This article was published in Together, November 2011.
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Fr Trevor D’Souza, OFM,
makes a pitch for ‘cremation’ as a perfect alternative to burial citing ecology and burial space as strong determining factors
A Catholic funeral in which there is no coffin, no flowers, no burial, no mortuary cards, but just cremation …surely all this does raise some eyebrows and makes some tongues to wag.
My mother breathed her last on 1 August 2011. She was 87. Her funeral was conducted on 3 August. In the obituary we added a small note requesting people attending the funeral not to bring flowers. Instead, they could make a love offering, in a box that would be kept for that purpose. The offerings would be handed over to patients undergoing dialysis to meet their medical bills.
The members of the family, through consensus, had decided to have a cremation. Many people (including my close relatives) were curious to know why we had taken this decision.
The body of my mother was brought to the Church in a regular ambulance and not in a hearse hired from professional undertakers. She was laid out on a collapsible stretcher, which was covered with a new white cloth and wheeled into the Church. There was no coffin. After the funeral Mass, the body was wheeled out into the ambulance and taken to the crematorium. After performing the farewell rites, the body was cremated and the ashes collected in an earthen vessel.
For many who are so used to attending funerals and familiar with the rituals of placing flowers or a wreath, seeing the body laid out in a coffin, going to the graveyard, sprinkling of mud, singing the same hymns, etc., this was quite a new experience. While some found it novel, others had questions.
At the end of the Mass, I did explain to the people some of the decisions we had taken. However the questions that came up after the event, gave me an opportunity to clarify some of the current practices within the Catholic Church and also the concept of a green funeral.
Green funeral – Before I proceed, let me explain the concept of a ‘green funeral’. These days, the word “green” is being used widely and is acquiring a new meaning especially in the context of global warming, preservation of ecology and reduction of pollution. Green refers to an action that promotes the preservation of nature and ecology. Today we talk of “green” cars, houses, factories, etc. Can we not also talk about a green funeral?
Among the many spiritualities present in our world, eco-spirituality is becoming popular. With the advancement of science we have realized the independence and interdependence of every creature on this planet and in the universe. The growing incidences of natural calamities, the increasing rate at which various species of the flora and fauna are becoming extinct, the shortage of drinking water, the shrinking of the ice cap around the Poles, are some of the indicators ringing warning bells. Eco-spirituality transcends religion and does not belong to any religion. All of us, regardless of our religious affiliation, are becoming aware of the need to embrace this sort of spirituality and integrate it within our religious practices. “Green” is the colour of Eco-spirituality.
Do we need a coffin? Are Catholics allowed to cremate their dead? – After the funeral, a young lady came up to me and asked, “Father, why did you not have a coffin for your mother?” I explained that in order to make a coffin we need wood and wood comes from trees. So by not having a coffin, we have saved a tree. Someone may laugh at this logic as being too simplistic and silly. But think of the number of coffins that are needed every year to bury all the dead. If we can bury our dead without a coffin how many trees will be saved? Every micro-gesture contributes towards the unfolding of a macro-vision. By not using a coffin for my mother we may have saved four planks of wood. But in the bargain through this micro-gesture we have affirmed our commitment to preserve the earth and have helped in creating awareness.
A religious Sister asked, “Father, could you clarify as to why you had your mother’s body cremated rather than buried? Is cremation allowed by the Church? What will happen to her body at the resurrection?” I was a bit amused at these questions. In response I told her that the Catholic Church has no objection whatsoever if anyone wishes to cremate the mortal remains. What is really important is that the body of the dead should be treated with “respect and charity” and where cremation is chosen as the means of disposal, then it should not be done to “demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (see Canon no. 1176§3 and Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2300-2301).
Having witnessed both cremation and burial, I personally find cremation to be a very simple, respectful and sacred way to dispose of the body of the dead. Further, in these days when people are dying of dreadful diseases, cremation may be a better option than burial to stop the spread of infection and disease.
Another reason why we chose cremation is simply for a practical purpose, apart from the question of limited space in our graveyards. My father passed away in 1990 and was buried. After three years I received a notice from the local church requesting me to unearth the bones and place them in a niche or in a common well made for that purpose. We had to make space for others. His bones were exhumed in 2004. Since none of us, nor our relatives are living in our native place, we decided to carry and preserve his bones in a niche in Mumbai. The legal procedures involving the police, the court and the parish are lengthy and cumbersome. Now that I knew how cumbersome it was to preserve my father’s bones (in Mumbai), I did not want to go through the same tedious process to preserve my mother’s bones. Cremation affords us a wonderful possibility whereby the ash, which weighs about two kilos, could be easily carried without going through this rigorous process. Within fifteen days, the ashes of my mother were carried to Mumbai and are now well preserved with the bones of my father in the same niche.
When my father’s grave was opened for the exhumation of his remains, I was curious to see what exactly had ‘remained’ were after fourteen years. All I could see was his skeleton. On it were the shirt, tie and socks with which he was clothed and which had remained intact as these were made from synthetic material. Where was the suit in which he was buried? Where was the coffin? I realized that all the human fuss we make about having expensive coffins (some wish to be buried only in a coffin made of teakwood) is more emotional than rational and has nothing to do with good theology or spirituality. A friend of mine had her mother buried in a coffin costing some forty thousand rupees! Just how does the coffin in which the dead are placed or even the clothes in which they are dressed affect our faith and belief in the resurrection or the status of the soul of the deceased? After careful reading of sacred scripture we will realize that the way in which we live our life here on earth is far more important than the manner and way in which we dispose of the dead body or desire to have our own bodies disposed of. We can easily become victims of popular theology and dance to the tunes of society rather than live by our convictions and the tenets of our faith.
Nowhere in the Bible (especially in the New Testament) do we have any prescription on how the dead body must be disposed of. Did Jesus have a coffin? He being the King of kings and the Lord of lords, should have had at least a simple coffin, if not one of teak wood, silver or gold. In what kind of coffin were Peter and Paul buried? Why do we make such a fuss about the kind of coffin in which our loved ones are buried? Are we more worried about how the person is buried or about whether the person will rise again on the last day? Resurrection is a gift of God to all those who have lived their lives faithfully and according to His law. Be it burial or cremation or simply being dumped into a pit (as happens during wars and genocides), none of those for whom it is ordained can be deprived of the gift of the resurrection. A teakwood coffin is no guarantee of the resurrection!
In death, give life – love offerings instead of floral tributes – Can we in death give life? This was the question that challenged me. Did Jesus have flowers on his grave? Did his disciples bring an expensive wreath and place it besides his body? Is the custom of offering flowers a meaningless and social ritual? Most importantly, does it give life? Most of the people who attended my mother’s funeral refrained from bringing flowers, and we were grateful that they heeded our request.
We realized that if we could collect the money that would be spent on a flower bouquet and hand it over to a person who needs dialysis, then this would indeed be death giving life in death! And this exactly is what we did. We kept a box for collecting their love offering. A simple flower bouquet would cost anything from Rs 100 to 200. A wreath would cost more. Within two to three hours after the funeral these flowers begin to fade and decay, turning into garbage and emitting a foul odour. Why increase the garbage on our earth? By telling people not to bring flowers, we were once again reinforcing the idea of a green funeral.
How much does it cost to cremate? – Some were under the impression that it is more expensive than burial. It surprised them to know that the actual cost of cremation was only Rs. 50/-. The overall cost of the funeral was approximately Rs.5,000/-. The money saved by not having a burial (coffin and grave) would be added to the love offering.
How much money do many of us spend on conducting funerals for our loved ones? I remember a poor Catholic woman whose husband was an alcoholic and at his death, pressured by social customs and false religious practices, borrowed money and had a “grand” funeral. And to cap it all on the 40th day she even served some nice chicken biryani from money borrowed on interest!!! If only our parishes could help our people, especially the poor, rid themselves of these meaningless practices! But first of all this demands a change in the mindset of our religious leaders themselves.
Plants are living reminders, preserve the memory of the heart – After receiving the ashes, we gathered the fragments of bones and placed them in an earthen vessel. These were blessed and placed in the niche alongside the bones of my father. The remaining ashes were mixed with mud and placed in a pot in which a ‘money-plant’ was planted. When she was alive, my mother loved plants and animals very much. She had a nice little garden and personally tended it. The rose bush and the money plant were among her favourites. The potted money-plant is now placed at the foot of her picture, as a sign of the memory and her living presence. Why pollute our rivers and lakes by immersing the ashes in them? Why can’t the ashes contribute life to the biosphere and give life even after death?
A few days after the funeral, someone came up to me and asked me for a mortuary card saying, “I would like to remember your mother and pray for her”. I looked at the person intently and said, “We haven’t printed mortuary cards and we don’t intend to anyway.” It wasn’t difficult to detect a sense of surprise in the person ex-pression. It was perhaps for the first time ever that he had received such an answer. I explained to him the concept of a green funeral and concluded with these words, “Let the memories of the heart (that you have of my mother) be your mortuary card.” This is another socio-religious custom that we must challenge and change.
Example, the best precept – My final words at the end of the funeral Mass were, “I’m doing this (green funeral) to set an example. If I don’t have a green funeral for my own mother and will the same for myself, how can I ask you to have a green funeral for your mother?”
Fr. Trevor D’Souza, ofm
St. Anthony’s Friary,
No. 85 Hosur Road,
Bangalore – 560095,