In the gospel, we heard how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus has power even over death.
On the Second Sunday of Easter, we will hear the story of doubting Thomas (John 20:19-31). Thomas is not present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection. “He showed them his hands and his side” (verse 20). Why? To show them that He is the same Jesus with the same body who had been crucified. Thomas was not there. He doubts what the others tell him. When Jesus appears a second time, Thomas is present. Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe” (verse 27). Jesus wants Thomas, Jesus wants us, to understand what it means to rise body and soul.
The body is part of who we are. It is to be treated with dignity and respect even after our death. As we approach Good Friday, we can read in all four gospels (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42) how Jesus’ body was given a proper burial after his death. The burial of Jesus is the Fourteenth Station of the Cross. As soon as a person is conceived in their mother’s womb, we must understand that their body is a gift and part of who they are. Given a body a proper burial is part of being Christian.
In May of 2022, I wrote an article here, “Respecting the Dead,” following the release of a Letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on new methods of “disposing” (that word turns my heart upside down in this context) of human bodies (available online at https://trentonmonitor.com/Content/News/Diocese/Article/CDF-Care-for-bodies-of-deceased-must-align-with-Church-teaching/4/36/30466 ).
At that time I said the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was working to provide some teaching on this. I find it fitting as we prepare to celebrate the death of Jesus and his proper burial that the USCCB has released a formal document called “On the Proper Disposition of Bodily Remains.” It’s a short seven page document from the Committee on Doctrine that you can read for yourself.
In the document’s opening paragraph, we read, “Enlightened by this Easter faith in the resurrection of the dead, the Church has always taught that we must respect the bodies of the deceased. Every human being has been created “in the image of God” (Gn 1:26-27) and has an inherent dignity and worth. Human bodiliness is an essential aspect of this “image and likeness,” for through the body the human person’s spiritual nature manifests itself” (1). Our body is part of who we are.
In paragraph 3, it continues, “Burial is considered by the Church to be the most appropriate way of manifesting reverence and respect for the body of the deceased because it “honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2300) and clearly expresses our faith and hope in the resurrection of the body. As for cremation, the Church permits the practice “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (Code of Canon Law, can. 1176.3 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2301.)
A funeral Mass ends not in church but at the burial afterwards. The USCCB continues, “Accompanying the body itself to the place of its rest reaffirms in the hearts and minds of believers the faith of the Church that it is this body that will rise” (3).
This document examines new methods for “dispositions of the body” in light of Ad Resurgendum cum Christo written by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (August 15, 2016. Available online at https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20160815_ad-resurgendum-cum-christo_en.html).
The USCCB next reiterates that cremation is acceptable as long as the remains are given a proper burial. The remains are not to be “kept permanently at home or divided among various family members” or worn as jewelry (6). We burial the remains in a cemetery where their place of burial can become “places of prayer, remembrance and reflection ” (7, originally in paragraph 5 of Ad Resurgendum cum Christo).
The USCCB then turns to two new methods for disposition of bodily remains, Alkaline Hydrolysis and Human Composting. Personally, I find the very name, “human composting” signifies the method’s lack of respect for the human body, seeing it as nothing more than material to be made into fertilizer.
The USCCB writes, “Not unlike cremation, both techniques work by dramatically accelerating the process of decomposition of the human body. In alkaline hydrolysis, the body is placed in a metal tank containing about 100 gallons of a chemical mixture of water and alkali and then subjected to both high temperature and high pressure in order to speed decomposition. In a matter of hours, the body is dissolved, except for some bone material. In human composting, the body is laid in a metal bin and surrounded by plant material (such as alfalfa, wood chips, straw, etc.) that fosters the growth of microbes and bacteria to break down the body. Heat and oxygen are added to accelerate the decomposition process. After about a month the body is entirely decomposed into soil” (9).
Is this the way you want your body treated after your death?
Maybe it doesn’t sound too bad yet. The USCCB continues, “The major difference between these newer practices and cremation is found in what is left over at the conclusion of the process. After the cremation process, all the human remains are gathered together and reserved for disposition” (10).
As to the new methods, the USCCB writes, “After the alkaline hydrolysis process, there are also remnants of the bones that can be pulverized and placed in an urn. That is not all that remains, however. In addition, there are the 100 gallons of brown liquid into which the greater part of the body has been dissolved. This liquid is treated as wastewater and poured down the drain into the sewer system (in certain cases it is treated as fertilizer and spread over a field or forest)” (10). Do you want your remains treated as “wastewater”?
The USCCB writes of human composting, “The end result of the human composting process is also disconcerting, for there is nothing left but compost, nothing that one can point to and identify as remains of the body. The body and the plant material have all decomposed together to yield a single mass of compost. What is left is approximately a cubic yard of compost that one is invited to spread on a lawn or in a garden or in some wilderness location” (11). Do you want your body treated like leftovers from dinner thrown onto a compost pile?
Our bodies have been given to us by God. They are not a temporary living place to be thrown out when we die. In the Resurrection, Jesus will raise us up body and soul. Until the resurrection, we must honor the body with proper Christian burial.
I hope this helps you understand the problems of these new methods for disposing of the body. Indeed, they dispose of the body. They do not respect the body.
Let us pray for all to see the body as given by God as part of who we are and treat the body accordingly.