‘Why do people keep Uncle John’s ashes on the mantelpiece? It can be a way of not moving on.’

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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Burial rituals are probably as old as human civilisation itself and we see evidence of ancient practices even now, in the form of old stone dolmens across Western Europe, to structures like the great Pyramids of Egypt, which were accompanied by the 3500-year-old ritual of embalming.

Cremation as a burial ritual is possibly just as old and, in recent years, it has enjoyed a revival in the Western world. In the Republic of Ireland, the first crematorium was opened in 1982, in Glasnevin. And today, according to funeral director, Johnathan Stafford, speaking on the Today programme to Keelin Shanley, cremation is the preferred option for up to 50% of his clients.

But now, cremation faces a challenge in the form of a Vatican directive, issued yesterday, forbidding the Catholic faithful from keeping remains in the family home, scattering them or dividing them among family members.

Instead, it said the remains should only be kept in a “holy place’’ such as a consecrated graveyard or church. Why is the placing of remains so important, even in the form of ashes?

This was the main question Keelin put to Father Joe MacDonald of St Matthew’s Church in Ballyfermot and Catholic Theologian Dr John Murray.

“We believe it is not respectful. Not as respectful as it should be. This is about the honour and dignity of our faithful department and loved ones… This is about the sacredness of what we are talking about, which is about the passing of our loved ones from this world to the next.”

And on that final point, the sacredness of the burial ritual, there is a deeper, theological point Father Joe wanted to emphasise. According to Father Joe, “we don’t do death well.” By which he meant that people have a tendency to use euphemisms like ‘he passed’ or ‘she crossed over.’ Or ‘he had a final sleep’. Death, for many, appears very final. But obviously, for people of faith, death is not the end because, as Catholics, they believe in the risen Jesus. In this respect, he says, it’s important to move on, and holding onto ashes can inhibit them.

“Why do people keep uncle John’s ashes on the mantelpiece? It can be very unhealthy. It can be a way of hanging on and not moving on.”

The Vatican directive was issued by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and it has caused a lot of frustration and confusion, as the church originally permitted cremation in 1963, and its popularity has increased ever since.

However, according to Catholic Theologian, Dr John Murray, another of Keelin’s guests, scattering ashes poses a particular problem, in its possible association with pantheism.

“Pantheism is the idea that nature is God and God is nature. People might have the idea that scattering the ashes on the ground, this is a way of honouring nature, honouring God. A person might think that by scattering the Ashes in the sea or scattering them on the ground is kind of a way of honouring God, in nature.”

He went on.

“Nihilism would be the idea that there is no life after death, and there is no God, and therefore there is no need for a Christian burial, or prayers for the dead, things like that. The idea of burning the remains to ashes and just scattering them is a way of expressing the idea that we just go back to the elements, and that’s all there is to it.”

The problem, according to Dr Murray, is that practices such as cremation might give the experience of those kind of Pantheistic or nihilistic outlooks and so, for somebody who is a Christian, are best avoided.

To listen to the full interview, click here.


Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

© The Listener 2016

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