From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Burial might still be a preferred option, even for cremated remains of loved ones

by Dennis Fairbank, for the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 18, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

The underlying difficulty that can exist with a family’s decision to cremate the body of a loved one is not so much whether or not to cremate, but rather how should the final disposition of the cremated remains take place once the cremating process is completed. This question is sometimes left unanswered because the urgency that exists with the traditional disposition of a body is removed once the cremation is completed. While for some, a delay in the final decision-making can be positive, for others it can create an additional level of difficulty because what remains unresolved, at least in the near term, is how best to permanently memorialize the deceased individual, to make note of their time with us on this earth, to mark their passing.

Some would answer that permanent memorialization is unnecessary; that we are born, live for a time, and are gone. But this is not the belief, want or desire of the vast majority of people, as witnessed by the numbers and variety of roads, structures, streets, and the like which are named after individuals. This is a form of memorialization. It certainly is not the view of the Church, who reminds us that the earthly body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Church liturgy states a distinct preference for funeral liturgy to include the body, with cremation taking place after the community has had an opportunity to demonstrate their respect for the individual who has lived among them.

Perhaps one way to examine the question of how cremated remains should be memorialized is by asking why it is that people select cremation as their preferred option when making funeral arrangements. This answer is as varied as the number of people queried. It will sometimes revolve around the economics that can be achieved with cremation; or perceived as having less negative emotional impact because some decisions can be delayed; oftentimes, environmental issues are given as a reason; and others may just be following what is seen as a current trend.

All of these are valid, real and legitimate reasons for choosing cremation. But then what? What happens after the funeral is completed, after the cremation and processing have taken place? What happens to the cremated remains? With a traditional burial, the cemetery becomes the final stop when the casketed remains are placed into the grave or crypt. Final farewells are made, a memorial is placed, and a permanent site for family members to visit, pray, reflect and remember is established. In many cases, the same format is followed for remains that are cremated. The church certainly recognizes this as the correct form, since the funeral liturgy states an earnest preference for the inurnment of cremated remains in the Catholic cemetery.

But oftentimes, cremated remains are not placed in the Catholic cemetery. They are left at the cremating facility, taken home for display, or placed on a shelf or in a drawer pending the spreading of the remains at a “favorite” spot at some time in the future. But then what? In essence, this individual, who is now missing from our world, will exist only in our memories. But how long will those memories remain? What permanent record will exist for future generations to locate when they begin to search out their family history?

The growing interest in genealogy today points out the increased level of curiosity in locating and tracking past generations. While written records may sometimes be incomplete, at least they exist at the cemetery. If nothing else, the permanent memorialization that exists on the ground provides a tangible witness to the life that was once lived. What will future generations find when they begin to search out family histories for family members who have been scattered? Where will they search?

While the idea of spreading cremated remains at a favorite spot certainly has some allure, and for some families, no residual fall-out may occur, for others there are pitfalls. Once a body is cremated, the process cannot be reversed. Similarly, once cremated remains are spread, they cannot be recovered. Because cremation removes some of the urgency that exists with a traditional funeral, thereby causing some decisions to be delayed, the full realization that a loved one has passed may also be delayed, which can make the loss even more difficult to accept than it already is. When the disposition of the remains is delayed, the hardship is intensified. Grief experienced at the time of death will be revisited when the scattering takes place, and the bereavement journey restarted or at least extended. Without a local place to visit, reflect and remember, such as the community’s Catholic cemetery, the memory of the departed family member may be more difficult to recall.

Oftentimes it is difficult to remember the mountains, lake or river where the spreading of the remains took place. In many cases, the exact spot either cannot be found, or will not appear to be the same location. Many times family members, in an effort to have a specific spot to focus their thoughts, find value in memorializing the individual in some additional manner. To keep the memory alive a little longer they will place a memorial of some sort, perhaps at their local cemetery, to provide a peaceful place to visit and remember that is more accessible to them. There is a growing realization that while scattering or spreading of cremated remains may have some value from an economic view, from the emotional perspective such a decision may have far-reaching consequences. For some, scattering will be a satisfactory alternative; for others, the regret that is experienced after the act is completed can be difficult to overcome.

Cremation is certainly not a new process. Modern cremations have been taking place in the U.S. for decades. In other countries, most notably in Japan and England, due in part to their island nation status, the rate of cremation exceeds 90 percent. What is most interesting, however, is that over 90 percent of the individuals cremated are also buried and memorialized in a cemetery. They have not embraced the concept of scattering the cremated remains as we have in the United States; rather, they have recognized the value of remembering the individual with something of permanence.

But how does one respond when a loved one, prior to their departure from this world, indicates their preference for scattering? How does one go against these wishes?

This is a difficult conviction to ignore. What is many times forgotten, though, is that it is the surviving family members who must live with the decision. The request for “scattering” is many times a result of the mistaken belief that cremation and scattering is the easiest, least costly and most uncomplicated method to dispose of the remains of the deceased loved one. The decision is often made by one spouse in an effort to spare the surviving spouse the hardship and heartache they believe will be experienced at the time of death.

But the easiest course from one perspective is oftentimes the most burdensome from another. Instead of making things easier, in many cases, scattering only causes an additional level of stress and anxiety.

How should the decision to disperse cremated remains be arrived at? When is it an acceptable option? Scattering should only be chosen for legitimate, substantial and significant reasons, which all family members can accept. This is only accomplished through a thorough discussion of all options available, including the many ramifications that can occur. As is the case with many family decisions, education is the key. Only with full knowledge of the subject can one expect to make a suitable, informed decision that is appropriate to each individual circumstance. For some, this may result in a decision to scatter; for others, it will result in a more comfortable decision to bury the remains in the cemetery. Whatever decision is reached should be examined for what will be best for all in both the short- and long-term.

It is through discussion with appropriate, knowledgeable individuals, clergy, cemetery officials and funeral directors, that the proper information can be gathered so that a full range of options can be determined, with explanations as to how the many options available might best suit each family’s needs.

(Dennis Fairbank is Diocesan Director of the Catholic Cemeteries of Spokane.)

Inland Register archives

© The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved