Clergy disagree about the most pastoral way to handle human remains after cremation

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

What are you going to do with the ashes? It’s a question clergy seldom asked grieving survivors a generation ago when the vast majority of funerals culminated in a traditional burial. But it’s increasingly part of pastoral care in America, where cremation outpaced burials in 2015 and will be the projected choice after 80 percent of deaths by 2035.

Just ask the Rev. Anne Emry, rector of St. Paul’s Church in Salem, Oregon, a state where 74 percent of all deaths involve cremation. She has done 50 funerals in the past three years, yet only one involved burying an intact body. All the rest ended with loved ones carrying away dusty remains and facing several choices for what to do with them.

To sharpen the pastoral question, she asks: Will the ashes be interred in one place? She explains why she prefers that to scattering ashes in multiple locations.

“It’s for the theological reason that it’s clearer: this is the body, and this is where the body rests,” Emry said. She does not insist, however, because she is “pretty sure God can sort it out,” no matter where the ashes end up. What’s more, families are often “quite determined [and] say, Nope, this is what we’re doing.”

“They don’t want to be in one place,” she said. “They want some of their ashes in designated holy ground. They want some with a family member who is somewhere else, and/or they want some on a beach, on a golf course, on a mountain. … They’re multitasking after death.”

The disposal question, like many others posed by the increased use of cremation, challenges clergy to apply incarnational theology to situations in which ashes have replaced flesh and bones. It requires fresh grappling with theological and practical issues within a Christian tradition that, for nearly two millennia, considered burial the proper witness for people who believe in a bodily resurrection.

“It’s been mainly about how you treat the body and which ceremonies you have as you bring it out and make it disappear for good,” said Gary Laderman, an Emory University historian and author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. “When you don’t have those anymore, and instead you have more and more cremations, it’s going to raise questions about whether the religious imagination is really keeping up with the times.”

Cremation is most popular in America’s least religious states, clustered in the Northwest and Northeast, as well as Hawaii, where land for cemetery plots is scarce and expensive. The practice is least common in Bible Belt states such as Mississippi, where only 21 percent of deaths result in cremation.

“The parts of the country that are least confident in life after death are more likely to opt for cremation,” said the Very Rev. Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary and author of Christian Hope, Christian Practice: A Funeral Guide.

But in every region, cremation is on the rise with Christians and non-Christians alike.

Among factors driving the cremation trend are cost, with cremation prices averaging one-third less than burial, and convenience, according to Pat Lynch, a Michigan funeral director and former president of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

Some also see cremation as an eco-friendly alternative to burying toxic embalming fluids and manufactured caskets. Cremation also requires environmental compromises, including an energy-intensive process and release of noxious chemicals into the atmosphere.

As churchgoers opt for cremation in growing numbers, clergy are coming down on different sides of the theological issues it raises. For example, should a priest encourage family members to bury rather than cremate if they can afford to? And if family members choose cremation, should the body be kept intact until after the funeral?

Yes to both, says the Rev. Kenneth Koehler, a priest in Westminster, Colorado, and author of Preparing a Catholic Funeral. Burial honors the sacredness of the body, he said. It gives descendants a clear sense that their ancestor is at rest in a final place. Second-best is to postpone cremation until after a funeral, which helps children and others recognize that death has occurred and move toward closure.

“If they’re willing to take that process, it seems they get through the mourning period a lot easier,” Koehler said.

Conversely, cremating too quickly can deprive a family of both a viewing and time with the body, which they need as part of grieving, Koehler said. He recalled one situation in which a father committed suicide and his widow had him cremated immediately.

“The kids were teenagers, and they never got over that,” Koehler said. “They kept coming back and asking questions. They were acting out in a resentful way: Well, if we had just seen Dad and We’re not sure what happened. It was like they were deceived.”

As families gain more experience with cremation, they opt to pay more and have a funeral with the body in a casket, said Thomas Lynch, a funeral director who has reflected on death in several books, including The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.

Among those served by Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors in Clawson, Michigan, families often choose to accompany the body to the crematory, sometimes with a cleric who will say a prayer or conduct a committal ritual.

“Nationwide, there’s a belief among the consumers that if you choose cremation, you are not afforded the opportunity to have some of these other rituals with the body present, and that’s simply not the case,” Lynch said. “It really is the responsibility of both the clergy and the funeral directors to explain to families all of the options available to them.”

About one-third of cremations involve a full funeral service that includes seeing the body, according to data in a July NFDA report. Funeral homes make almost a third of their money from funeral services. Another third comes from reselling merchandise such as caskets, which can be rented when a body will be cremated.

But some clergy argue there is no need for these extra expenses in order to keep a body around for a funeral or for burial.

“The service, whether funeral or memorial service, is not about the body,” said the Rev. Diane Martinson, rector at St. Peter’s Church in Honolulu, via email. “If it is a funeral with a body viewing, that takes place during the visitation and then the casket is closed before the service begins, symbolically representing the shift from this mortal life/body to eternal life. If cremation is the choice, the visitation is a time for people to greet the family with the urn, often with a photo of the person alongside.”

Another question in clergy discussion: What is left, theologically speaking, after a human body has spent several hours in an incinerator?

Emry believes the burned remains still constitute a body; it is just more compact and devoid of water. Hence all the rituals surrounding treatment of a dead body continue to be appropriate, in her view. For example, when ashes are delivered to the church, she gathers a group and offers the prayer for reception of a body. At the service, the urn is covered with the same white veil that’s used to cloak Communion elements, much as a pall would cover a casket as a sign of baptism.

Markham brings a different understanding. He believes the body no longer exists after cremation. He believes that, because personhood is intrinsically linked to the body, a funeral should be held before cremation.

“Some people rush to cremation, and they pay a price in terms of closure,” Markham said. “You lose one of the strengths of that service and liturgy when you just have an urn with ashes in it.”

Unlike Emry, he says the commendation should ideally be said when the body is intact, not after it has been reduced to ashes. Guidelines from the Diocese of New York likewise say the commendation should be omitted when there is no intact body to commend into the Lord’s hands.

“The celebrant turns and faces a body,” Markham said, referencing rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer. “You face the body. You don’t face a little urn.”

By Markham’s line of thought, today’s practices cry out for more theological reflection on the essence of ashes. He posits that what remains is dust, akin to what God handled before creating Adam with an infusion of divine breath in Genesis 2. The observation of Ecclesiastes 3:20 (“all came from the dust and all return to the dust”) is fulfilled as the body gives way to something more elemental.

Markham believes survivors should be instructed to bury ashes swiftly. Clergy should assert that it is not fitting to keep what is left of a spouse, parent, sibling, or child on the mantelpiece.

“The church should be clearer because it’s a bit like the Eucharist: you’re not allowed to stick it in your pocket and take it home as a souvenir,” Markham said. “We ought to be as firm about the ashes and just say: Look, decide now where they’re going to go, and make sure it’s only one place.”

Pastoral concerns lead to divergent views on the respectful treatment of ashes. Martinson believes it is fine to bring them home because of the possible effect.

“Handling [cremains] with respect is appropriate,” Martinson writes. “For some people, it gives them comfort to have the cremains with them until they themselves die and then they can be buried together. That’s perfectly fine.”

Markham believes survivors struggle to move on in a healthy manner when they “cling” to ashes. He observes it can be hard to date someone new and grow emotionally close if it seems the late spouse is somehow still present in the room. Alternatively, he prescribes designating one final resting place, not several, and doing the interment without delay.

“Go through the liturgy, believe the liturgy, and come out the other side believing what the liturgy teaches,” Markham said. “Part of that is you let go of the dust. You surrender it to the earth. That’s where it belongs.”

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