Don’t Ninja-Dump Granny Over a Wall
Fr Chris Townsend looks at the practice of cremation and how some take the idea too far.
I love this Month of Prayer for the Dead. It holds a special part in my own seasonal highlights for the liturgical year. It’s a very human and very caring moment when we remember the reality of the relationships that somehow continue to exist in the “God who is love”.
I welcome the recent clarification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the practice of cremation.
In my own family, cremation is just normal. All my grandparents have been cremated and their ashes interred in our home parish.
It’s a beautiful consolation to visit there and spend a moment in the peaceful garden to remember how so much of our family history — from building a church to weddings and baptisms and deaths and an ordination — keep us linked to a bigger family.
I love going to the garden and hearing the stories of long-dead parishioners I remember from when I was growing up — catechism teachers and school mates and those whose stories were remembered and even sometimes whispered.
In my Pretoria parish of Queenswood, we have a beautiful garden. Peaceful and pretty. I often spend a quiet moment, as many others do, in this very Catholic cemetery. Every year we bless our cemetery and every year, more and more families find this a centring and consoling space.
This is why the clarity offered by the Church (not by the Vatican, but the Church) is solidly and quietly reassuring.
As a parish priest I have been approached on a number of occasions with some interesting ideas, practices and requests. The idea of the integrity of the ashes is an important corrective for the growing phenomenon of scattering them in significant places. Recently, in the Kruger Park, I noticed a growing number of signs asking people not to leave and scatter ashes in the ecosystem.
I’ve had people report scattering ashes at sports grounds, a flower market, a drag-race strip. I’ve heard of others actually climbing over walls into long-sold family properties and ninja-dumping Granny there.
The reverence with which bodies need to be treated in life and in death is a central ideal for our faith. The development of the custom of reverential burial was a major departure by the early Church from the Roman custom of cremation.
The expectation of the imminent Second Coming of Our Lord led to the excavation of the catacombs, and from there this has translated into a Church preference for burial.
This is no longer feasible in South Africa where we have very few Catholic burial grounds. Mostly, we have a Catholic section in a municipal cemetery. Often these are badly maintained and not safe.
Increasingly Catholics (and, indeed, other Christians) opt for cremation, and I’m very comfortable with this.
Taking a reverential stance on this means that we also need to change our language about where we bury or inter the ashes of the dead, especially when we are talking about facilities in our parish properties.
So let’s begin by discouraging the use of euphemisms such as “Garden of Remembrance” and call our cemeteries what they are, without using hushed tones, even if they are on our parish grounds.
They are cemeteries, used for the reverential burial of the dead, and a place where people can visit their loved ones who have died.