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Comment: Church is right: how we treat our dead is not an individual choice


The Catholic Church has permitted cremation since 1963 – now the Vatican has issued instructions as to how treat a loved one’s ashes (Stock picture)

The Catholic Church has permitted cremation since 1963 – now the Vatican has issued instructions as to how treat a loved one’s ashes (Stock picture)

The Catholic Church has permitted cremation since 1963 – now the Vatican has issued instructions as to how treat a loved one’s ashes (Stock picture)

When my mother died, she was cremated. That's what she wanted even though my father thought there was something a bit impersonal about a funeral ending not with the burial of the coffin in the family grave, but with the coffin disappearing into the crematorium.

The urn and the ashes were buried a couple of weeks later. There were far fewer people there for it compared with the funeral, and for me at any rate, it didn't feel the same as a traditional burial. But to each his own, I suppose. Or is that the case?

The Catholic Church doesn't think so and that's why the Vatican issued an instruction this week telling Catholics that while cremation is permitted, the ashes of the deceased should be buried in a consecrated place and not kept in an urn on the mantelpiece at home or scattered at sea or in some other place.

The instructions are contained in a very short document called 'Instruction Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo'. It points out the immemorial Christian belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead. It points out that Christians have always buried their dead in a sacred place and that the dead are buried according to the norms of the Christian community and not purely according to individual preference.

It says cremation is permitted, as it has been since 1963, but that the cremated remains must be buried in a sacred, consecrated, communal place, therefore ruling out keeping the ashes at home or scattering them at sea.

It says the way we sometimes deal with the remains of the dead today can be seen as indicating we don't believe in an afterlife at all, or that we believe God and nature are the same thing, rather than being separate, as in when we scatter the ashes in a beauty spot.

Whether this is true or not, what is certain is that how we bury our dead in some way reflects what we believe about life, death and the afterlife.

The Ancient Romans cremated their dead. They believed in the immortality of the soul but believed the dead body was of little importance.

Hindus cremate their dead. Why do they do that? A big reason is that they believe in reincarnation. When a person dies, they will be reincarnated. The cremated remains of their previous body are immersed in a sacred river, often the Ganges, because this enables the person to re-enter the cycle of reincarnation.

The Ancient Egyptians attached such huge importance to the body that they preserved it through mummification. This is because they believed that after a person was buried, the soul would try to reunite with its body and the body therefore had to be preserved.

Christians have always buried their dead. That is because Christians believe both the body and the soul are important and that at the end of time there will be a bodily resurrection, just as Jesus arose bodily from the dead.

You can mock the beliefs of all these countless people down the ages if you wish, but what the atheist believes could also be wildly untrue, namely that when you're dead, you're dead. There's no afterlife.

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How, then, should the dead be treated? Should they be venerated at all? Certainly, they won't be prayed for. In secular Britain, the Irish are often struck by how little effort is put into many funerals. Britons can be struck by the reverse here.

So, we can't pretend that the way we treat our dead and the way we regard our dead does not imply a wider set of beliefs about life and death and the existence or otherwise of an afterlife.

Today, we live in a highly individualistic age. In the way we treat our dead, in the way we bury them, there is still a very strong echo of our Christian heritage, but the growing practice of bringing the urn home and putting it on the mantelpiece, or scattering the ashes at some beauty spot, is indicative of an individualism which says, 'I will decide for myself what will happen to my body with little reference to wider, communal beliefs.'

In historical terms this is very strange, and for the vast majority of people living on the planet today, it is still strange. In the West, we don't even notice anymore how extremely individualistic our attitudes have become. The same goes for many Christians.

Individual choice and preference are applied to all areas of life, including what happens to us when we are dead. Fair enough, up to a point. If someone who has no real religious beliefs wants to see their body disposed of in accordance with their individual preferences and without regard to the beliefs of any given community, religious or otherwise, so be it.

But it is strange for a Christian, who does belong to a community of belief, to insist that how their remains should be disposed of is a purely private decision. It would be like a devout Hindu deciding that their remains are to be treated in a way that owes little or nothing to Hindu beliefs, or deciding that their ashes should be buried in the ground rather than merged with a sacred river.

The hostile reaction on the part of some, including many who are no longer even Catholics, to the Vatican's instruction this week, is actually indicative of a wider culture clash, namely the clash between our current hyper-individualism and the requirements of belonging to a given community of belief, in this case the Catholic Church.

For Christians, how we treat our dead fellow believers is never a purely private matter.