The most interesting questions about the Vatican's pronouncement on burials and cremation centred around why the manner of the disposal of the body after death might matter, says Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ.
- Eureka Street
It was also interesting to reflect on how what does matter might be embodied in changing cultural contexts.
The starting point of the Vatican Instruction is the conviction that for Christians the best way of treating the body after death is through burial. It represents symbolically the Christian hope that the dead will be raised bodily. Burial, too, shows respect for the body as integral to the person, helps those grieving to recognise the reality of death, involves the community, and gives tangible remembrance to the dead person's life.
From this perspective cremation is permitted but on condition that it is assimilated as far as possible to burial. The ashes should be placed in a cemetery or designated place, and not sprinkled on land or at sea, shared among relatives or kept at home. These practices are seen as trivialising or privatising the disposal of the body, and so jarring with Christian faith in the bodily Resurrection.
When reflecting on the instruction it is helpful to take account of the broader historical and cultural contexts of Christian burial practice. Initially the Christian disposal of the dead followed the more common Roman custom of burial. But this was soon set within the distinctive Christian faith in the Resurrection and its transformation of the body.
This dimension, together with the respect due to the body, the importance of the community in dealing with death, and the holding in memory were strongly marked in village life where memory, memorialisation, the preaching of faith, and the inclusion within the community were closely interwoven.
Photo: Vatican Radio