Ashes to Ashes

There is a scene in the Cohen brothers’ The Big Lebowski where The Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) and his friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) are standing on the edge of a cliff with their deceased friend Donny’s (Steve Buscemi) ashes in a coffee tin. Donny was a keen surfer in his youth and the two friends want to scatter his remains in the Pacific. This being a Cohen brothers film, things quickly descend into absurdism: Walter blends his usual shtick anti-Vietnam rant into an already stuttering eulogy, raising the hackles of The Dude. And when it comes to the act of scattering the ashes, it is into the wind that Walter casts them. The Dude becomes enraged when most of Donny’s mortal remains fly into his face, whitening his beard and long hair. It is not a very dignified ceremony.

The big news coming last week from the Vatican is that the Catholic Church does not want such scatterings to take place anymore (even if they are conducted with more competence and decorum). The Catholic Church has long regarded cremation with disdain and suspicion. Their pyres were normally reserved for the living, à la Joan of Arc and the multitudes put to the torch during the Inquisition. It was only in 1963 that the practice received the Vatican seal of approval, but the faithful could only be cremated as long as the act was carried out in accordance with traditional beliefs and doctrines. That meant that there was an absolute requirement for the ashes to be buried: no scattering, no keeping of urns on the mantelpiece, and certainly no ashes in lockets or other jewelry. But, as with so many areas of modern life, the Vatican has seen some slippage of late and is cracking down on “erroneous ideas about death” and “unfitting or superstitious practices”, to quote a recently published document entitled “Instruction Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Donservation of the Ashes in the Case of Cremation“. This document’s publication in the run-up to All Saints’ and All Souls’ represents a sharp wrap on the knuckles of liberal Catholics from the red-hatted theologians who make up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Any reading of the text leaves one coming away with the clear idea that Rome is not particularly enamoured with cremation, and while it might not fully contravene the laws of God, it’s still a bit . . . un-Catholic.

Instruction Ad Resurgendum cum Christo could be summarised as follows: burial is the way to go if you want to be a straight-down-the-line Catholic; if you really must insist on cremation, you poor benighted demi-heathen, then your motives must be pure (no pantheism or any of that malarkey, and certainly no coffee tins) and you must bury the ashes in consecrated ground.

Here’s a few choice quotes from the document:


. . . burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body . . .

. . . following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.

Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works.


That’s quite clear then: burial is the deluxe option for Catholics.

While cremation “of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life” it must be carried out for “legitimate motives”. And once “cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority”.

You want to keep great aunt Lucy’s ashes on a stand in the hallway? I’m sorry — no can do. “The conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted.” There’s no humming and hawing about that, for sure!

You want to divvy up dearly departed Pater’s mortal, cremated remains among you and your seven brothers and sisters (you come from a good Catholic family after all)? That’s a big no-no: “The ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.”

You can easily imagine, then, how the Holy See might regard Uncle Willy’s stated desire to have his ashes scattered on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford, near the West Stand goalmouth preferably, where Peter Schmieichel in his day made such heroic saves: “It is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way”. Or God forbid, you might, like Dusty Springfield, request for your ashes to be scattered from the Cliffs of Moher, or, as in a recent report, blasted from a Halloween firework. Such practices smack of “pantheism, naturalism or nihilism”, whose very appearance must be “avoided”.

And if you want to carry Pops around in a locket? This “course(s) of action cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.”

Instruction Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo’s final point is made in the Catholic Church’s own inimitable bluntly hostile and prescriptive style, a manner which makes you feel that some of these cardinals and bishops would have made great punk rockers:

When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.

In other words, a two fingers to those who do not want to obey us.

One could take so many issues with Instruction Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo. Beyond the insensitivity of the language (we are talking about the death and burial [or otherwise] of loved ones here), the document is, along with the Catholic Church’s attitudes to contraception, homosexuality, women priests and women in general(!), further proof of the its digging its heels in in the face of the challenges of modernity. Instead of moving with its flock and accommodating shifting values and preferences, the church, like an Orangeman’s parrot, just repeatedly says no. What we hear is the usual “we’re not for turning; if you don’t like what we say, sod off”. Really, is it that big a deal to have your loved one’s ashes in an urn in the living room? Is it that anathema to the Church’s doctrine? Couldn’t keeping your loved one’s remains close at hand be seen as a way of maintaining their memory and your love for them more alive than if they were six feet under in a cemetery halfway across town or even halfway across the country? And if I have always wanted my ashes scattered on the ninth green of Shankoduff golf course but now must come to terms with my remains’ forced burial in Drumcliff cemetery, how will that change my views of death, the afterlife and the Catholic church? Will I now see my parish priest and bishop as petty tyrants, bullies and ecclesiastical boot boys?

Instruction Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo could be viewed by the cynical reader as an attempt by the Church to regain a share of the market that it has been losing recently. The document is peppered with references to consecrated ground and prohibitions against burying the faithfully departed anywhere but in consecrated ground. Who does the consecrating? Who, in many cases owns the ground? Who makes good money out of removals, requiem masses and burials? Yip, the good, old Church of Rome. Two thousand years in business and counting.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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