Dissolving the saints?

We are still in the throes of theological reflection on the practice of cremation, and now there’s this:

New body ‘liquefaction’ unit unveiled in Florida funeral home, from the BBC.

I think funerals provide one of the most interesting (and difficult) places where contemporary cultural norms and Christian practices collide, often with unexpected results. I suspect we’ll be discussing funeral practice, the Christian understanding of death, and environmental sustainability for at least another generation.

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10 comments

  1. “Body tissue is dissolved and the liquid poured into the municipal water system.” I hope not! I suppose they wanted a euphemism, rather than saying “municipal sewer system.”

  2. Actually, I wonder if this could be modified (and even made cheaper and simpler) – to skip the “cremulator” phase and permit bones to be buried in an ossuary. A high-tech version of an ancient practice.

    1. I wonder how many people actually know that the “ashes” are the crushed bones of the deceased. I like your idea as the container for the bones would need to be bigger than an urn and there would be more likely the proper interment of such. No matter how often we remind our parishioners that the ashes should be interred, many still carry them home with them or discard them on their own through scattering or putting into a lake or river. Funeral homes in Macon now have nice urns they sell, with smaller ones to distribute the ashes to family members. I guess you could say we have that custom with “saints'” relics, but I’m not sure we have that custom with non-declared saints.

      1. I know a number of people who would just like to be buried or interred in a shroud. Bones-only interment would make that much easier, and, with easily justifiable (but politically difficult to pass due to lobbyist $$$) legal reforms, I think it could also justify that loosening stranglehold that the funeral-cemetery industry has on interments that has driven people to cremation. Parish churchyard ossuaries could be much more easily managed than cemeteries, for example.

  3. With apologies to Robert Herrick:

    Whenas in silks my Julia goes
    Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
    That liquefaction of her clothes.

    And her hair, and skin, and teeth…YUCK!

    (Liturgists will recall that it was Aidan Kavanagh, not our high school English teachers, who probably introduced this verse to us.)

  4. As a person who officiates at burial rites on a regular basis, I am concerned about the move away from traditional burial practice. I certainly know people who believe in the resurrection of the body who have chosen (or plan to) cremation of cremains over some variation of entombment of the body. However, I suspect practices like the one featured in this thread are being advanced not by believers but by people who are essentially materialists.

    I encounter people who are opting for cremation strictly because it is “more economical” than a traditional funeral. Perhaps liquification will offer similar economic benefits. This motive just makes me uncomfortable. I understand that canonically cremation may be a moral choice, but I strongly agree with the preference to do this following the Mass of Christian Burial.

    I guess I have mixed feelings about burial practices, but liquification seems like a step too far. What do you think?

    1. Scientists concerned with too many bodies lying around are already working on ways to make the remains completely disappear. Just zap them into a state of non-existence. No pine box, cement container, bronze casket. Needless to say, the funeral industry will fight this idea with all their might.

      Since my family has a burial plot, I’m hoping I can qualify for a simple pine box there before the techies make you disappear . By the way, in some states you can’t just be buried in a box. Your loved ones still have to shell out for a cement container to hold that box. Of course, compliments of the undertaking lobby. The funeral industry continues to rob your pocket to the very end.

  5. When I was growing up I often heard that the chemicals of which we are made are worth about 98 cents. Also I recall hearing that the total molecules of our body are replaced relatively quickly.

    So I really do not have any objection to environmentally friendly methods that return the dust of which I will be composed at the hour of my death to the common dust of earth as quickly as possible.

    The most important part of our physical reality appears to be our DNA sequence. There seems to me to be important medical, psychological and social reasons, perhaps some of which we will not discover for many years, perhaps centuries, for preserving family DNA. Perhaps there are also important theological reasons for preserving it. Isn’t it a kind of logos, the organizing principle of our physical existence, and uniqueness, and therefore in some way the physical expression of God’s imprint upon matter forming us?

    Beyond our DNA, it seems that our words, deeds, and social relationships are more a part of our embodied identity than the physical dust of the earth (even if it was born in the stars as Sagan used to like to remind us). We now have many ways to preserve electronically (forever? to be retrieved by a computer on some future Starship Enterprise?) substantial samples of our existence for future generations. In fact a great deal of that is already being collected in various and sundry ways. So do we really want future generations to reconstruct us in terms of our PrayTell comments?

    For my father’s funeral, I assembled family photos as icons for the prayer book of his vigil service. The family really enjoyed sharing and discussing them. I have noticed since then more funeral homes are providing services like this for people. So maybe the future of the funeral industry will lie in creating and maintaining family memorials, e.g. DNA, and various sorts of electronic and physical records long before and after the funeral service .

  6. More and more our popular culture promotes the non-Christian attitude that our bodies belong to us and not to God. The extreme, compulsive sign of this is the art of disfiguring the body with tattoos everywhere as well as body piercings, not to mention the ever popular nips, tucks, face lifts and lip enhancements. It’s as though there is a contempt for what we have been given by God and a desire to make it better through permanent procedures. Now in death cremation and “liquidfication” bring this contempt for the body to a new high. Isn’t this just the old fashioned heresy of Dualism: the spiritual is good and lasting, the physical is bad and evil? The body in death is only a shell, what is good is the immortal soul? Certainly that’s not what Catholicism teaches. We honor our Christian bodies which were consecrated by Christ in Baptism and made a temple of the Holy Spirit. Just as we should disposed of all things “blessed” in an appropriate way, how much more the Christian body? The insistence on burial of human “cremains” in blessed ground or above ground columbaries/crypts in Church discipline is tied to our respect for the human body in death because of its consecration in life.

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