My ti morceaux over the past few months have focused on the Catholic Church’s funeral rituals. In the last couple, the baptismal imagery emphasized during funerals has been the focus. Again, as I’ve said, “Almost everyone has noted that at both celebrations – baptisms and funerals – washing with holy water, clothing with a white garment, and the burning of the Easter Candle are obvious parallels.”
But there are occasionally funerals which downplay, if not eliminate completely, this kind of imagery. And I’m not just talking about odd funerals that might take place in small chapels or a missionary setting wherein there might not be an Easter candle or all of the other “stuff” that’s typically on hand in a more developed Catholic Church parish.
I’m speaking instead of funerals when the body of the deceased has been cremated. When you stop to think about it, when that transformation of a human body into ashes takes place, a fundamental change in the very imagery and sensibility of the funeral changes as well. While not exactly forbidden, draping an urn of ashes does not represent the clothing of the newly-baptized in the white robe of purity like draping a human body does. Washing (or sprinkling) that urn with holy water does not evince the same symbolism as it does when the human remains have retained their bodily form. Personally, I’ve also always omitted incensation at funerals when cremation has occurred: it doesn’t seem to me to be very coherent to “honor and bless” the burned remains of a human being with more burning of resins and wood.
Let me make it clear: cremation is no longer forbidden or really frowned upon by the Church. It is more traditional in Western societies to bury the dead, but more and more are choosing cremation, no doubt principally for economic reasons since it’s an alternative that usually costs a bereaved family much, much less. As can. 1176, §3, of the Code of Canon Law puts it, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.” Only if someone honestly thought they could prevent God from rejoining the immortal soul of a human being with his or her resurrected body by cremating the corpse, I suppose, would be an example of this last sort of situation.
The final word, really, is that we treat human remains, in whatever form they are, with respect, although not necessarily in exactly the same ways.