BURIAL OR CREMATION
By Fr. Olivier Parent du Chatelet
Translated from the original article in French cited at www.dici.org, this was originally published in English in July 2003 issue of The Angelus magzine.
Burial is a rite that the Lord wanted for Himself and for us also. "With Him we are buried in death, and with Him we shall rise" (St. Paul). Nowadays cremation —or incineration —of the bodies of the deceased is spoken of favorably. Yet the Church has always resolutely opposed this practice. We should examine why this has been so, especially since the opposition of the Conciliar Church is no longer so firm. What are we to think?
THE MIND OF THE CHURCH
The first reflex of Catholics must be to consult the Church’s teaching and discipline. The Church has pronounced precisely and firmly on this subject, proving that she indeed considers it to be important. Leo XIII decreed on Dec. 15, 1886, that if someone has made a public request to be cremated and dies without retracting this culpable act, it is forbidden to give him an ecclesiastical funeral and burial.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law incorporated this law and specified that if someone has prescribed that his body be cremated it is not lawful to execute his will. If it is inserted in a contract, a will, or any act, it must be held as naught (canon 1203, §2).
Cremation is a human act, and like every human act, it is governed by principles, it follows laws. It is a way of treating the end of human life which molds mores and ideas. There is, indeed, a direct link between the respects —the cultus —paid to the dead by means of funerary rites and the philosophical and religious ideas that inform them. Man has not been mistaken about this, and the history of these rites, even among the pagans, is revealing.
Greek and Roman Antiquity
As far back in time as one can go, one sees that the ancients "envisaged death, not as the dissolution of being, but as a simple change of life." 1 The soul was believed to dwell close to men, and to continue to live underground; it remained somehow associated with the body. The rites of sepulture which have endured through the centuries, even when beliefs have changed, are the best testimony. The living would speak to the dead: "Be well. May the earth lie light upon you." Since the deceased continued to live, it was necessary to supply him with the necessaries of life: clothing, jars, weapons, food and drink. Not only on the day of the burial, but also on fixed days of the year, food was brought. A Latin author, Lucian, explained: "A dead person to whom nothing is offered is condemned to perpetual hunger."
That practice was still observed by the pagans at the beginning of the Christian era. Moreover, the soul continued to live, but in a fixed place; it was thus necessary for the body to which it remained attached to be covered by earth. The soul that had no tomb had no abode: it remained wandering, unhappy, and often maleficent. The privation of food had the same effect. Like food, interment was necessary to its happiness.
For the same reason it was also necessary to perform all the prescribed rites and pronounce the set formulae. That is why the Athenians put to death some generals who, after a victory at sea, had neglected to bring back to land the dead so that they could be buried. Privation of sepulcher and funerary rites was a punishment that the law inflicted on great criminals, thereby sentencing the condemned soul to a quasi-eternal torment. That is why Antigone, in the play by Sophocles, prefers to die rather than leave her brother without burial for, she says, sepulture is a law of the gods, which no human has the right to transgress.
Meanwhile, as philosophical and religious thought developed, the abode of the dead became a subterranean region, Hades, where the souls were all gathered together and where punishments and rewards were distributed. In Homer, the soul’s existence after death is reduced to a mere image, an impalpable shadow, which yet was the physical and moral portrait of the deceased.
The rite of cremation was then introduced in order to hasten, it is conjectured, the passage of the soul totally separated from the body to this state. The Iliad and the Odyssey give evidence of this practice. Rome experienced the same evolution, especially towards the end of the Republic and under the Empire. Nonetheless, as Fustel de Coulanges remarks, the rites remained unchanged.2 Moreover, the souls of the dead, called manes, received almost divine worship: "Render to the gods-manes that which is their due," said Cicero, "they are men who have departed this life; hold them for divine." 3 They had their altar, and their aid was invoked.
It has been remarked how much the ancient Greek and Roman customs resemble those well known of the Egyptians. Among the Japanese, Shintoism had the same practices as the Romans, but it emphasized the dependency of the living on the dead. When a young man would go and study in Europe, he would take leave of his ancestors by visiting their tomb.4
The French Revolution and Its Consequences
Cremation did not reappear until the French Revolution. Even so, it was not widely accepted. It did not begin to find acceptance until the second half of the 19th century under the impetus of Freemasonry, which made use of Societies for the Propagation of Cremation. The propaganda was animated by a materialist, utilitarian philosophy as these excerpts show.
I have found nothing simpler than to put bodies in a gas still, and to distill them till reduced to ashes, and I added that the gas generated by this distillation could be used for lighting.…5
Given the number of deaths in the city of London, at the end of each year it would be possible to collect 200,000 pounds of bones from crematoria with which to fertilize the soil.6
FROM RITES TO BELIEFS
The available evidence from the funerary customs of Greco-Roman antiquity manifests two main characteristics: certitude of the soul’s immortality, and filial piety elicited by this reality.
Immortality of the soul
Their belief in the soul’s immortality comes not from the supernatural belief which is part of the mysteries of the Faith on the nature of the great beyond, but from naturally acquired knowledge that the soul is a spirit that cannot die. On this topic we can make our own the conclusion of Fustel de Coulanges:
Perhaps it was at the sight of death that man had for the first time the idea of the supernatural, and that he desired to hope beyond what he saw. Death was the first mystery. It lifted his mind from the visible to the invisible, from the transitory to the eternal, from the human to the divine.7
Of course, in itself, the death of the body only leads to reflection on the immortality of the soul, but these are the natural mysteries that God uses, with His grace, to begin to lead men into the consideration, not only of the immortal, but of the supernatural.
As the word indicates (cultus comes from the Latin colere, which means "to honor" and which gives cultum, which means "honor"), by the cult of the dead, one honors those from whom one possesses life; one pays respect to those to whom one is beholden. Gratitude is due them, whether they be our parents from whom we have received life and all the other benefits; the ancients, for their wisdom; the great men, for their benefactions. It was in this sense that the heroes and great men were placed in the ranks of the gods. The Greeks and the Romans were not so unintelligent as to consider as gods those who had undergone death, but they exalted to the ranks of the gods all those from whom blessings came to men. This piety has two consequences. On the one hand, because the soul of the deceased has not disappeared, the survivors remain linked to him, and so they must help him as much as possible. On the other, the cultus of the dead is important for the living themselves. For, if the one who is honored derives something from it during his lifetime, he derives nothing from it after his death. But the living draw something from it: from the recognition of what they have received arises a certain humility.
For Christians, a third reality is involved. The body of the deceased Christian was a temple of the Holy Ghost. Just as during Mass, the incensing which is due to God alone is directed to the faithful because they are temples of the Holy Ghost, so also the bodies of the saints, and particularly of martyrs, are venerated because of what the Holy Ghost has accomplished in them, as in the bodies of all Christians.
LEX ORANDI, LEX CREDENDI
While beliefs and ideas change more rapidly than exterior practices and rites, it cannot be denied that the changing of exterior rites will influence little by little the ideas of those who practice them. The promoters of cremation in the 19th century understood this well. Msgr. Chollet, Archbishop of Cambrai, made known a circular put out by the Freemasons:
The Roman Church has issued a challenge by condemning cremation. The Freemasons should employ every means to spread the usage of cremation. The Church, by forbidding the burning of corpses seeks to maintain its rights over the living and the dead, over consciences and bodies, and seeks to conserve in the masses of the people the old beliefs, today dispelled by the light of science, extending even to the spiritual soul and the future life.
It is in light of this paragraph that the arguments that follow should be weighed. The funerary rites of pagan antiquity that we have sketched or the Catholic ceremonies of interment show us that death does not entail a definitive, absolute destruction. What is more, the word cemetery comes from the Greek meaning dormitory. In the cemetery souls rest, certainly in a special kind of sleep, but in the expectation of something or of an awakening to another life. Cremation suppresses the symbolism of the rites and the cemetery and the truth which they embody. The interred body is like the grain of wheat fallen in the ground which decomposes: from that, by the mysterious action of the divine, almighty power, life will spring forth. But the burned corpse is like the grain that is cooked or burnt. It will never give birth to new life. It is burnt, there is nothing more to hope for. A body reduced to ashes can await nothing more. The destruction appears definitive.
The switch from the expressive symbolism of Catholic ceremonies to the negative symbolism of cremation is not neutral. For centuries these ceremonies have molded human beliefs about the afterlife. They cannot be suppressed without consequences. The shift from one symbolism to the other affects the mind and orientates it towards the negation of life after death. Man would be nothing but a handful of dust, a speck among others.... That is why the repositories of the cremated ashes are called "memorial gardens," for keeping the memory of something gone forever, which will never return. It will only continue to exist in the "hearts of the living," and not in a real life after death.
BURIED WITH JESUS
St. Paul teaches, and the Church reminds us of it at the Paschal Vigil, that we are buried with Jesus in death and with Him we arise. That is the meaning of baptism, which, a sacrament, is a sign. If the symbol is lost, the sacrament will also lose little by little, its worth. The ancient pagan rites, and even more so the Catholic ceremonies, demonstrate a great respect towards the body of the deceased. The respect linked to interment is manifested by the adorned tomb at which people come to pray. The respect paid to the dead through the body is directed to the deceased person himself. Interment has two aspects:
It involves a hidden destruction in which everything occurs underground. A veil is drawn over the ghastliness of decomposition and the return to dust;
It is progressive, following the laws of nature which come from God and are good in themselves.
Cremation, on the contrary, is visible. One can watch and see the result in the ashes which are given back to the bereaved. The reality of the destruction is cruelly placed before the mourners’ eyes. Moreover, it is brutal, as if the fire were doing violence to the body, and, through the body it consumes, to the spouse, children, relatives, and friends.
ACCEPTANCE OF PUNISHMENT
According to the Catholic Faith, death is a sanction inflicted by God to punish sin. "Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." God had said to Adam and Eve that if they disobeyed, they would be punished by death. Man must humbly recognize that God is the master of all things, and submit to the sentence. God in His wisdom imposes this chastisement; man in humility and trust must bow to this return to dust. By interment, this sentence is carried out as God wills it: man suffers in his body the return to dust. Sometimes, to honor the saints, God delivers them from this misery. Their bodies are preserved incorrupt. By cremation, on the contrary, the deceased orders that his body become not dust, but ashes. It is he himself who imposes this destruction, not God. He does not bow, he commands. Whether one will or no, this manner of acting leads to the thought that man does not undergo the sentence imposed by God; he escapes God’s authority and the duty to submit to Him.
HUMILITY OR RIDICULOUS PRIDE
By forbidding the cremation of bodies, the Church affirms her rights over the living and the dead. But today man wants to be the absolute master. He arrogates the right to extinguish life scarcely begun, and when he wishes, to interrupt the life coming to an end. Likewise, he also want the power to destroy his body according to his fashion. Man wants to be his own master, not only until death, but even after death. But, lacking the power to give life, not even the power to prevent its destruction, there only remains to him to show his pretended power, to go even further in destruction.
Unfortunately, in 1963, the Roman authorities allowed cremation without really approving it (always this ambiguity present in the Vatican II documents). The cremation societies do not fail to let it be known. It was inserted in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Rome sets a few limits: cremation "must not be desired as negation of Christian dogmas in a sectarian spirit, out of hatred of the Catholic religion or of the Church." They open the door and pretend to close it. Where is the fallaciousness of such reasoning? It is in this: by this reservation, the modernists let one believe that the only problem with cremation is the negation of Christian dogmas (the dogmas of eternal life and of the resurrection of the body) while we have seen that it involves much more. It is a whole complex of convictions and Christian practices the Church thereby abandons by the change, whereas until now she had watched most jealously to guard them. The Freemasons ask for nothing more, at least for the time being. But it will be objected, cremation is of itself neutral. No, nothing is neutral in this life, nothing exists "of itself," if only because of the reasons for which we act. A human act without motive does not exist. But to accept cremation is to reject interment. What reason, indeed, what reason can justify the abandonment of principle? It is argued that in case of necessity it would be legitimate. Indeed, it must be conceded that interment is one of these practices which allow exceptions, unlike adultery or abortion. But who can fail to see, first, that the exceptions are by their very nature exceptional and do not derogate from the ordinary course fixed by the wisdom of God, except for rare and particular motives that also respond to the superior wisdom of God. Advocating its use in the case of epidemics has no cogency, because in such cases the usage of quick lime has always been known and preferred. The case made for cremation because of lack of space is no more impelling, for it is incumbent on the living to set aside a place suitable for the cultus of the dead, just as they find the necessary space for temples–or for recreation.
A writer has summed up in one line the principle the guides us: "The failure to live as one thinks leads to thinking according as one lives. The failure to pray in accord with one’s beliefs leads to believing according as one prays." The failure to bury the dead in accord with one’s beliefs will lead to believing in accord with the new rites. Cremation carries with it, because of its symbolism, a different way of thinking: man, master of his fate even after death; man, with no immortal soul nor hope of another life after death; man reduced to matter who, after death, has only to return into the "Great All" or Mother Earth and meld into it.
Fustel de Coulanges, La Cité antique.
De Leg., II, 9.
Letter of M. X. Rulder to Doctor Catte.
H. Thompson. Both quotations are extracted from the Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, s.v. "Crémation."
Coulanges, La Cité antique, p.20.
Fr. du Chatelet, a Frenchman, was born in 1956. He graduated as an electrical engineer before entering the SSPX’s seminary at Econe. He was ordained in 1987. He has been at Le Moulin du Pin, a retreat house in the west of France, since 1999. Father is also in charge of a chapel in Laval, France, and of the local chapters of the Eucharistic Crusade.