What Does “Human Dignity” Mean in the Eyes of the Church?

Funeral Industry News February 22, 2023
Human Dignity

What Does “Human Dignity” Mean in the Eyes of the Church?

Families selecting methods of final disposition do so by consulting deeply personal religion-based beliefs, which often limit options. Jewish law doesn’t favor, as a single example, cremation. It’s the same with Islam and, until sort of recently, Christianity. However, the Tibetan funerary tradition requires cremation by fire to release he soul from the body.

America’s history of prevalent Christianity brought widespread considerations and restrictions to bear on funeral customs in the U.S. with the greatest frequency.  Until within the last few decades or so, this regularly meant the exclusion of cremation as an option. The reason for this exclusion was cremation’s “failure to recognize the dignity of the human person” in the eyes of the church.

Meaning what, exactly?

“Dignity of the human person”

Christianity in all of its forms teaches that there will be life after death, and that the faithful will one day be resurrected.  It also recognizes that human beings have been ”created in the image of God,” but the concept of dignity and how it may be demonstrated differs from denomination to denomination.

If we consult the Catholic church as a predominant authority on the teachings of Christianity, we learn that the Vatican has published specific considerations for the Catholic faith regarding permissible cremation.  While it can be done, maintaining that concept of “dignity of the human” must be observed at every step, but this concept of dignity and how it may be demonstrated looks different in some modern offshoots of various flavors which make regular, significant departures from traditional teachings.

What was NOT dignified

One reason for Christian historical rejection of cremation was that its practice seemed to deny this dignity to the dead body. An aspect of the Church’s interpretation of scripture is that the body forms an indelible part of human identity, as in this excerpt from the Catholic catechism (the concordance of the faith, or basically the Catholic user’s manual of what the church teaches):

By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body,[8] and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.[9] She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body[,]

The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows “greater esteem.”

Today’s interpretation (Christian or secular) of what it means to “dignify” a person’s remains may differ from the historical due to the way languages and cultures naturally evolve. Over time, words shift their shades of meaning (see “boomer” as a case in point). But with a few exceptions, the laws and customs of many nations forbid “desecration” or mistreatment of a body — a form of respect extended to the dead. 

So the idea of postmortem “respect/dignity,” mutable while the concept may be, appears to abide even in the secular mores of multiple cultures.  Does this suggest that the expectation of respect due to a human, dead or alive, may simply be human, universal across peoples and places, a common denominator of our human condition, like love or fear?

A little respect, it would seem, never hurt anyone.