The Archdiocese of Baltimore has recently started a program called The Ministry of the 14th Station: Jesus is Laid in the Tomb, which is a response to the growing phenomenon of people having the remains of their loved ones cremated and then never getting around to burying them. The announcement of this ministry notes:
Since cremation is a more accepted practice in recent decades, more and more families are keeping a family member’s ashes in the home. As years and decades pass, the next generation inherits the urns of their grandparents and great grandparents. More and more urns are being misplaced and forgotten.
For a fee of $300 dollars, space is provided in one of the Catholic cemeteries in the city, “providing an opportunity to bury these ashes in sacred ground.”
This strikes me as a splendid idea, and sparks a few thoughts.
First, while cremation might seem very up to date and efficient, perhaps it reflects and fosters a view of the human body that runs counter to traditional Christian views. The fact that the “cremains” [sic] often get put away in a drawer to be lost in some future move does not suggest a view of the human body as dust bound for resurrected glory. Providing space in sacred ground might be one way to foster a proper Christian understanding of the resurrection of the body.
Second, regarding the notion of “sacred ground” itself, we might think that we somehow make ground sacred by, say, sprinkling it with holy water, making it a “safe” space for the bodies of Christians to be interred. But it seem to me that this gets things backwards. It is by the act of placing the baptized bodies of dead Christians in the ground that we make that ground sacred. Burial in the earth is a sacramental act by which the earth is consecrated to a holy purpose.
Third, burying the dead as a process by which “sacred ground” is created can help us to develop a more christian attitude toward the earth, our common home. Graveyards can and should serve as public sacred spaces, respites from encroaching concrete and glass, that can remind us all of the garden from which we came and for which we long.
For some more thoughts on burial, I commend this essay by the poet Lia Purpura.