My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“We don’t call it a funeral service,” said Brad Rex, chief executive of Foundation Partners Group, which owns 50 funeral homes and nine cemeteries in 14 states. “We call it a gathering.” Most of Foundation’s homes have a “multisensory experience room,” said Mr. Rex. A feature article in the business section of the Nov. 3, 2016 issue of The Wall Street Journal described the fashionable approaches that some segments of the funeral industry are pursuing in their quest to stay “relevant.”
It is interesting to note that Mr. Rex previously ran Walt Disney Co.’s Epcot theme park in Orlando. Having someone from the entertainment industry rather than a mortician run a funeral home seems indicative of an unfortunate trend. Using audio and video equipment, these “multisensory experience rooms” can create the atmosphere of a golf course, complete with the scent of newly mowed grass, to salute the life of a golfing fanatic. It can also conjure up a beach, mountain or football stadium. All of this may seem attractive, but it is not a very Catholic way to do a funeral!
Another troubling trend is the increase in the number of people seeking cremation. About half of U.S. deaths this year are expected to result in cremation, up from less than 10 percent in 1980. The proportion will keep rising and should top 70 percent by 2030, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. For those seeking cremation, the funeral industry now offers a variety of alternatives for ashes, including services that rocket remains into space. Remains can be incorporated into jewelry, lawn statues and even furniture. “You buy a bench, and you put mom and dad in this granite bench,” said Lawrence Miller, chief executive of StoneMor Partners LP, an operator of cemeteries and funeral homes.
The attitude behind these trends is summed up by Kathryn McMiller, 60, a health-records consultant in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. When she dies, McMiller wants to be cremated and sees no need for a service or burial plot. “What’s the point of being buried somewhere?” she asked.
That’s a very good question, precisely one which the Vatican sought to answer recently with the Instruction issued from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of Pope Francis, entitled, in Latin, Ad resurgendum cum Christo, which means, “To Rise with Christ.” This title is explained in greater detail as follows: “The resurrection of Jesus is the culminating truth of the Christian faith, preached as an essential part of the Paschal Mystery from the very beginnings of Christianity. …Through his death and resurrection, Christ freed us from sin and gave us access to a new life, ‘so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6:4).” Our Christian burial practices stem from this faith and hope that we too will share in Christ’s resurrection when our mortal bodies are raised up to new life.
This conviction of faith leads to the key assertion of this Vatican Instruction: “Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places. In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.”
The Vatican Instruction also addresses the issue of cremation, which is chosen in some cases because of sanitary, economic or social considerations. In such circumstances, the “Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since 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.” Thus, cremation is not prohibited, “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.” Nevertheless, the Church “continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”
The next question is what to do with the ashes if cremation has been chosen. The Vatican Instruction answers this question by saying, “When, for legitimate motives, 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.” The reason for this is that the “reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community.” Thus, “the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted.” In addition, “it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.”
Another disturbing practice with regard to funerals is when the non-churchgoing children of a deceased practicing Catholic choose not to have a Mass of Christian Burial in church, opting instead for a simple prayer service at the funeral home. Those who do this show profound disrespect for the faith of the deceased Catholic who attended Mass regularly and would want to have a funeral in church with a Mass of Christian Burial. Our faith teaches that the purpose of a Mass of Christian Burial is to pray for the eternal salvation of the deceased, which cannot be presumed or taken for granted.
Catholics who wish to make sure that they receive a proper Catholic funeral with a Mass of Christian Burial should include their instructions in their last will and should discuss their wishes with whomever will be responsible for their funeral arrangements when they die. People can also pre-arrange their own funerals with a funeral director according to their wishes and instructions in keeping with our Catholic faith.
During this month of November dedicated to remembrance of the dead, let us pray for their eternal rest as we look forward with hope to the resurrection in glory of all the faithful departed in Christ.
May God give us this grace. Amen.