastly, the Church’s funeral rites provide a Rite of Committal, which serves as “the final act of the community of faith in caring for the body of its deceased member” (Order of Christian Funerals, #204). By skipping the Rite of Committal, the beloved dead of our Church are being deprived prayers which assist them on their journey to the heavenly homeland. As such, it behooves us from a catechetical, canonical, and liturgical viewpoint to bury our dead, especially their cremated remains.
That’s enough Church speak about the issue of burying our dead as a corporal work of mercy. Practically, here are a few more reasons to bury your loved one’s cremains:
Helps with Closure
The presence of cremains on the mantle reminds individuals of their loved ones. It is easy in such a situation to dialogue with the deceased, even though they are not corporally present, yet still physically there in their remains. It can be a healthy coping mechanism for people to dialogue with their beloved dead. In fact, I often encourage it. But there needs to be the separation of the dead from the home of a loved one. Placing an urn in the ground or in a columbarium brings closure, sets a boundary, and allows a time and place to visit, consecrated for such purposes. This allows a person to move beyond death and focus on the resurrection.
Burying the dead does not mean we want to forget about our loved ones. Photos and other mementos call their memory to mind. The presence of ashes in someone’s home does not allow one to move beyond a loved one’s death. Burying our dead will help us to cope and come to peace with the reality that in death, our loved one’s life has changed, but has not ended.
Protection and Respect for the Remains
“Like Mom always said, don’t play ball in the house!” It’s disputed whether Mrs. Brady of The Brady Bunch ever said that, but that image of an item breaking when kids are horse playing causes great concern with an urn placed on mantle or some other place in the home. In the blink of an eye, disaster could strike, and a never intended scattering of ashes could take place. Or in the unfortunate situation that something happens to the possessor of the ashes, the remains may not be found or the identity unknown. Burying cremains in a cemetery ensures mishaps do not happen, save natural disasters. There are other concerns with cremains in someone’s house, including the possibility of theft. Earlier this year some teens stole cremains from people’s homes thinking they were drugs. And I seem to recall a news story about a salvage yard discovering several urns of ashes in the trunk of a car to be demolished. Lastly, the phenomenon of jewelry is disturbing, because jewelry breaks and is lost, and when that happens, you lose your loved one again. The best practice to prevent any foul play simply is to bury the ashes in your local cemetery.
A Place to Visit
Keeping cremated remains in the house of a family member is not fair to others in the family or the friends of the deceased. If there are several children or other relatives, and only one person has possession of the ashes, it becomes difficult for others to visit and pay their respects. It may not be possible to visit someone’s house as regularly as one may want, or there may be an awkward dynamic within the family preventing family member’s from visiting. During the month of November, how does one pay respect to their relatives or friends? For me, every time I visit my hometown and stop by our family lot in the cemetery, I always visit the graves of other people—especially those who supported me in my priestly vocation. Burying a loved one in the cemetery affords other people the opportunity to visit the grave and to offer prayers for the soul of your family member. It allows all the Christian faithful to live the corporal works of mercy by visiting cemeteries and praying for the souls of the faithful departed. Family and friends can visit this common place and honor the dead, by their prayers, and if cemetery regulations permit, with floral decor.
The Next Step
At this point, if you have possession of a loved one’s ashes in your home, you might wonder what you should do next. The next step would be to contact your local Catholic Church and ask how the pastor would like you to proceed. It might involve contacting the local [Catholic] cemetery to purchase a plot or a spot in the columbarium. There are people out there who are happy to help you in this situation if you reach out to them. As a Church we want to pray with you, for you, and for your beloved dead. We want to help bring closure, protect the remains of your loved one, and allow others to pay their respects. If you are ready to take the next step, first talk about this with your family members, and then pick up the phone, and call your local Catholic Church.