Ashes and the Assumption: The Body’s Dignity Even in Death

My favorite trail is named for the cathedral-spired rock formations lining both sides of a mountain canyon. Its curves link vistas so stunning that hikers hesitate to turn back when clouds gather and daylight dwindles.

“It would be cool if my family would scatter my ashes somewhere up here,” a friend mused on a camping trip there one summer a few years ago. Then, a question:  “What do you Catholics think about cremation?”

Well, that certainly was an unexpected conversational turn, and I took my time forming a tentative reply. I had been a convert of about seven or so years at the time, and though I’ve been conscientious about my choice and in continued study of the historic faith, there is always more to learn. 

“Catholicism is a matter,” said 19th century English convert John Henry Cardinal Newman, “[that] cannot be taken in a teacup.”

“I could be wrong,” I ventured, “but I think cremation is approved as long as the remains are interred in sacred space. I don’t think we’d scatter human ashes.”

My friend objected. “Why not? The whole earth is sacred! What’s wrong with scattering ashes?”

amritanshu-sikdar-514775-unsplashReiterating my lack of expertise, I replied, “Well, Catholics are pretty intentional and incarnational in the way they go about things.  We try to reflect the deeper reality at stake in everything we do.  So I guess you could say that if we’re the random product of chance, what we do with human ashes wouldn’t really matter. But if Jesus was raised from the dead and we hope to share in his resurrection, we’d want to reflect that not just in how we live, but even in how we handle human remains, if the situation is in our control.  I think we’d want to treat the remains with dignity, marking the resting place as sacred, remembering that the body, even what remains of it, is also sacred.”

We didn’t discuss it further that day, but the next morning as I emerged from my sleeping bag’s downy sarcophagus and began to pray the rosary, the First Glorious Mystery, The Resurrection of Our Lord, silently spoke.

“Awake, sleeper, rise. And Christ will shine upon thee.

We are loved so much that our creator emptied himself of glory, and “being made man” dignified every moment of human life, even death and burial. Christ’s resurrection has made ours possible at the last day. We are, even in the separation of body and soul at death, forever significant. Back home a few days later, I investigated the question in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2301-2303) which specifies:

The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit….The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.

Reverencing human remains honors both the sanctity of the body and the hope of the resurrection.

And just as mountain trails reveal unexpected vistas to those who continue climbing, unfathomable riches present themselves whenever faith seeks understanding. How fitting that in the rosary’s Fourth Glorious Mystery we’re given even more: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, proclaimed as dogma by Pius XII and celebrated by the Church on August 15.

This mystery declares that Mary is with God in heaven in both body and soul. In her passing from this life, the Assumption is Our Lady’s unique privilege, flowing from her immaculate conception and fiat-filled life as the Mother of God.

This mystery also enhances our understanding of the body’s significance even in death. Scattered ashes might signify the detachment of body and soul advanced by various dualistic philosophies that separate flesh and spirit.

“Mary’s assumption contradicts any treatment of the body as “a ‘nonessential’ and ‘extrinsic’ appendage to our ‘reaVirgo_det_Josef_Moroderl’ self,” notes Father Donald Calloway in his essay “Theology of the Body and Marian Dogmas.” The Assumption, he observes, reveals the truth about our final destiny: “after our earthly life is over, we will continue to be body-persons, either in heaven or in hell, that is, we do not shed our bodies, as though they were a shell to be discarded.”

Calloway cites John Paul II’s profound contemplation on this mystery. The saint who gave us the Theology of the Body sees in this mystery a reversal of the debasement of the human body (especially the female body) raising human dignity to the heights of holiness and supernatural transformation:

Mary’s assumption reveals the nobility and dignity of the human body. In the face of the profanation and debasement to which modern society frequently subjects the female body, the mystery of the assumption proclaims the supernatural destiny and dignity of every human body, called by the Lord to become an instrument of holiness and to share in his glory.

The Assumption affirms and gloriously illustrates the truth: our bodies are meant to be instruments of holiness now and sharers of glory in the life to come.

Sin subjects the body to corruption (and there’s more to ponder here: our many incorruptible saints!). But “in an instant, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet,” our bodies will be raised incorruptible, and “we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52).

elijah-hail-182446Such considerations take on fresh splendor on a Rocky Mountain morning, as wildflowers sparkle in the sun rising over the peaks. The morning after my friend had raised the question of scattered ashes I joyfully recalled that even creation “waits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.”

St. Paul tells us that creation itself will be “set free from slavery to corruption” and somehow, beyond our understanding, “share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

“Not only that,” he continues, “but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit…also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:19, 21, 23).

The more we ponder this mystery, the more the Spirit groans within us, granting the sacred longing that we may share the destiny of every saint who suffered with Christ in this life that he or she might be glorified in the next. Even in death, bodies bought with such a price and intended for such a future are worthy of a reverence reflecting their future exaltation.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that’s why we wouldn’t randomly scatter human ashes.  And why we humbly ask for the prayers of Mary, now and at the hour of our death.


Reads and Other Seeds

Dr. Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister, Catholic convert and professor of Biblical Theology at Fransciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio discusses the biblical roots of this mystery in a short video here .

I’m reading The Art of Compassion, a biography of Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset, author of Kristin Lavransdatter.  Next up:  Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Undset, Part 1. Passion.  Generosity.  Atheism.  International acclaim.  Faith. Tragedy.  Escape from Nazis. Friendship with Dorothy Day. A story as thrilling as any novel she wrote.

Featured photo by Jason Blackeye, Ashes by Amritanshu Sikdar, Mountain Meadow by Elijah Hail on Unsplash. Photo of Virgin in the parish church of St. Ulrich in GrödenOrtisei Val Gardena Italy, painter Josef Moroder-Lusenberg. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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