My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Our Easter celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord provides an opportunity for us as Catholics to look forward with hope and anticipation to the resurrection of our own bodies when Christ comes again on the last day.
Unfortunately, many Christians today do not understand or at least do not accept the Catholic Church’s teaching about the resurrection from the dead. Our profession of faith, the Nicene Creed, which we recite on Sundays and Holy Days, concludes with the statement, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Do we really understand what that means? Many people, including many Catholics, believe in eternal life, but wrongfully think this means that when we die, we will live forever as spirits, without any type of body. This is what the ancient Greeks believed, but it is not what Christians believe. Hence the growing popularity of cremation on the part of people who think that death means we simply discard our bodies since they will not be needed any more. In this regard, a bill on human composting (HB 4552), introduced in the Illinois General Assembly by Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), passed the Energy and Environment Committee 23-0 on Feb. 15, but fortunately has not moved beyond the committee. The bill has 28 co-sponsors, which indicates a certain level of support, and environmental groups are supporting it. Colorado, Washington, and Oregon have approved similar legislation. HB 4552 authorizes a body to undergo human composting after death. The process known as “natural organic reduction” is an accelerated conversion of human remains to soil. The body is placed in a vessel that accelerates biological decomposition. The body is laid into the vessel onto a bed of wood, chips, alfalfa and straw. Over 30 days, everything inside the vessel breaks down to natural composition. Each body that completes the process creates one cubic yard of soil. The remains can then be used as compost, essentially serving as fertilizer for plants!
But the Church teaches that, “We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives forever, so after death the righteous will live forever with the risen Christ and He will raise them up on the last day” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 989. Thus, “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites” (The Order of Christian Funerals, Appendix on Cremation, n. 413). Most especially, this refers to our belief that God will raise our bodies when Christ comes again on the last day.
Canon law says that “Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death …, those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals” (c. 1184 §1). Now, I have never heard of anyone explicitly saying that they chose cremation because they do not believe in the resurrection of the body, but it does seem to be at least an implicit rejection of this dogma of our faith to turn one’s remains into compost to serve as fertilizer to grow plants! While God certainly has the power to raise cremated ashes into the form of a glorified body, burial of the full body better expresses our belief that we look forward to the resurrection of the body.
This belief is clearly expressed in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, which says, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you” (Rom 8:8-11). St. Paul also wrote, “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).
Raising the dead to life is a sure sign of the presence and action of God. In the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, the Lord says: “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people” (Ezekiel 37:12-14). Faith in Jesus Christ empowers us to live in true freedom: freedom from fear, freedom from the power of death, freedom to live by the Spirit which God has placed in us — the Spirit of the risen Christ. Happy Easter! May God give us this grace. Amen.