What happens to ashes after cremation? How can the church help with the disposal of loved ones’ remains?
June this year, over 150 clergy descended on the National Funerals Exhibition at Stoneleigh Park, as part of the ‘Taking Funerals Seriously’ conference organised by the Archbishops’ Council working party on Life Events under the leadership of Sandra Millar. As the main professional fair for funeral directors and others connected to service provision at death, the Exhibition offered an eye watering selection of products for sale from magnetic plumes to attach to your car as you follow the hearse to the crematorium, to funeral shrouds to wrap the deceased in as an alternative to a traditional coffin.
One area of growth in this market are the options for what to do with the ashes of a loved one. The possibilities myriad and imaginative – a certified diamond, fireworks to ‘send you off with a bang’; the creation of a portrait or sculpture from human ash, trees to be grown in eco pots. It is even possible now to be pressed into a vinyl record and ‘keep spinning for eternity’.
As clergy we are rarely asked to be involved in this. The Church of England may still conduct the funerals of over one third of the people who die this year, but the number of times it will be asked to assist in the disposal of ashes will be a tiny fraction of that figure. The official line is that ashes should all be kept together and strewn in a cemetery, churchyard or Garden of Remembrance, but seems completely at odds with the realities of what people expect to happen. Whilst most people would never dream of asking for their relative’s ashes to be pressed into a diamond, they would be surprised to be told that their parish priest couldn’t be part of anything that involved dividing up the ashes, or scattering them on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond or the Kop end of Liverpool FC.
The Church of England’s theology and practice surrounding cremation has been a muddle since it first considered the subject and perhaps it is time to consider the matter anew.
The official position on cremation from the Church of England dates back to the Convocation Debates that took place in the Second World War, some twenty years earlier than the Roman Catholic Church changed its view (and the Orthodox Church is still officially against bodies being cremated). I think the Church took two major wrong steps as a result of those Convocation debates.
Firstly, it concluded that there was ‘no theological significance’ as to whether a body was cremated or buried: God was able to create resurrection bodies from the ashes of cremated remains as much as he could from the dust of the earth which is all that ultimately remains of a buried body. Whilst no one would argue with this, it completely ignores the different symbolism that is offered in the two forms of disposal. At a burial, the body enters the ground whole. The imagery of the person sleeping until the Last Day then allows for the Resurrection of the Body to make sense with them rising from the grave on the Day of Judgement. We declare in the Apostles’ Creed that ‘we believe in the Resurrection of the Body’ and burial allows us the picture language to imagine what this will be like.
Cremation takes us in a very different direction. Symbolically it says that the physical body no longer matters, so we may as well burn it. It is unsurprising then that research carried out by Professor Douglas Davies and Alistair Shaw of Durham University in the 1990s concluded that only 4% of Anglicans believed in the resurrection of the body: 33% by contrast believed in the immortality of the soul. With the latter doctrine, cremation makes perfect sense because the soul is unaffected by the cremation. However, it is not orthodox Christian belief!
Secondly, Convocation concluded that burial and cremation were simply alternate, equivalent means of body disposal. The House of Clergy had been keen to say that cremation should be seen as a preliminary to final burial of the ashes, but the bishops had insisted that the two processes were equivalent. This is manifestly wrong. Once a body has been buried, there is nothing left for the family to do except visit the grave and cherish the memory of the one who has died. With cremation, there is a further step: what to do with the ashes. However, as the liturgy offers a final committal in the cremation service, many families are unwilling to engage with the ashes further and funeral directors end up with storerooms full of uncollected remains. Those who do choose to collect their loved one’s ashes for the most part do not consider that the church has any further role to play. Although Common Worship offers a liturgy for the burial of ashes, it feels odd to repeat the committal that had happened previously and it generally feels a most unsatisfactory service.
There are three underpinning principles of practice and doctrine which should be examined to see if they still are true.
Firstly, should burial be given primacy over cremation? It accords much better with an orthodox understanding of the resurrection of the body and should the church have more courage about promoting it. With the increasing number of natural burial grounds, it is disappointing that only the Diocese of Ely that has taken the step of opening its own natural burial ground, run by the Arbory Trust. The church has been the key player in burial for centuries: why are we abdicating this now?
Secondly, when a person is cremated, do we believe that ashes should still be returned to the ground to maintain the link with burial? This is why the church only makes provision for strewing in a churchyard, cemetery or garden of remembrance. (As an aside, who else uses the word ‘strewing’ anyway apart from the Church – if everyone else talks about scattering the ashes, can we not do likewise?) But it makes no sense that scattering of ashes in a favourite place is not countenanced by the church – surely we should provide prayers that families could use if they so choose as they do so.
Thirdly, the Church maintains that the ashes should be kept together and not divided up to preserve the integrity of the body. Symbolically, this makes no sense: any desire to maintain a sensible symbolism for the resurrection of the body was destroyed when we allowed cremation in the first place. If we do want to insist on this understanding, we will need to find a better reason to do so.
New processes such as promession or resomation will soon be with us as alternatives to cremation. It is time that the Church of England sorted out its theology and practice on cremation so that it stands a chance for sensible thinking on these new processes. Otherwise the increasing irrelevance that we have to people at the time of death will only grow larger.
Jeremy Brooks is a parish priest and part of the Archbishops’ Council Working Group on Life Events. He is the author of Heaven’s Morning Breaks (2013: Kevin Mayhew) which offers reflections on funeral practice.