November 30, 2017

The commercialization of cremains: a challenge to faith

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Unsplash
Credit: Unsplash

In the center of modern Rome, on the banks of the Tiber, there humbly rises a dilapidated ruin that once stood as a proud building of Imperial Rome. It is the Mausoleum of Augustus. The Greek historian Strabo records that Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, built this structure in 23 B.C. to house his remains and those of his family when they died. 

This funerary monument is second in size only to the Egyptian pyramids. It preserves the cremated remains of the Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Vespasian and Caligula. The Mausoleum of Augustus stands in witness to the desire of pagan Rome to honor its dead rulers.  From beneath the dust of centuries, the memory of these buried dead rise from the mausoleum’s cavernous interior and hover over this hallowed ground. They are not forgotten as individuals who lived and died and then passed to the other side.

Ever since the late twentieth century, more and more people are opting for cremation as a form of disposing the human body in such a way that their memory is lost and no longer honored. All too often death is seen as a “dead end” with nothing beyond. As a result, the human body is seen merely as something that once was but now should be recycled back into nature. 

Bereaved relatives are now choosing not to bury their loved one’s ashes. Rather, they spread the cremains of their deceased on mountains, in rivers, at sea, in their gardens or just about any other place that may have been significant to the dead person at one time or another. Some even turn their dead relatives into fertilizer to be put at the base of a tree. 

Today, there are so many commercialized ways of disposing of the dead person’s body. Jewelry containing the remains. Vinyl records made from cremated ash. Biodegradable balloons filled with human cremains released into the sky. Fireworks from cremated ash celebrating the departed as a blast of light. Or even diamonds forged from cremains. Cremation is quickly becoming a commercialized industry catering to consumer choice.

As Christians, our beliefs shape our conduct. And, most certainly, the way in which we bury our beloved dead not only should honor them, but it should also express our faith. We are more than matter. We are body and soul. As individuals, we are an integral whole. Our very bodies, washed clean in the waters of Baptism, are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We love God and our neighbors not as disembodied spirits, but as body and soul. 

When we die, we do not cease to exist. At the moment of death, our souls stand in judgment before God. Our body returns to the earth from which it was made, as we await the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. On the last day, “Christ will raise our mortal bodies and make them like his own in glory” (Funeral Liturgy; cf. Phil 3:21).  

Therefore, the body of a dead person is not to be discarded like an old garment. Nor is it to be disposed of as something with no value. Death is not the annihilation of the person. When cremation is the preferred choice of burial, the cremains should never be scattered. This very action only serves to obliterate the concrete, personal identity of the individual. Because a person does not cease to be at death, their cremains are to be respectfully interred in a tomb or placed in an urn with their name.

Keeping the ashes of a dead person at home only hinders the grieving process. It also fails to respect the fact that each of us belongs to a wider community than our immediate family or friends. At death, we are called from our limited circle of family, friends and acquaintances to join the vast community of all those who believed in God while on earth and now live with him in heaven. Our cemeteries serve to remind us of this communion of life that goes beyond the grave. Placing the ashes of our beloved dead in a cemetery keeps their memory alive, even after those who knew them have long passed away.

The respect which we give to the bodies of our dead expresses our love for them. The honor which we give their bodies binds us to their departed souls in a bond of love that defies death itself and affirms our faith in the resurrection. Thus, our Christian understanding of death should distance us from the commercialization of cremains. 

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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