My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The front page of the Oct. 24 issue of The Wall Street Journal had the eye-catching headline, “Disney World’s Big Secret: It’s a Favorite Spot to Scatter Family Ashes.” The subtitle read, “Fans say treating the parks as a final resting place is the ultimate tribute, assuming they can sneak the remains past security.” The article told how one woman “hopped over the barricade surrounding the lawn outside Cinderella’s castle and ran across the grass,” flinging her mother’s ashes as she crossed. She described her experience to the reporter, saying, “I had two fistfuls of the ashes and I literally leapt like I was a dancer.”
Later in the story came this rather astounding statement, “Among a select group of Disney obsessives, the parks are also places to propose, get married and celebrate birthdays. It is no surprise, then, that some want to spend eternity there.”
When I read that, I wanted to shout, “No, no, no! You’re not going to spend eternity at Disney World. You will spend eternity in either heaven or hell! Those are the only two options!”
The fact that anyone would even talk about their mortal remains spending eternity in a theme park shows how confused some people in our secular world are about what happens when we die. Even among practicing Catholics who believe in eternal life, some have the idea that when we die, our bodies will be cast off like the spent stage of a rocket, while our souls will live on forever. The problem is, that is not what the church teaches nor what we profess in the creed that we proclaim every Sunday and Holy Day right after the homily at Mass. In the very last line of the creed, we say that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The “resurrection of the dead” means that our bodies will be raised up when Christ comes again on the last day. We will not spend eternity as disembodied spirits. Our souls will be reunited with our bodies for all eternity. All the dead will rise, as Jesus taught, “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29).
St. Paul emphasizes that belief in the resurrection of the dead is essential to our faith. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote, “If Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (1 Cor. 15:12).
Our belief in the resurrection of the body has implications for our burial practices. First all, canon law says that “deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funeral rites according to the norm of law” (c. 1176, §1). This states an obligation for the family members to see to it that church funeral rites are accorded to a deceased Catholic. It is sad to see a person who had been a daily Mass goer when living denied a Mass of Christian Burial after death because their adult children who have fallen away from the faith do not want to be bothered with a church funeral. My advice to Catholics who want to make sure they receive a funeral Mass with proper Christian burial, but whose children do not practice the faith, should pre-arrange their own funerals. This can be done with the funeral director of your choice, who must then honor your wishes as a contractual matter for which you have paid in advance.
The church’s funeral rites consist of several stages: 1) the vigil for the deceased the night before the funeral, during which there is a period of visitation for friends and relatives to offer their condolences, and prayers are offered in a wake service; 2) the transfer of the body to the church; 3) the funeral Mass in church; and 4) the rite of committal at the cemetery.
Ecclesiastical funerals have a three-fold purpose: “the Church seeks spiritual support for the deceased, honors their bodies, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living” (c. 1176, §2). Accordingly, the church “earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (c. 1176, §3).
The most obvious reason that would be “contrary to Christian doctrine” would be as a statement of disbelief in the resurrection of the dead. In my 40 years as a priest, I have never heard anyone say, “I choose cremation because I don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead,” but we must ask whether those who wish to have their ashes scattered are not making at least an implicit statement that they do not believe in the resurrection of the body. For this reason, the church forbids the scattering of ashes and insists that they be buried intact in a cemetery grave or columbarium.
All of this is timely for us to call to mind during this month of November, which is dedicated to praying for the repose of the souls of those who have died: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shone upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.