by John Lampard.
‘The way we treat the dead is an indication of the way we treat the living’. You may have seen, on television, on the web and even on the London Underground, advertisements for ‘Direct Cremation’. It is what it says on the coffin. Your relation’s or friend’s body is collected from a hospital or morgue, cremated without ceremony, and a few days later you either receive their ashes in a cardboard box, or they are anonymously scattered somewhere at the crem. There is no preparation of the body, no viewing, no contact (apart from phone or email) with the cremation arranger, no viewing, no hearse, no service. What you do with the ashes, if you elect to receive them, is up to you. You can arrange a funeral service, or not. You can dispose of them any way you wish within the law and your own level of ‘taste’. In the USA this service is known as ‘Cash and Ash’.
An increasing number of established funeral directors are offering this service, but there are now at least twenty new ‘disruptors’ who have entered the market. They can operate from home, making all the arrangements on line or on the phone, with no storage facilities, using any vehicle to transport the body. Costs for this service vary, but it can be half the cost of a modest funeral, so it is attractive to people who cannot or do not want to pay ever-increasing funeral costs.
These are many social implications of this new trend, but there are also ethical and theological issues for Christians. Unfortunately the Christian churches have never faced up to the fact that the standard ‘choices’ burial and cremation are not alternatives. With burial there is no remainder; with cremation there are several kilos of undisposed of remains which need to be disposed in one way or another. Should the ashes be treated with the same respect as the body? Is cremation a religious act, requiring liturgy and the presence of a minister? Are there Christian and non-Christian ways of disposal? What routes are there for pastoral care for the bereaved from funeral directors, officiants, or those to whom the bereaved might be directed?
The Catholic Church has recently issued instructions that following cremation ashes should not be scattered but buried, and also should not be used to make jewellery etc, or kept in an urn on the mantelpiece, or divided among members of the family.[i] It argues that Christians should be buried (as a body or as ashes) as Christ was buried. This has been a distinctive Christian practice and understanding over the entire history of the Church. As an aside, it is worth noting that Greece will shortly have its first crematorium, the last western country to begin to adopt cremation, albeit still in the face of fierce opposition from the Orthodox Church.
If cremation is viewed as a non-religious act, but simply as a method of preparation of the body for final disposal, are there any Christian objections to the growing practice? Is there pastoral value in the common practice today of a ‘private’ cremation followed by a church service? Is the ‘committal’ at the crematorium a false parallel to burial? Could a new Christian model for a funeral be prior ‘direct cremation’, a church service with the ashes, immediate burial of the ashes, and a communal coming together?
The shape of my own funeral service is still uncertain in my mind. Much depends on the age I reach and family circumstances. I cannot see any Christian objections if there is cremation first and no coffin in church. This could mean ‘direct cremation’ followed by a service I know that I want a forward looking funeral service and not a backward looking service of thanksgiving. The one certainty I hold to is that I want my ashes be buried in ‘holy ground’. The one hope I hold is that within the ultimate mystery I may rise with Christ.
[i] (2016) ‘Ad resurgendum cum Christo’ (To rise with Christ)