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.