Culture At Large

Christianity, Cremation, and Scattering My Sister’s Ashes

Rolf Bouma

On April 2, the one-year anniversary of her death, we scattered my sister’s ashes. She had given us explicit instructions regarding her cremation and general instructions regarding their disposition. “Over water,” she told us. When we said “Lake Michigan?”, she nodded as if to say that would be suitable. Not required. Any decent body of water would do.

When it came time, we divided her ashes. On a cold, windy day laced with snow squalls we first met at Muskegon State Park and shook half of the ocher powder at the interface of water and sand. Successive waves leached the ashes until no visible signs remained.  

We then drove 20 miles east to a small country cemetery near where we’d lived as children. We sprinkled the remaining ashes around the edges of the cemetery, framing our time with Scripture and prayer. Lunch in town followed, and we drove home having commemorated my sister’s life, affirmed our memories and our hopes, and committed her dust back to the stardust bin from which God had formed her 60-some years earlier.

Last week the Roman Catholic Church issued an “instruction” through its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on “burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.” It reiterates the Catholic Church’s strong preference for burial of the body, but its real focus is cremation, which, after centuries of prohibition for Catholics, was first allowed by Vatican II in 1963.

We committed her dust back to the stardust bin from which God had formed her 60-some years earlier.

This new instruction is meant to head off practices attendant to cremation that are deemed incompatible with the Christian faith. I was brought up short. According to the instruction, cremains—the bodily residue of cremation—must be laid to rest in a “sacred place,” such as a cemetery or another space that has been duly consecrated by the Church. Moreover, any “appearance of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism” should be avoided, so no scattering of ashes on land or sea. Dividing up the ashes among family members is also forbidden. These injunctions are serious enough that, should a person “notoriously” request cremation and scattering of ashes, they are to be denied a Christian funeral.

There is a lot that could be said, but I will just note two points at which I take issue with this “instruction.” First, my Reformed instincts rebel at the division of creation into sacred and non-sacred places, with ecclesiastical blessing required to transubstantiate the mundane into the sacred. Count me in with Wendell Berry, who said that “[t]here are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.” Creation itself is sacred enough without the Catholic Church declaring slivers of it to be so.

Second, the Church should issue guidelines based on substance rather than appearances. If I sit quietly in a forest glade with eyes closed, some might imagine that I am communing with and seeking oneness with nature. Is this the appearance of pantheism or religious naturalism? Rituals are inherently ambiguous, so we conjoin them with liturgies, which further fix their meaning. May not people express their faith as the substance they intend rather than the “–isms” ecclesiastics fear?

Here is the prayer which accompanied the sprinkling of my sister’s ashes. I shudder to think that this would be deemed reason to deny my sister, a faithful if prickly daughter of the church, the solace of a Christian funeral.

We thank you, loving Creator,

and we return these remains of

our beloved sister into the cycles of your creation:

ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

Through Christ’s victory we have hope in life eternal.

So now, we commit these ashes of her mortal body to the living waters of Lake Michigan.

We rejoice that she now resides for all eternity

in the vast ocean of your mercy. Amen.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, The Church