A Catholic take on funeral diversity

Charles Cowling

 

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

 

First, may I thank this blog’s host for encouraging me to think about my own expectations of funerals as a Catholic. One readily assumes theists and atheists approach funerals differently, just as we part ways on the subject of the soul’s life after the body’s death. Some non-believers might find following the (Requiem) Mass somewhat lacking in individuality, along with general obedience to rules/doctrine dictated by the traditions of organised religions. Conversely, some believers might look disapprovingly on the more unconventional civil funerals.

But there is consensus on either side of the faith fence that diversity is necessary to reflect the wishes of the deceased and their loved ones: angry atheists and theists who shout either ‘mumbo-jumbo’ or ‘sacrilege’ (Drs Richard Dawkins and Ian Paisley spring to mind) at their intellectual foe both border on fundamentalism of a kind, while the civilised approach is liberal in the true sense of the word – generous and broad-minded to others regardless of personal concepts of orthodoxy.

When such acceptance is a given in the context of funerals, we can dwell on the common ground of grieving for the deceased, and celebrating their life. However, just because one is not a meddler in the affairs of others doesn’t preclude holding firm views relating to oneself. When the Pope talks about ‘moral relativism’, he refers to the existential blurring of good and evil in society, not the fact that cultural differences result in a rich variety of beliefs and practices among decent, law-abiding folk.

What unites people of faith is the funeral as sacred rite, to be conducted with dignity because the body retains its sanctity as the holder of holy human life. For atheists, the profound significance of a life ending when a body ceases to function is keenly felt, too: they may not describe human life as ‘holy’ or believe in the eternity of the soul, but the physical and emotional loss remains, and the uniqueness of the deceased lives on in memory.

Divisions between devotees of civil and sacred funerals stem not from imposing their rules on others but the outmoded perception that this is the case. Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism mandate cremation, as destruction of the body is said to induce a feeling of detachment into the spirit, encouraging it to pass into the ‘other world’. Islam only allows burial. Burial is upheld by traditional Jews and Catholics, although the more modern members of these religions often choose cremation, with co-operation from their rabbis and priests – it’s not against the laws of church authorities.

I don’t hold that cremation is somehow less respectful of the body’s sanctity as the vessel of the soul. I also understand the pragmatic reasons why many Christians and non-Christians prefer cremation — immediacy over slow decomposition, ecology, upkeep of graves, shortage of burial space, and especially cost.

However, it certainly appeals to a Catholic sense of harmony that any cremation follows the funeral mass, not the other way round, so the body, not the ashes, is present for blessing and prayers. The body that received the Holy Spirit through baptism far better symbolises the ‘sleeping’ person awaiting resurrection.

The Church also requests ashes be buried in an urn within a consecrated grave, although some modern Catholics, in line with their peers in secular society, might see the beauty of throwing cremains to the wind in a natural setting cherished by the deceased.

As with resistance to modern trends in other areas of life, the Church’s rules have been formed over centuries, which is not to say they don’t evolve. There have been times in history when the Church used power, as well as intellectual evangelisation, to convert pagans – who could have practised anything from cremation to mummification. And in more recent post-Enlightenment times the Church sometimes perceived cremation as a ‘masonic’ plot to deny bodily resurrection and defame Christian teaching.

Nowadays, few Catholics see funeral diversity as spiritually misguided or a personal threat. But, as a member of a church one listens to that church’s teaching. There’s certainly no harm in opting for burial in consecrated ground.

5 thoughts on “A Catholic take on funeral diversity

  1. Charles Cowling
    Michael Wolf

    I’m not sure as to whether the Church just requests that the physical remains of a deceased Catholic be buried or if she actually mandates it. I honestly find the idea of “throwing around the ashes” rather weird and could not understand it in a Judaeo-Christian context. I would personally be extremely cautious about Catholics who try to justify such things.

    But obviously, this was not what you were trying to say. The part wherein you clarify that regardless of specific beliefs regarding death and the afterlife, we all have a profound sense of respect for anyone who has passed away and a sense of compassion for all those who are left behind. I think that that is for all readers – Catholic and Non-Catholic alike – the most crucial point. It tells us something quite profound about our humanity.

    Finally, I must quote your excellent ending for all Catholics:
    “But, as a member of a Church one listens to that Church’s teaching. There’s certainly no harm in opting for burial in consecrated ground.”
    As you have said in your other article: while every funeral is unique and individual, we cannot forget the “communal” aspect of Catholic funerals: we are one body. And so, keeping in line with the Biblical tradition of us coming from the ground and returning to it certainly ought not to be a problem to practicing Catholics at all.


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Bonnie Wienke

    I like this post because as a Catholic I did not know I couldn’t have my ashes “residing” on my husband or child’s mantle. Had not thought about having the ashes buried in consecreted ground.
    Very interesting and informative. I think the entire funeral home business and funeral ritual is horrible but know it is necessary for those left behind in the healing process and brings closure.


    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan

    I think perhaps it’s not so much ritual that appeals to some as a sense of there being an Authority involved in processing the death, a sense that is (perhaps deliberately) absent in a ‘civil’ funeral.

    Authority is one major thing that’s missing when the ground starts shaking, time alternates with the egg white in the brain and even space itself won’t stay still. Even just an imaginary Authority can apparently do for many the sometimes useful job of taking temporary custody of our grief, to safeguard our sanity, until we are ready to reclaim it and eke it out in bite-size chunks that we can swallow.


    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    It is indeed a civilised and thoughtful post, for which, thanks. I think the non-Church ceremonies (civil ceremonies, but some of them have considerable spiritual content) need a greater sense of ritual to be built up, so that gradually, some aspects of them come to seem familiar and comforting. Never as likely to be as comforting as hymns learned in childhood and left behind, but we have to start somewhere!


    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Judith

    A thoughtful and tolerant post.
    As a non-believing, cultural Anglican, I have found the less personal, traditional Anglican and Catholic funeral services which I have attended more comforting than the highly personalised civil ceremonies. It may seem odd to a believer that a non-believer can derive comfort from a ritual in which he doesn’t believe, but I think it is the ritual aspect that is key: the familiar and predictable words and music are soothing in themselves.


    Charles Cowling

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