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Death is hard, but the ancient, hallowed ritual of the Catholic Church can provide lasting consolation

Humans require more than secular rites of ‘closure’

By on Friday, 9 November 2012

A Requiem Mass for Czech leader Václav Havel, whose body was cremated (Photo: PA)

A Requiem Mass for Czech leader Václav Havel, whose body was cremated (Photo: PA)

November is the month of the Holy Souls. As I blogged earlier this week, my older brother died on All Souls Day itself, one of the very significant feast days of the Church. An article by Jim Graves in the current Catholic World Report reflects this theme: it is about the requirement to treat dead bodies with reverence, as temples of the Holy Spirit. In particular, he discusses the choice between cremation and full body burial.

For many centuries the Church banned cremation because pagan Rome was in favour of it as a way of rejecting any thoughts of an afterlife. This ban was finally lifted in 1963. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” The US Conference of Catholic Bishops re-emphasises this point in their comment that reverence and care for the body “grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God”.

I had not known that since 1997 cremated remains have been allowed to be present at Requiem Masses and are given the same respect as remains in the casket. I also had not known that the practice among many people of scattering the ashes of their loved ones in a favourite place – such as the Lake District, where the person enjoyed walking – is not permitted by the Church. It is a neo-pagan development, not recognising that the dead person still “belongs” to God and must be buried, just like a body, in a cemetery, crypt or other appropriate place. Keeping the urn on the mantelshelf at home is not permitted for the same reason.

Interestingly, St Dominic’s church in San Francisco has built a “columbarium”, a facility used for the interment of urns with cremated remains. I say “interestingly” because this practice is still very unusual. As I wrote in a blog some time ago, our own parish church at Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire has a columbarium for this purpose – but I think it might be the only parish church in the country to do so. The parish priest who built the church in the 1960s took advantage of the lifting of the ban on cremation to give parishioners the solace of knowing the remains of their loved ones stayed within the church where they had once worshipped. Of course, columbaria must be built with the approval of the local Ordinary; for instance, if the church were to close the ashes would have to be relocated. But graveyards can be neglected and become overgrown, after the first generation of mourners themselves die. At least in a columbarium within a church, the remains are a palpable, visible and constant witness of the Church’s reverence for the dead, who make their silent witness while the Mass, the consummate drama of death and Resurrection, is celebrated.

I recall with a shudder reading that dozens of urns had been salvaged from a lake close to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where many people, including some highly publicised journeys from this country, go to be “euthanised” – an ugly neologism for a deadly practice. Then there are the reliable reports of the remains of aborted babies being discovered in trash cans at hospitals. As the saying goes, the Church may be a hard bed to lie on, with her dogmas and commandments, her rules and regulations, her prohibitions and protocols, which are often very hard to live up to; but she is a soft bed to die on, with the solemn beauty of a Requiem Mass followed by the reverent committal of the remains to rest in a consecrated place. Death is hard enough as it is; but humans require more than secular rites of “closure” – and only an ancient, hallowed ritual can provide lasting consolation.

  • Deodatus

    A helpfully informative article both theologically and pastorally.  Paradoxically, the Church’s care of the body after death is a strong witness against the care-less-ness and denial of the sacredness of life that euthanasia represents.  Thank you – a great help to those pastorally supporting the bereaved in making arrangements for obsequies.

  • Annie

    In the U.S. a number of parishes have built columbariums in response to the fact that they are running out of space for in-ground burials.  My own parish opened one in 1996 and the following year my mother’s cremated remains were placed there. ( It was her wish to have this type of burial.)  It must be pointed out, however, that her remains weren’t cremated until after the funeral Mass.  I can’t say if this is true for the entire country or just my diocese but the protocol for her funeral was that the coffin was brought into the Church for the Mass as is traditionally done and it was after that that her remains were taken to be cremated.  Two days later we went to the columbarium where her ashes were present (the funeral director brought them).  The columbarium has a very pretty small altar with lovely stained glass windows behind it.  In front of the altar are a few pews with kneelers and it was there that we gathered along with the priest who said what looked like a set of prescribed prayers (because they came from a small book he was holding). At the conclusion of the prayers, he gave a final blessing over my mom’s ashes.  After we left her remains were interred and it took about two weeks for her name to be engraved on her niche.   


  • JonathanBurdon

    The ancient, hallowed ritual of the Church? You mean the one they made up in the 1960s?

  • AidanCoyle

    It is hardly fitting to offer such a snide response to a well-judged, informative article on such a sensitive topic.

  • James

    Yes, indeed, the original comment smacked of ignorance of Catholic theology, no doubt from one of those “traditional” Catholics who deem themselves more Catholic than the Pope but in refusing to show allegience to Rome are actually more Protestant than Luther.

  • Albert Cooper

    That remark in ridiculous !

  • andHarry

     Well,some life is sacred, some is not.

  • Guest

    That sounds nice, Annie.

  • Benedict Carter

    The jamboree that passes for a Missa pro Defunctis nowadays? When even a man, dead through practicing group homosexual sex with drugs can be “celebrated” without a word about the Four Last Things? 

    Don’t make me laugh. Or rather, cry bitter tears.  

  • Guest

    Well said Benedict! How’s business?

  • candylin

    my wife died some time ago after a long and painful illness,she became a catholic during her illness and i must say her priest was so good during this time.she used to say she was surrounded by love and spoke openly about her illness.she also said she did not want to be buried but cremated also expressing a wish that her ashes be scattered in the sea,which i did.i am writing this just to say that i saw a miracle in how she coped with her illness had such a beautiful death that  and how much she taught us by her example to embrace death and not to be afraid.her words were ” i know i will be looked after” i do hope this young mans foundation will be a success

  • theroadmaster

    The consolation of the Requiem Mass for the relatives and friends of the deceased cannot be under-estimated in terms of the comforting spiritual dimension which it gives to them in a potentially very emotionally draining and fraught situation.  It means in essence that death is not the final answer but merely the entry point to the glorious reality of everlasting life with the Saviour, beyond this earthly realm.  The priest intercedes on behalf of the deceased and his/her relatives, for God to look with justice on the soul which is passing from our sight and thus dispel the darkness.

  • Benedict Carter

    It’s very fitting. Because it’s the truth.

  • Charles Martel

    “The ancient, hallowed ritual of the
    Catholic Church can provide lasting consolation”? Well, yes, it can, but the vast majority of Catholics the
    reality is somewhat different. I was worried
    I was going to find my
    father’s Requiem an emotionally difficult time.
    Well, it was, but there was no danger of tears; the only worry for me was
    trying to hold my anger inside.

    Arriving at the old church I was
    brought up at, I noticed a poster at the entrance which read
    ‘Jesus luvs u bcoz u r special’ or something equally retarded.

    main celebrant was the
    same priest who had made my cousin’s wedding ceremony into a kind of stand-up comedy routine. There was also the parish priest, who denies the existence of angels, papal infallibility, refuses
    to wear a chasuble, makes up his own words for the Eucharistic prayer.

    The bidding prayers were simply nauseating. My father would have
    been cringing if he had been there. The whole family; all the grandchildren had
    to read out some vacuous
    well-meaning drivel, and there was a good old guffaw when a granddaughter had to be lifted up to the microphone by her
    older cousin.

    The sermon was preached by another priest, and basically it was a
    canonization ceremony, all about what a lovely man my Dad was, his life history and how he was obviously in heaven. Whew. I was glad when that was
    over, but it got worse. At communion time, the parish priest called
    down into the audience for more ‘Eucharistic Ministers’, as we didn’t have
    enough – only 4 priests and 3 EMs! No, we needed more, and we got them. A few
    more 70-year-old women waddled up to the stage to do their stuff along with the rest of the world.

    When the Mass was over, we ‘processed’ down the road to the cemetery
    for the burial. The procession was just a casual shambolic stroll. No altar servers, of course,
    just the priests wandering along, chatting with all and sundry, laughing,
    cracking gags. I recalled serving requiems in the 1970s when we processed
    properly, with candles, in silence, with dignity. And people say the liturgy is
    improving now that
    the Reform of the Reform is here (never seen any evidence of that – nothing but
    neo-con wishful thinking!)

    Well, the burial was a farce, with the priest chatting with bystanders in between the prayers. As soon as it was done, everyone just
    ambled away. No private prayers or anything . My Dad said to me 6 months before
    he died ‘I pray every day for the return of the Old Mass to the altars of the
    Church’. And what
    he got was the worst conceivable insult – a degraded, deformed, pathetic product
    of our sick age.

    Consolation? No, Francis. A trial designed to test the faith
    of the best of us. I grow more and more convinced that the only way back to sanity
    is to jettison the entire liturgical ‘reform’ since 1962, and let’s stop kidding
    ourselves that things are getting better and that it’s just a question of eliminating

  • Therese Warmus

    Francis, I’m sorry to hear of your brother’s death. May God give rest to his soul. This is a beautiful essay about a difficult topic.

  • Petertheroman

    Charles I’m sorry for your loss and unfortunately you are right. I have seen this blatent disregard and respect for the faithful and am sure you are as upset as I am in the things I and you have seen in the Church. I can honestly say some Priests do not know Christ exists. For some he is just a belief not a knowing of his existance. I urge you to write a letter to your Bishop or speak to the priest in person about how you felt, but obviously in respect for ones office. I see many things wrong but they will not change unless we confront these issues. I urge all Catholics not to stand idle but pray in the Spirit to change things we know are disrespectable to God and show disobedience to the Holy See.

  • Charles Martel

     Thanks for the reply, Petertheroman. I have written to the bishop about the parish priest before. He said he would look into it, but of course nothing happened. All the abuses and the heresies from the pulpit continue as before. There is no point at all in confronting him to his face, because of course he is enlightened and people like me are trouble-makers. My father tried remonstrating respectfully with him before he died, but was brushed off with modernist nonsense. Angels are aspects of the divinity, not distinct creatures. Christ didn’t know who he was until near the end of his life. The Pope is not the Vicar of Christ. You name it. I don’t give a penny any more to support this man. He may be a priest, but I can find worthier ones to donate to.

  • Benedict Carter

    Charles Martel:

    I assisted at a Novus Ordo Mass today in Portugal.

    The “sermon” consisted of the priest taking a guitar from one of the “musicians”, placing the strap around his neck and then singing a song complete with prancing about the Sanctuary. 

    I lowered my eyes and prayed the Rosary in grief.

    After his “performance”, he removed said guitar and then bellowed into a microphone about how much Jesus “lurves you”. 

    But I doubt that anyone heard him: the feedback from the overloaded microphone was so great that he drowned himself out. 

    This isn’t religion, it’s a circus. 


  • Benedict Carter

    Blah blah blah

  • Charles Martel

     Absolutely, Benedict. I wish he could see that this is what he was put into his position to do. We all have our jobs to do. If we don’t do them, we get sacked. If a Pope doesn’t do his job, he gets called ‘broad-minded’, ‘ecumenical’, ‘modern’. I suppose the temptation of these worldly accolades is too much for him. Let’s pray for him even more!

  • Paxdavid

    The Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist, has a Columarium, thanks for you very good article.

  • Paxdavid