Choosing Cremation for Terri

Day by day, the cluster of protest placards outside the hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, kept changing with the headlines. “Not brain dead” gave way to “Give Terri water.” Hopeful appeals to Governor Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush turned into cardboard cries of hopelessness.

Then a new message appeared: “No cremation.”

Protesters were getting ready for the controversy that would heat up when Terri Schiavo died. Would her husband do what he had vowed to do, cremating her body despite the furious opposition of her highly traditional Roman Catholic parents?

As Michael Schiavo once told the Tampa Tribune: “She never wanted to be put in the ground with bugs. She always told me that.” Thus, he planned — backed by the courts — to have her cremated and her ashes taken to his family's plot near Philadelphia.

Bob and Mary Schindler were appalled, arguing that cremation would violate their daughter's Catholic faith. The parents have requested a wake, an open-casket funeral Mass and traditional burial in Florida. In one of their many pleadings to Pinellas County Court, the Schindlers argued that Michael Schiavo “has consistently exhibited a lack of respect” toward Catholicism.

“Even in death, he isn't going to allow them a shrine, a place to go talk to her,” Franciscan monk Paul O'Donnell told reporters, speaking for the family. “Won't he at least give them her dead body?”

This debate is stark evidence that many Catholics continue to struggle with changes made by the modern Church. After centuries of opposition to cremation, the Code of Canon Law now states: “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”

The hardest liturgical changes to accept are those linked to emotional events at the crossroads of life — birth, marriage and death.

“Cremation is no longer considered shocking to most Catholics,” said Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report. “But overwhelmingly, traditional Catholics would lean toward a traditional burial. The older the Catholic, the more likely they would remember the traditions against cremation.”

The modern Catechism of the Catholic Church hints at the ancient roots of this controversy, noting that cremation is permitted, “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”

Early Christian believers were familiar with pagan cremation rituals and saw martyrs burned at the stake, noted Father C. John McCloskey III, of the Faith and Reason Institute in Chicago. The Jewish Apostles knew that Judaism rejected cremation.

“The early Church also defined itself in opposition to Manichaeism, Gnosticism and other heretical sects that taught that the soul is good and the body is bad. So it didn't matter what you did with the body. The soul was all that mattered.

“But the Church kept saying, 'No, the body is good. It should be honored and treated with respect….' Thus, you had an emphasis in Church tradition on funeral rites and the burial of the body in ground that has been blessed.”

If Catholics choose cremation, the Church still teaches that ashes should be stored in a holy place, as opposed to being kept in an urn on the fireplace mantle. Church authorities frown on rites that conclude with human ashes being scattered into nature, even though the ocean-loving relatives of John F. Kennedy, Jr., did precisely that in 1999, with the help of a priest.

In the Schiavo case, said McCloskey, it's important that the Church wants Catholics to ask moral questions about their choices as they prepare to honor a deceased loved one. Thus, it is still appropriate to ask why someone — such as Michael Schiavo — has chosen cremation over a traditional burial.

“You have to think that the goal here is to deny her family and the pro-life movement a grave, a place where they can have a shrine in her honor,” he said. “But, honestly, if there is a grave of any kind, no matter where it is or what it is, people are going to find it.

“After all is said and done, people are still going to want to go there and pay tribute to Terri Schiavo.”

Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Atlantic University and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage