May 25, 2019

Respect for the Body?

I shouldn’t be surprised by what I see on the internet each day, but a January 11, 2018 Seattle Times headline did capture my attention: “Box with Cremated Remains Found in Goodwill Store.” According to the Vancouver Police Department, “an employee was going through donations and located an urn used to contain cremated human remains that when checked did have remains inside.” According to news reports, it is likely the remains are for “Michelle Miller.” I don’t know who Michelle Miller is, but she deserved better than this.

The irony in this for me was that last night our parish RCIA topic for the evening was “Our Eternal Destiny.” I am guessing Michelle’s family did not intend her destiny to be internet fodder and soon, I am guessing, the banter of late night comedians.

She is dead, right? What does it matter?? Our faith teaches us to not only care for the dying but to support them in departing  in dignity and peace. What few understand is that we must also preserve respect for their bodies once they are deceased. We join with their hope of the Resurrection. Burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy.

The Church prefers the burial of the body but does allow cremation. “The Church permits cremation provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” (CCC 2301) The Church prefers that the body be present for the funeral mass with cremation taking place afterwards. However, if for some reason cremation takes place before the funeral mass, the diocesan bishop can permit cremated remains to be brought into the church for funeral rites. The remains are to be buried, not scattered, and certainly not donated to Goodwill!

I remember the trying time of my father’s passing. After dad died, he was transferred to a crematorium where his body had to be stored in a cold chamber until the state of Illinois completed their paperwork. Was that “respectful?” My mother didn’t think so. She knew dad didn’t like the cold… and, this caused her stress. I tried to convince my mother that dad really didn’t notice. My mother wanted to bring dad home. I didn’t need to live the “Weekend at Bernie’s” adventure.

After my father’s cremation was complete, I was sent to a less than charming area of south Chicago to pick up his remains. His remains were received in an indistinguishable cardboard box. Fortunately, while we had been waiting for the cremation, my wife ordered a beautiful box from Abbey Caskets to place dad’s remains. I didn’t think my mother could handle the transfer. So, on the way home, I stopped at a nearby park. The park was empty except for a few kids playing basketball. I got out of my car and opened the trunk to do the transfer. I had never seen cremated remains before so I didn’t know what to expect. Dad was now an interesting mix of minerals. Suddenly it occurred to me, here I am in an isolated-park and transferring white power in my trunk while the kids played. I looked around for the police to see if my drug bust was coming. I imagine telling the officer “that’s not cocaine, that’s my dad!” I imagined the taste test we see on TV all the time would not have been pleasant. Fortunately, no police were in sight. Laughing to myself and once again seeing the irony of my life, I quickly transferred dad’s remains to the wooden box, screwed it shut and proceeded to my mother’s house.

Mom felt better that “dad was back home.” With the cremation done, we could proceed with my father’s internment. Dad was not Catholic but, his deacon son was insisting on a service at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery where he was going to be buried. No scattering at Wrigley, the ocean or his favorite tomato garden. Mom had other thoughts. She started thinking that she wanted dad to stay with her. After a long marriage, we can understand her sentiment. As her youngest bigmouth son, I quickly retorted “Mom, we don’t need grandpa on the shelf and besides, what am I supposed to do with him after you are gone?” Common sense finally came into play; our emotions settled in and dad was going to be buried with room for her to be laid to rest next to him. I am hoping he was ok with that!  :}

Nowadays, one can even take cremated remains and fashion them into jewelry. Instead of “Grandpa on the shelf” we have “Grandpa as matching earrings” or “Grandpa the dinner necklace.” A conversation starter to say the least. Respect for the body has given way to bling.

Did Jesus have “respect for the body – didn’t he say “Let the dead bury the dead?” (Luke 9:60) Presented here, the text is the wrong context – Jesus was speaking of leaving the “spiritually dead” behind. To follow Jesus is to give up everything: to “die” to the world of empty promises and that which honors wealth and privileges while neglecting the poor. The man in this passage thought he wanted to become a disciple in mind but not heart. For this man to “go back and bury his father” meant for him to go back to secure his inheritance. Jesus spoke directly to his, and our, lack of true faith. Yes, Jesus calls us to “die to this world,” but we still have to “do the dishes” and live our real lives and obligations.

Whether it is in healthcare issues, social teaching or living our faith; the Church always stands for each person’s dignity. It is the bottom-line in scripture and the basis for all Church teaching. We don’t “dignify” people; God has already granted us dignity by creating us in his image. We cannot lose this dignity. A person never loses his or her contribution to society and can never be a burden to a point where taking a life is justified.

Michelle Miller never should have ended up at Goodwill. May none of us ever end up as a mantle on the shelf or worse yet, bling for a dinner at Applebee’s.

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Written by
Deacon Gregory Webster

REVEREND DR. GREGORY WEBSTER is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He was ordained to the Permanent Diaconate by Francis Cardinal George in May 2014 and is assigned to St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Old Mill Creek, Illinois. Deacon Greg holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Northern Illinois University, M.A. in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and an M.A. in Bioethics and Health Policy from Loyola University of Chicago. Deacon Greg and his wife have been married more than twenty-five years and are blessed with three beautiful daughters and two pretty cool terriers.

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1 comment
  • Cremation should never have been permitted by the Church in the first place. It is a disgraceful practice from the viewpoint of Tradition, and abhorrence of it goes back all the way to OT times and Jewish tradition. According to the biblical stories, cremation was reserved for the worst criminals, e.g. Queen Jezebel, whose name was to be considered as blotted out. At was never considered a legitimate Christian practice until Pope Pius XII, if I’m correct, allowed it.

Written by Deacon Gregory Webster