One component of our diaconate formation this year has focused on ministries related to death and dying. To that end, our class watched the movie “Departures,” 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The main character is Daigo Kobayashi, an unemployed concert cellist who accidentally becomes an encoffiner, essentially an Japanese undertaker. Although initially nauseated by the work, he eventually grows to embrace his new-found calling.
Encoffination is a Japanese cultural ceremony in which the decedent is ritually cleansed, dressed, and casketed in the presence of mourners. Daigo learns to perform the rite with artful skill and grace, while preserving the deceased person’s modesty, thus bringing great comfort to the surviving family and friends. This beautiful ceremony bears witness to the very real human need to “say goodbye” with the senses, not just the head and heart, as well as the dignity and respect that should be accorded to the body.
Now, cue the fire!
That’s right; encoffination is followed by cremation, nearly 100% in Japan. All of that loving preparation culminates in the body simply being burned, and the juxtaposition of these two events induces no small amount of cognitive dissonance.
But why? Isn’t cremation growing in popularity? Yes, it is. Doesn’t it cost less than full-body burial? Yes, it often does. Don’t cremated remains take up less space? Yes, they do. Doesn’t Holy Mother church permit cremation? Yes, she does, since the Vatican lifted the prohibition on cremation in 1963. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (CCC 2301).
That is precisely the danger. The Bible tells us that when Jesus returns to earth, he will physically raise all those who have died, giving them back the bodies they lost at death. For the righteous, they will be transformed into a glorified state, freed from suffering and pain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:35–44).
The resurrection of the body is an essential Christian doctrine, which has been infallibly defined by the Church. It is included in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed; it has been infallibly taught by ecumenical councils, including the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).
What are the ramifications for cremation? In short, that urn full of ashes is a body, fundamentally the same as an intact corpse, which “must be treated with respect and charity…” (CCC 2300).
What does that mean practically? From the Order of Christian Funerals (no. 417):
This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains on the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.
Knowing how to properly dispose of cremains is frequently an issue. Remember the movie “The Way” (2012) in which grieving father and non-practicing Catholic Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) scatters his son’s ashes along El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James)? Not exactly the best example. If cremated remains are to be treated as an intact body, scattering them ought to be unthinkable. The idea of keeping a loved one’s ashes on the mantle or coffee table should seem similarly offensive.
The Funeral Rite recommends that cremation would ideally take place after the Funeral Liturgy with the body present (no. 418). According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ January 2012 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship, this is “so that there can be an opportunity for the Vigil for the Deceased in the presence of the body (during “visitation” or “viewing” at a church or funeral home). This allows for the appropriate reverence for the sacredness of the body at the Funeral Mass: sprinkling with holy water, the placing of the pall, and honoring it with incense.” Many Catholics don’t know that holding a funeral in the presence of cremated remains actually requires the permission of the local bishop (no. 426).
This echoes the message from the film “Departures;” there is a very real human need to “say goodbye” with the senses, and the human body must be accorded dignity and respect. Having experienced the sudden and shocking death of Lisa’s dad, we understand the need for this full sensory experience that the presence of a body allows. To see and to touch his body was a critical part of the grieving process, not just for immediately family, but for all jolted by the suddenness of his earthly death.
Despite the Church’s clear preference for intact burial, the rate of cremation among Catholics in the United States is on the rise, ranging from 20% in the Archdiocese of Atlanta to 40% in the Diocese of Phoenix. Is this purely for cost reasons? For space considerations? Others? We hope these factors are being weighed appropriately against the primary concerns of enabling the grieving process and treating the body with the appropriate reverence the Church has outlined.