The Holy Fire: Cremation: A Practice in Need of Ritual

April 20, 2010
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image“When I’m gone just cremate me,” Hughey MacSwiggan told his third and final wife as she stood at his bedside while the hospice nurse fiddled with the morphine drip that hadn’t kept his pain at bay. The operative word in his directive was just. He wasn’t especially fond of fire. He hadn’t picked out a favorite urn. He saw burning not so much as an alternative to burial as an alternative to bother. He hadn’t the strength to force the moment to its crisis. He didn’t know if he was coming or going. He just wanted it all to be over?the cancer, the second guessing, the wondering whether he’d done irreparable harm, what with the years of drinking, the divorces, all of that carrying-on.

It’s not that he lacked faith. On the contrary, after long years of sobriety in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, he had sought through prayer and meditation to improve his conscious contact with God as he understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for him and the power to carry that out. He was, in extremis, ready and willing, grateful and gracious. He’d had enough. He just wanted whatever was going to happen to happen.

Loosened from his own ethnic and religious traditions, which were lost in the shuffle of postmodernity, he hadn’t any particular sense of “the done thing” when it came to funerals. He just didn’t want to be a burden to anyone, least of all the ones he loved. So when pressed by his family for some direction, “just cremate me” is what he told them all. And so they did.

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They dispensed with the presbyters and processions, with casket, graveside and monument. “Never mind the marines,” they said, when I told them that his service during World War II, from Cape Gloucester to Peleliu to Okinawa, entitled him to military honors. “Daddy wouldn’t want any of that.” Neither flag nor flowers, hymns or limousines, obits or an open bar. His son-in-law put the charges on a credit card which earned him frequent flier miles.

And Hughey was just cremated, which is to say his body was placed on a plywood pallet, covered with a cardboard carapace and, after the paperwork and permits were secured, loaded into the hearse and driven to a site toward the back of an industrial park where a company that makes burial vaults operates a crematory on the side. The line of boxes along the wall?a couple dozen of them?contained the bodies of other pilgrims, dropped off by discount cremation services and other mortuaries. They were waiting, like planes on the tarmac, for a clear runway, an open retort.

Because our funeral home’s protocols require us to see the dead all the way into the fire, just as we see the dead who are buried all the way into the ground, the crematory operator lets us jump the line. We arrange this by appointment, same as for burials. It seems the last if not least that we can do.

When I invited?as is also our policy?any and all of his family to come with us to the crematory, or to designate one among them to come along, “just to see that everything is done properly,” they winced and shook their heads as if I’d invited them to a root canal or public stoning, to wit: a necessary but noxious procedure, the least said about which the better, thank you.

So it was one of the crematory staff who helped me roll Hughey out of the hearse and onto the hydraulic lift and stood by wordlessly while I recited the Lord’s Prayer, which Hughey would have heard at AA meetings, and set the little numbered metal disk atop the cardboard box and helped me push it into the retort, closed the door and pushed the red button that started the fire that turned Hughey MacSwiggan’s corpse into his ashes. Three hours later after everything had cooled, the remnants of his larger bone structures were “processed” into a finer substance and all of it placed in a plastic bag inside a plastic box with a label that bore his name, the date and the logo of the crematory. This greatly reduced version of Hughey was given to me to take back to the funeral home to await a decision from his family about what would be done with what remained.

“In a funeral we are carrying the body of a saint to the place of farewell,” writes Thomas G. Long in his study of American funeral practice, Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Westminster John Knox).

In short, we are carrying a loved one to the edge of mystery, and people should be encouraged to stick around to the end, to book passage all the way. If the body is to be buried, go to the grave and stay there until the body is in the ground. If the body is to be burned, go to the crematorium and witness the burning.

Ask any gathering of your fellow Americans?students at university, clergy or hospice workers, medical or mortuary sorts?how many have ever been to a graveside or watched a burial, and 95 out of every 100 raise a hand. The hillside and headstones, the opened grave and black-clad mourners are fixtures in our commemorative consciousness. If not in real life, then on TV, we’ve seen enough burials to know the drill.

Next ask how many have been to a retort or crematory or witnessed a cremation and roughly the reverse is true: less than 5 percent have been there, done that.

Forty or 50 years ago, when the cremation rate in the U.S. was still in the low single digits, this would have made perfect sense. But today, when the national rate is approaching 40 percent and is predicted to be over 50 percent halfway into the coming decade, it represents a kind of disconnect.

How is it that so many people claim a preference for cremation but so few have any interest in knowing more about it?

As a people we have thoroughly embraced the notion of cremation as an exercise in simplicity and cost efficiency. But we remain thoroughly distanced from the fire itself and all its metaphors and meaning, its religious and ritual significance as a station in our pilgrimage of faith.

For Christians, in particular?who, along with secular humanists, account for most of the nation’s increase in cremations?this disconnect is even more telling.

In Accompany Them with Singing Long documents a troublesome shift in religious practice. In the place of funerals?the full-bodied, full gospel, faith-fit-for-the-long-haul and heavy lifting of grief events our elders were accustomed to?what has evolved, especially among white suburban Protestants, is a downsized, “personalized,” user-friendly, Hallmarky soiree: the customized, emotively neutral and religiously ambiguous memorial service to which everyone is invited but the one who has died. The dead have been made more or less to disappear, cremated as a matter of pure function and notably outside the context of faith. The living gather at their convenience to “celebrate the life” in a kind of obsequy lite at which therapy is dispensed, closure proclaimed, biography enshrined and spirits are, it is supposed, uplifted. If not made to disappear entirely, the presence of the dead at such services is minimized, inurned, denatured, virtualized, made manageable and unrecognizable by cremation. The “idea” of the deceased is feted for possessing a great golf swing or good humor, a beautiful garden or well-hosted parties, while the thing itself?the corpse?has been dispensed with in private, dispatched without witness or rubric.

Even when the cremation follows a wake or visitation and a public service in the church or elsewhere, we rarely process to the crematory, not least because the retort is often housed in an industrial park, not a memorial park. This disinclination to deal with the dead we burn has something to do with our conflicted notions about fire, which Western sensibilities and Western religious traditions still often associate with punishment and wastefulness.

“If there is a problem with cremation in regard to a funeral,” says Long, “it is that the cremated remains are required to stand in for the whole body of the deceased, which at its worst could be like asking Ralph Fiennes’s hat to play Hamlet.”

This minimization of what Long calls a “worshipful drama” suggests more than a shift in religious fashion. The issue is not cremation or burial but rather the gospel, the sacred text of death and resurrection, suffering and salvation, redemption and grace?the mystery that a Christian funeral ought to call us to behold, the mystery of life’s difficult journey and the faithful pilgrim’s triumphant homegoing. The memorial service, by avoiding the embodied dead, the shovel and shoulder work, the divisions of labor and difficult journey to the grave or pyre, too often replaces theology with therapy, conviction with convenience, the full-throated assurances of faith with a sort of memorial karaoke where “everyone gets to share a memory.”

Thence to the fellowship hall for “tea and cakes and ices,” having dodged once again those facts of death that, as Long says, “force the moment to its crisis.”

“The fact is,” writes Long, “that many educated Christians in the late nineteenth century, the forebears of today’s white Protestants, lost their eschatological nerve and their vibrant faith in the afterlife, and we are their theological and liturgical heirs.” Long is citing not a change of fashions but a lapse of faith in the promise of eternal life: a core principle of Christianity.

The crisis presented by a death in the family has not changed since the first human mourners looked into the pit or cave or flames they’d just consigned their dead to and posed the signature questions of our species: Is that all there is? Why did it happen? Will it happen to me? Are we alone? What comes next? The corpse, the grave, the tomb and fire became fixtures in the life of faith’s most teachable moment. We learned to deal with death by dealing with our dead; to process mortality by processing mortals from one station to the next in the journey of grief. The bodiless obsequies that have become the standard practice in many mainstream Protestant churches represent not only a shift of mortuary fashions from custom and tradition toward convenience, but also a fundamental uncertainty about eternal life. They lack an essential task and manifest?to assist all pilgrims, living and dead, in making their way back home to God.

Abject grief, spiritual despair, anger at God and serious doubt are common responses to suffering and loss. And while doubt is unexceptional in the life of faith, and most certainly attends a death in the family, the role of pastor, priest, minister and congregation, indeed the raison d’

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