When an aunt on my mother’s side of the family died several years ago, I went to the funeral Mass expecting to see a traditional Catholic funeral, meaning a coffin and an officiating priest circling it with a censor. Instead, the Mass began with immediate family members processing up the center aisle carrying a very small wooden box. The box, of course, signified cremation.

I could barely contain my disappointment: Aunt Jacqueline had been cremated!

I looked around to see if there were surprised looks among the mourners but noticed nothing. Growing up Catholic, cremation was always forbidden. In fact, local Catholic bookstores and the vestibules of most parishes always came equipped with booklets explaining why cremation was not for Christians.

“It’s against the Church!” people said, “It’s condemned.”

I did my best to concentrate on Aunt Jackie, listening to the readings at the Mass and to the tender memories related by her children and others.

“The important thing is her spirit,” I reminded myself, “this is not about Aunt Jackie’s body.” Or is it?

I even told myself that I was being unnecessarily uptight. What does it matter, after all?

Yet try as I may, something at the funeral seemed to be missing. With a conventional funeral, meaning a body in a casket, there’s a real sense of closure. With a box of ashes, the Mass of Christian Burial had become a memorial service. There was no sense of immediate mourning. It was as if Aunt Jackie had died long, long ago.

Cremation is increasingly popular today and people who agree with me that cremation is creepy seem to be in the minority.

Or so it seems.

Cremation was the rage in ancient Hindu culture from 1900 B.C. In ancient Greece the dead were burned. Soldiers on the battlefield who died were burned and their ashes sent home. It was a sensible and economical method of dealing with death. Still, ground burial was common in ancient Rome until the Emperor Sulla was cremated in 78 B.C. After this date, cremation became a status symbol among the wealthy Roman class.

The ancients opted for cremation because they feared that thieves would steal their bodies or because they saw burning as a way to prevent the soul from wandering from place to place. 

In ancient Judaism, cremation was seen as a punishment for those believed to have lived a sinful life.

For the early Christians, cremation was seen as a denial of the bodily resurrection. Because Christ was not cremated but his body prepared with spices and wrapped in linen, Christians should do likewise. At least that’s what was taught then.

I’m squeamish about cremation for a number of reasons.

After a person is cremated, often their ashes are scattered in a variety of places — a city park, river, the ocean, the mountains or near a farm. Some people want their ashes placed in their favorite vacation spot — a golf course, Rittenhouse Square or even Disney World — rather than go the “old fashioned” route like burial in a fixed cemetery where relatives and friends can visit, pray and place flowers.

“I want my ashes taken on a small plane and dispersed over the Snake River in Idaho, but only after a quarter of the ashes have been scattered in and around the Great Salt Lake, and only after a dusting of my ashes are scattered in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square with also a portion sprinkled in Penn Treaty Park on the Delaware,” someone may say, unmindful of the huge amount of work this involves.

It’s almost as bad as a destination wedding. 

Although the Catholic Church permitted cremation in 1964 after the Second Vatican Council, that came with some stipulations: Catholics are not permitted to scatter the ashes of a loved one anywhere but must place them in a consecrated crypt or sacred ground.

Catholics may also not keep the ashes of Uncle Ted or Aunt Martha in an urn on the living room mantelpiece. This rules out untoward party behavior years down the road (when the sorrowful aspects of the death have faded), when relatives might be tempted to say, “Let’s give Uncle Ted a high five,” code for let’s open the urn and give the ashes a little stir — after a white wine toast, of course.

In eastern Christianity, cremation also is given a thumbs down. The Orthodox Church has not changed its views of cremation since the first century A.D. In Orthodoxy, a body must be present for the funeral liturgy. If a person is cremated, that must happen after the services. An Orthodox priest is forbidden to officiate at a church funeral where there is no body.

Cremation advocates cite the convenience, low cost and hygienic nature of burning as the reason why everyone should be cremated. “Cremation is ecological,” they say.

Others say that cremation releases hundreds of pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the fuel it takes could heat a house for a week.

When discussions of cremation come up in social situations, I always hear pro-cremation folks cite their fear of being buried alive and waking up in the coffin six feet under.

“I don’t want to be scratching the lid of the coffin,” one man told me, moving both hands frantically like a cat at a scratching post.

“The days of Edgar Allen Poe are over,” I replied. “You’d rather have your head explode in a gas oven?”

“When you’re dead, you’re dead.”

“Well, do you know that bones are 60 percent inorganic, non-combustible matter and that’s why unburnt bone has to be pulverized into tiny granules by a separate machine? And did you know that UPS-FedEx will not transport the ashes of cremated bodies because of all the package leakages?”

When Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, an expose of the many abuses in the funeral industry in the 1960s, she was on the right path. Funerals in the 1960s began to become tremendously expensive, thanks to the untoward business practices of funeral directors who preyed on family and friends of the deceased to spend more and more money to show their love for “the dearly departed.”

In Mitford’s New York Times obituary in 1996, The Times quoted Mitford as once telling an interviewer what kind of funeral she wanted. “An elaborate one,” the Times quoted Mitford as saying, with “six black horses with plumes and one of those marvelous jobs of embalming that take 20 years off.” In addition, she wanted “streets to be blocked off, dignitaries to declaim sobbingly over the flower-smothered bier, proclamations to be issued — that sort of thing.”

Mitford, of course, was being witty. In reality, she was cremated and her ashes were thrown into the sea.

Go figure. 

Today, I’m happy to say that people are taking a second look at cremation and agreeing that it’s not so ecologically sound. Many are advocating “green” burials — a cheap pine casket without embalming. There are even home-kits explaining how the bodies of loved ones can be cleaned and dressed at home prior to burial. On the other hand, cremation has spun off something called resomation, which does not release carbon dioxide into the air but which pulverizes the body into liquid. Nicknamed “toilet burial,” this practice involves placing human remains, water, and potassium hydroxide into a steel tank and then heating it until everything melts. While some of the left-overs can be placed in a funeral urn, the balance is thrown into the sewage system.

The perfect funeral style for atheists! 

As for me, give me Edgar Allan Poe coffin-lid scratching any day. But make sure there’s a priest present at the gravesite — in proper vestments and swinging a censor. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

2 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: Cremation? Not for me.”

  1. Two reasons why more people might be opting for cremation of their loved ones these days:

    1) OBVIOUS — Cremation is much cheaper ($1,000 to $2,000) than a standard funeral/burial ($10,000 or more).

    2) NOT SO OBVIOUS — They may not want to know if their loved one died with one or more of these horrific “white fibrous clots” in their veins or arteries, especially if they urged the deceased to take the Covid-19 vaccine. Cremation destroys the evidence that an embalmer might otherwise find.

  2. I’ve been told that all your internals like guts, lungs, and heart are removed and bagged. Then, trucked to a landfill along with chicken gizzards or taken on a barge down the Delaware and dumped a couple of miles off the coast just like what they do with your fat after a lipoplasty or with guys who offend the mob. Those buzzards circling the landfill aren’t there for leftover McDonald’s burgers. Me, I’m sending myself to Penn Medical with no return address. I kind of like the idea of getting dissected by some pretty, young female medical student.

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