As more details concerning Bishop Michael Evans' funeral arrangements have come to light over the past week or so, it appears that his body, rather controversially, will be cremated not buried. It might be understandable, therefore, that details concerning the cremation are not widely available, and that none of the official announcements seem to mention it. However, the Catholic Grandparents Association, of which Bishop Evans was Patron until shortly before his death, did mention yesterday that his "committal, prior to cremation, will be at 16.30 [on Wednesday, 20 July] at the City Crematorium, Dereham Road [Norwich]*."I definitely do not wish to speak ill of the dead, and believe, however controversial it may be, that each man should choose the way in which his body is to be disposed of after death. In fact, I remember that Bishop Michael Evans had spoken of wanting to be cremated in the past, especially after blessing his Cathedral's new Columbarium - a resting place for urns especially designed for churches. So it should come as no surprise to those who knew him that he would choose this method of disposition. In that sense, I have wondered whether it is apt to write this post. On the other hand, as so many people will be surprised to know that a Catholic bishop has chosen to be cremated, I think there is some value in discussing now the Church's view on this sensitive issue in a public forum.
As far as I know, since the publication of a decree in 1963 there is nothing to stop a Catholic from being cremated, even if the Code of Canon Law (1983) "earnestly recommends the pious custom of burial be retained" (n. 1176). The Church also usually requires that the body must be present for the public Requiem Mass - so that the temple which housed the Living God may be properly reverenced. Since 1997, though, the Holy See has allowed some Bishops' Conferences to permit cremation before the funeral, as long as the urn is placed on a stand next to the paschal candle during the Mass. After cremation, the Church teaches that the ashes must be kept in an urn for burial or deposition in a place such as a Columbarium - as far as I know, the scattering of ashes is still forbidden. Also, of course, the Catholic Church teaches that cremation should not be used to "demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body" (CCC n. 2301).
Right from its earliest days, and rooted to its Judaic heritage, the Church taught that cremation was an abhorrent practice - both a denial of the resurrection of the body and a desecration of the work of God's hands. According to Fr John Dietzen, though, in his book Questions and Answers (quoted in a Catholic Culture article), "the first general legislation banning the burning of bodies as a funeral rite came from the Vatican's Holy Office in May 1886, noting the anti-religious and Masonic motivation behind the movement. The 191 Code of Canon Law continued that ban because cremation was still considered a flagrant rejection of the Christian belief in immortality and the resurrection." To this day, though, even though it normally lacks any anti-religious motivation, many traditional Catholics remain opposed to the notion of cremation, and the practice is still banned in the Orthodox Church - in which those who normally choose to be cremated, unless it is for some "good cause", are usually denied an ecclesiastical funeral or the Church's official prayers for the dead.
Of course, although it is now accepted that many lay Catholics choose to be cremated - for the sake of convenience and to avoid the excessive costs incurred by burial - it remains highly unusual for priests, religious and especially bishops to opt for this means of disposing the body. Firstly, many of the faithful like visiting the graves of those who have cared for them in this life - especially their priests and bishops. Secondly, it is generally accepted that where a person, especially a priest or bishop, to be canonised then their earthly remains would need to be exhumed for veneration, and for the purpose of collecting relics. Thirdly, of course, as the Catholic Church still seems to maintain that burial is preferred to cremation (cf CIC n. 1176), it is somehow only right that her ordained ministers choose to be buried.
Knowing the Church's position on cremation, and aware that Bishop Michael Evans was an honourable and faithful man who fully believed in the resurrection of the body, we can rest assured that he would have weighed these matters carefully when deciding on the way he wished his body to be disposed. It is also well-known that the Columbarium at St John's Cathedral, Norwich, is a beautiful, reverent and peaceful place of rest - a place worthy to receive the ashes of its pastor. One therefore wonders why so little has been said about Bishop Michael's cremation. Are some in the Church still apprehensive about this means of disposition? As Catholics, it is a fact that cremation is still viewed as something alien to our faith, something not yet fully accepted?
*This might refer to the Earlham Road Crematorium (also on Dereham Road).
What does this say about the times? Just because something is allowed, doesn't mean that it is preferable or even warranted. I think that the Church is clear in her understanding of the situation, that even if it is allowable, it certainly isn't preferable. It's akin to the idea that you can pass through a yellow light, but is it preferable to do so?