Picturing the Gospel, Spanish Place ©2021
The Rector Writes...
There is hardly ever any reaction to what I preach or write but my personal reservations about cremation, which I shared at the beginning of last Sunday’s homily, have evoked several responses. It is permissible for a Catholic to be cremated – that is absolutely clear – but my own reaction to the rite at a crematorium is to feel that as a body is removed from sight there is something penultimate about the experience, whereas at a burial there is no doubt that this is the endgame. Our Catechism states: “the bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection”. It goes on to say: “the Church permits cremation, provided it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body”. For us, the human body is nothing less than “the temple of the Holy Spirit” and should be treated with respect in death as in life. In the case of cremation the Church asks that ashes should be treated with the same integrity as a corpse and that they should be buried as a single entity (the increasingly common practice of scattering ashes or dividing them is forbidden to Catholics).
This (literally) morbid train of thought was occasioned by the death of the Duke of Edinburgh (on whose soul may our Lord have mercy) and the constant media references to someone (in this case Prince Philip) having “passed away”. Language is important as it reveals fundamental attitudes and it does seem that we have reached a point where many find it hard to face up to death as the fundamental reality it is. Where society has only a tenuous hold on the Christian verities it is easy to see why the vocabulary which is used to express the ending of a human journey has to be anesthetised. People live, and people die. They do not slip away into the next room (as a piece of prose often used at funerals suggests) but they face a direct and personal judgment in the presence of the One who created them and to whom they must now give explanation. Death is both the climax of each human life and also its most profound crisis as the natural human reaction is to hold on to what we know rather than launch out into the deep – which is the very thing Christ asked of his disciples (Luke 5:4). We serve no one, most particularly the dying and the bereaved, by attempting to soften the devastating reality of death.
But “death is transformed by Christ. Jesus the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning” (Catechism). It is only if we take death seriously, as the Eternal Father did in allowing his own Son’s life to collapse into a grave, that we can begin to enter into the Easter life revealed in the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is only when with Saint Thomas we touch (in our case by faith) the wounds in Christ’s body that we can hope to see the radical change and direct continuity which will mark our individual share in the Paschal Mystery. “Anyone who knows Easter cannot despair” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). In Christian devotion, as well as its theology, the crucifix is central and irreplaceable. Here is the fullest statement possible of God’s identification with his creatures in taking into himself the fear associated with dying and the disintegration experienced in death. The wounds in Christ’s body are life-draining and yet they become the source of an unimagined release of new life.
Resurrection is not resuscitation. We are not here talking of bodies being given an added time bonus (as with Lazarus) in a return to what has been. Death in all its finality has to be accepted before we can begin to make the words of Teresa of Avila our own: “I want to see God. In order to see him, I must die”. In this light we can comprehend Francis of Assisi’s designation: “Blessed are you, my Lord, for our sister bodily death”. Death has to be faced if we are to live well. Euphemisms help no one, least of all those about to make their last journey. As Catholics we have a wonderfully consoling liturgical pattern to accompany the dying and we believe that we can continue to support and influence one another beyond death through the charity of prayer, expressed most powerfully in the Eucharist. Let us ask for the grace to be able to say with Saint Paul: “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).