Pastor’s letter, November 6, 2016:
The leaves are all almost off the trees, fall is here. It is a time of year we think about the cycle of life, the dying and sleeping and coming back to life. November 2 was All Souls Day and for the whole month of November we remember the dead. Christians from the very beginning have had a special devotion to the souls of the dead and a reverence for the body and burial. Because of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, cremation was not an option. Cremation was a pagan practice and the early Christians buried their dead with great dignity and respect. The body was always interned in a cemetery so the grave could be visited to pray, remember, and pay respect.
We can see the remains and practices of early Christian burial in the Catacombs in Rome. Hundreds of thousands of Christians were buried there. When I lived in Rome as a student I often visited the Catacombs; it was one of my favorite places to visit. It is essentially an underground cemetery. We can see how carefully and reverently the Christians buried their dead. From the Catacombs emerged some of the first Christian art and symbols, always focusing on Christ and the Resurrection. As Christianity developed, funeral rites developed around the burial, and burying the dead became a corporal work of mercy.
Christian burial practice is based on the dignity of the human person and the human body. The body and soul are integral parts of the human person and we believe, as the creed says, in the Resurrection of the body like our Lord. We are not angels, because our eternity will include our bodies. Heaven for us is not floating around heaven with wings. It is not correct to think we become angels; this denies our corporality and future corporality, like Jesus who has gone before us.
I read an article on the front page of the Seattle Times last Sunday entitled “Corpses to Compost.” It was floating the idea for cost and environmental reasons that human corpses be composted. The article noted that it is done with cows. The idea is to drop off a corpse and come back later to pick up the compost, I suppose to put in the garden. Presently in Washington State, 80% of all corpses are cremated and most of these are scattered and not interned.
Anthropologists can tell a lot about a culture and their religious views by burial practices. Obviously we are living in an increasingly secularized and post-Christian culture. I guess the question is, how are we as Christians going to hang on to our faith in a secularized environment? Christian burial is one of the ways we hang on to our faith; faith in the dignity of the body and faith in the Resurrection. Though cremation is permitted, the Church has a clear preference for burying the full body of the deceased. If cremation is a choice, the cremains must be in interned in a cemetery. Also, there is a clear preference that the body be present for the funeral rites. Cremation and internment take place afterwards.
This coming Wednesday, Greg Simard from Archdiocesan Catholic Cemeteries and I will make a presentation on understanding and Planning the Catholic Funeral and Burial Rite. Please come if you would like to learn more about this. Having buried both of my parents, it was very comforting to have the funeral rites of our Church as we laid my mom and dad to rest. I am also glad I have a place to go visit and pray and pay my respects to my parents.