The Committee on Doctrine for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on March 20 made a statement “On the Proper Disposition of Bodily Remains.” The committee said the body is not something that is used temporarily by the soul as a tool that can ultimately be discarded as no longer useful. Rather, Jesus Christ has promised that one day, at the Final Resurrection, the souls of the dead will be reunited with their bodies.
The preferred method for honoring the remains of the dead remains burial of the body. There is nothing about the practice of cremation in itself that conflicts with Church teaching about the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. The basic requirement in showing proper respect to the ashes of the deceased is that they be laid to rest in a sacred place. They cannot be permanently kept at home or divided or scattered in the air, on land, or at sea.
The Committee recognized the lack of due respect shown to the bodily remains of the deceased through alternatives known as alkaline hydrolysis and human composting.
After the cremation process, all the human remains are gathered and reserved for disposition. The bone fragments are placed in an urn and interred in a sacred place.
After the alkaline hydrolysis process, there are also remnants of bones that can be pulverized and placed in an urn. The 100 gallons of brown liquid in which the greater part of the body has been dissolved is treated as wastewater into a sewer system or used as fertilizer over a field or forest that does not show adequate respect for the body.
After human composting there is nothing left of the body but compost, nothing that we can point to and identify as remains of the body. The body and plant material have decomposed together as a single mass of compost about a cubic yard that is spread on a lawn. The body is completely disintegrated. There is nothing left of the body to be placed in a casket or an urn or laid to rest in a sacred place.
The Catholic Cemetery Conference Board of Directors was encouraged by Bishop Gerald Kicanas, our Episcopal Moderator, to share our perspective concerning alkaline hydrolysis and human composting with the Committee on Doctrine. As President, I wrote to Bishop Daniel Flores on Feb. 24, the chair of the Committee, with our insights from the Canadian Bishops, USCCB statements, and the Washington State Conference, as well as our past practice concerning the disposition from alkaline hydrolysis.
The CCC board is thankful to the committee for its statement and pastoral guidance. Even though these practices are not legal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they are in other areas of the country. For those who have family living elsewhere, it is good to know the Church’s teaching on the types of disposition we should not take when offered, other than traditional burial and cremation.
We recently observed Cemetery Sunday, Nov. 5, a day to visit the graves of our loved ones, and All Souls Day, Nov. 2, a time to pray for our deceased who might be in purgatory. We remember our loved ones interred or entombed in our diocesan and parish cemeteries. May we always honor them first by the proper disposition of our deceased.
By Monsignor William Baver, diocesan director of cemeteries, and pastor of SS. Simon and Jude, Bethlehem and Our Lady Help of Christians, Allentown.