The change in the hour is the fulcrum on which we turn towards the dark of winter, and a misty, damp morning strewn with brown leaves is a reminder that there is a time for everything: a time for living and a time for dying. Perhaps it is an opportune time for the Vatican to reiterate the conditions under which Catholics are permitted to be cremated.
I don’t know the name for the law which asserts that when you permit an exception or a concession to something hitherto forbidden, the exception becomes the norm. Communion in the hand, female altar servers (in some places at least) and cremation are all examples of where the Church relaxed a discipline to permit an exception and the exception has become the norm.
Seventy-five per cent of Catholics in England and Wales are cremated. Of that number it is impossible to know how many legitimately exercise that choice by having the ashes interred. Taste as much as theology deters me from the 1930s faux religiosity of crematoria, with their plastic flowers, velvet curtains and moveable religious objects, but live and let live, so to speak.
I hear people give various reasons for choosing cremation. The most common and compelling is the cost. With burial plots in city cemeteries selling for up to £15,000, cremation at less than £1,000 has an immediate advantage. Other motives for the choice are less substantial, more emotive. Significant numbers of people will tell you that it is a phobia of being buried alive that makes them chose cremation. I have heard it said that cancer sufferers often want to be cremated; they like the idea of the cancer in their body being destroyed by the flames, as though in the end it doesn’t retain its mastery. Others say that they cannot bear the thought of seeing a coffin lowered into a grave: it’s just “too final”. They are entitled, of course, to their feelings, but it seems to me that therein precisely lies the reason why burial is to be preferred, because it does justice to the psychological reality of death.
There is something terribly final and impotent about committing a body to the ground, surrendering a body to the earth to decay. As well as the pain of parting from a loved one, there is an existential reality signified by the lines of graves and the natural world of earth, sky and atmosphere around us which the old funeral rite was brave enough to articulate: “We beg you to help us keep in mind that we shall most certainly follow him [her]; give us the grace to prepare for that last hour by a devout and holy life; protect us from a sudden and unprovided death; teach us to watch and pray, so that when your summons comes we may go forth to meet the divine bridegroom and enter with Him the halls of heaven.”
In my opinion, it is the very lack of finality – what I might call the euphemistic quality to cremation: the slipping through the doors or retiring behind the curtain, the unconsummated quality of the farewell – which for me is its drawback. The production-line disposal of the body carried out in the rather theatrical religiosity of a building designed exclusively for that purpose seems to me to be an attempt to assert the illusion of process and control over the mystery of bodily death, a kind of denial of the reality of our impotence in the face of it.
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