Cremation has been steadily rising in popularity in the United States, particularly on both coasts. As this form of disposition (which the Catholic Church approved in 1963) expands in the Midwest, Catholic churches are seeing proper disposition of the ashes at Catholic cemeteries become less and less popular. What is behind this falling away from doctrinally correct disposition? Several reasons exist, including the following:
• Rising funeral costs that leave little money for disposition
• Increasing interest in “scattering ashes” rather than leaving them intact in an urn (a practice strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church)
• A desire to keep the deceased loved one close by keeping the ashes in the home or a nearby location to the living family
• The practice of dividing up the ashes between family members or preserving them in jewelry or other objects
What problems are associated with these developing practices? Aside from the simple fact that it is against Church teaching, several problems arise when ashes are not properly interred.
Consider this scenario:
An urn with ashes of a departed husband are kept on the mantle by the surviving wife. A few years pass, and the surviving spouse dies or moves to a nursing home. The urn containing her husband’s ashes is packed into a box with her other special items. This box makes its way to her daughter’s basement, where it is stored until the family decides what to do with these items. Several years pass. The ashes are forgotten, and the boxes are moved, put in storage, thrown away or sent to a resale charity. Meanwhile, no one is exactly sure where the ashes wound up. Is this the disposition a loving father/husband/son desired for his remains? Most likely not.
Ashes of a dear friend are taken to the beach to be scattered. Family and friends attend, read prayers, share memories. As a sea breeze rises, the ashes are opened and shaken out. As pieces fly in different directions, some of the larger pieces fall to the ground. The family and friends realize they’ve essentially dumped their loved one’s ashes in a pile on the sand. Slowly, they walk away, leaving with a feeling of dissatisfaction upon realizing that the idea of “scattering the ashes” has been romanticized in the entertainment media.
A third possibility:
The ashes of a beloved mother are honored in a funeral mass at her longtime parish. Afterward, family and friends share a meal together in the church’s social room along with talk of their favorite stories and memories, followed by a procession of cars to a nearby cemetery. As the urn containing her ashes is placed into a bench that serves a double purpose as a columbarium, prayers are said and flowers are placed. A plaque displays her name with a bronze cross memorial alongside. As family and friends slowly drift away, they know they can visit this space anytime: to grieve, remember, share special news and keep her memory close.
Those who have lost a loved one know that grief is a process, and mourning can take many forms. Knowing that a loved one has been interred in a sacred space, according to their Catholic beliefs and tradition, can help with the healing process and bring comfort.
There are many ways to keep the memory of a deceased loved one alive instead of keeping an urn in the home. Here are a few suggestions:
• Create a memory box with photo of the loved one on top and special items inside. Take a look at the personalized keepsake boxes available from Mpix: https://www.mpix.com/products/funstuff/keepsakebox
• Choose a special paper and color of crayon and make a crayon or oil pastel rubbing of the memorial marker. Let small children sit with clipboards near the columbarium or mausoleum and make their own sketches or paintings of the area—also an appropriate activity for artistic grown-ups.
• Hire a local artist or talented friend to create an artist’s rendering of a special photo of your loved one.
• Create your own shadow box to collect mementos of your loved one and revisit them whenever you wish. Keep it on display or in a convenient cabinet or dresser so you can spend time with it whenever you desire.
Do you have other memorialization ideas that you’d like to share? Send me an email, and I will share them with readers through a follow-up blog.