A Work of Mercy: To Bury the Dead (Instead of Treating the Remains of Your Fellow Human Beings like Rubbish)

Allan Hall of the Daily Telegraph wrote the following on July 8th:

Belgian undertakers want to dissolve the dead in caustic solution and flush them into the sewers.

The method is said to be cheaper and greener than burning bodies in crematoria or burying them in valuable land. If Brussels approves, the procedure could be used across Europe. Many people found the idea “disturbing” a Belgian survey discovered.

Our last resting place?

Had the date been April 1st I might have considered it a rather tasteless joke – but it is not April 1st, and given the proclivity of the European Parliament for issuing incomprehensible edicts, and the Daily Telegraph for putting it on its front page one wonders just what might be being dreamt up by the European Parliament.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states quite clearly`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 honours the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit’.

I am sure I am not alone in my incomprehension of a mind that can treat the bodies of the dead like last nights washing-up water – to be flushed away and thought of no more. I am similarly certain, that even given the secular nature of most of Europe, there will be enough Christian people who will make their voices heard in rejection of what is an affront to souls who have existed in the likeness of He who created them. Or will they?
Gertrude

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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47 Responses to A Work of Mercy: To Bury the Dead (Instead of Treating the Remains of Your Fellow Human Beings like Rubbish)

  1. Mimi says:

    I heard one of the proponents of this system being interviewed on the radio this morning. He claimed that they had discussed the system with Catholic bishops in the United States and that they had approved of it. Can this really be true?

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  2. Mundabor says:

    “there will be enough Christian people who will make their voices heard in rejection of what is an affront to souls who have existed in the likeness of He who created them”.

    Well it depends: after their priests have told them that it is sinful to damage the environment, they might well start to think that it more merciful to dissolve one in acid because “dear auntie certainly wouldn’t have wanted to pollute Creaaaaaaation”. Frees one from cemetery visit and maintenance, too. Survivor friendly. I know it sounds absurd, but in the meantime we hear a lot of absurdities, in the last two days only we had the Belgian “Catechism” and the Austrian “western mass”.

    I for one can almost hear the PM happily exposing to us the many economic and environmental advantages of this “change” and pressing in Brussels for his universal adoption. Modern. Rapid. Aseptic. Totally devoid of principles. How very Cameron!

    What I do hope is that at least Catholics will resolutely refuse such a treatment – of course unless some Strasbourg tribunal allows them to do so -. But now that I think of it: I am not sure that many of them know that to bury the dead it is a work of mercy. I am not sure how many of them know what a work of mercy is, actually. I wonder how many Catholics prefer their dead cremated and whether the priest opposes this, or mentions some strange rule allowing it? And how many priests could today, on request, recite all the works of mercy without hesitation?

    I am appalled at reading beautiful but shocking entries like yours, Getrude. But on such occasions another part of me asks: why are you surprised?

    M

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  3. omvendt says:

    Maybe these Belgians are just trying to catch up with their Swedish counterparts, Gertrude.

    In ‘The Cube and the Cathedral’, George Weigel identifies a Swedish company, ‘Promessa’:”… which advertises a service in which cremation is replaced with human composting, the dead being immersed and frozen in liquid nitrogen before being smashed to smithereens by ultrasound waves and then freeze-dried and used for fertiliser…”

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  4. Mimi says:

    But Mundabor, is it not a fact that Catholics are allowed to be cremated nowadays, as long as their ashes are buried, not scattered?

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  5. Benedict Carter says:

    A few months ago, bored, I was watching a Discovery Channel programme where some excited young historians who no-one will ever hear from again were gathered around a hole dug in the floor of an English castle in which they had unearthed a nobleman from the 13th century. He had undoubtedly been buried with the rites of the Church and here they were disturbing his rest, and for what? For half an hour of TV.

    I was scandalised, but this sort of thing goes on all the time. The Church is even getting in on the act: wasn’t there some disquiet at the way in which Newman’s remains were traslated somewhere last year?

    Caravaggio was another recent example.

    There are no borders anymore for most people between the sacred and the profane: everything is up for grabs for a few minutes’ worthless TV or for someone’s laboratory bench.

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  6. Mundabor says:

    Mimi,
    in that “nowadays” lies all the problem. I never cease to be amazed at the utter inability to continue to do things as they have always been done.

    In ten years time (or in two years time), Catholics could be allowed to dissolve bodies in acid, provided -say – they don’t go down the WC drain.
    Then someone would write “but Mundabor, it is not a fact that nowadays…”

    M

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  7. Brother Burrito says:

    Does anyone remember the seventies movie “Soylent Green”?

    In it, a future society had discovered the solution to overpopulation and food shortages:

    Encourage voluntary euthanasia, then use the bodies provided, as feedstock for yummy nutritious wafers!

    Other sources of feedstock were rioters, conveniently collected in “dustcarts” appropriately equipped with hydraulic shovels to gather and dump the human cytoplasm into the onboard receptacle, for later processing.

    I saw this film as a teenager, some years after its release. It was shocking then, and very thought provoking. Much effect it had upon me.

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  8. Mundabor says:

    Brother Burrito, I had a similar shock from the movie “Frantic”, where the killer dissolves a body in acid.
    Silly me: I should have thought of proposing the system to the European Commission….

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  9. Brother Burrito says:

    As regards Christian burial:

    Before we get too ceremonial about the whole thing, let us remember all those who have died without their bodies being recovered for earthly burial.

    Those lost at sea.

    Those lost in battle, blown to smithereens.

    Those lost completely, in the wilderness, perhaps.

    Those whose corpses are a danger to public health.(radiation, chemicals etc)

    and probably many more.

    A Christian burial is not a Sacrament, it is a Corporal Act of Mercy.

    Like

  10. Mimi says:

    “Soylent Green is people!!”

    Great movie! (I have to confess to being a big Charlton Heston fan!)

    Like

  11. Mundabor says:

    Oh well than I will confess my admiration for Guy Ritchie’s movies.. 🙂

    In “Rock’n’Rolla” there is the chap who dispatches people with an aggressive variety of crayfish and in “Snatch” there’s the chap expanding on how fast hungry pigs can go through an entire body (well you’ll have to extract the teeth first and he explains why it is better to do it first…..).

    Both systems rather “bio”, if one thinks of it….

    M

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  12. Mundabor says:

    BB,
    a burial at sea is just that: a burial and when there is no body, well there’s no body.

    But this is different from the case in which the body is there, and a Christian burial is deemed unnecessary.
    Ashes are for Shintoists. We are Christians, we bury our dead. Sacrament or no sacrament.
    We don’t consider the feeding of the hungry an optional because it’s not a sacrament, either.

    M

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  13. cumanus says:

    Secularism is about the desecralization of reality, and where more poignantly so than this proposed means of disposing our mortal remains?

    Like

  14. toadspittle says:

    I wouldn’t mind being eaten by my dogs when I am dead. Doubt if it would be all that healthy for them, though.

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  15. Harry ca Nab says:

    One does get the sense that we are heading towards a time when all that is sacred, human and decent is swept away.

    Is our future just to be worker ants in a Euro colony?

    No dignity is life or death?

    Is this what our ancestors struggled for.

    As things stand I can, since last year, visit my fathers grave, look out across the Malvern Hills, breath the air, smell the flowers and remember him.

    If European technocrats have their way we will remember our dead whilst looking into a toilet bowl to the smell of Harpic!

    Like

  16. Caroline says:

    I suspect that it is the idea of “flushing” that most offends 21st century sensibilities, but it should be remembered that it was common practice in Europe for centuries to disinter bones once the flesh had rotted and to lump them all together in charnel houses. And the treatment of those who died during plague outbreaks was particularly grisly. Here is a snippet of Boccaccio’s account in the Decameron:

    “Nor were there ever tears or candles or any company honoring the dead; things had reached such a point, that people cared no more for the death of other people than they did for the death of a goat: for this thing, death, which even the wise never accept with patience, even though it occur rarely and relatively unobtrusively, had appeared manifestly to even the smallest intellects, but the catastrophe was so unimaginably great that nobody really cared. There was such a multitude of corpses that arrived at all churches every day and every hour, that sacred burial ground ran out, which was especially a problem if each person wanted their own plot in accordance with ancient custom. When the cemeteries were for the most part full, they excavated great pits in which they’d place hundreds of newly arrived corpses, and each corpse would be covered with a thin layer of dirt until the pit was filled.” From: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/decameronintro.html

    The trauma of the Black Death profoundly affected all aspects of life as reflected in the art of the times. Most tombs of the 14th-16th centuries reflected “the macabre transi [“stiff”]…a decomposing corpse inhabited and gnawed by worms, with shreds of flesh hanging from it. But the macabre figure of death is not simply an agent of destiny; he communicates with a hidden world which, in the 15th and 16th century, he helped reveal: a world that emerges from the depths of the earth and from the interior of the body, inhabited by worms, toads, snakes, and hideous monsters (Aries, 1985).”

    “The trauma of the Black Death gave rise to the most popular artistic channel for the representation of death, the Dance of Death…. Before the 15th century, the Dance Macabre was traced on walls of churches and charnel houses across Europe…. Every victim was danced off to hell no matter what: sudden death was escalated to sudden damnation (Binion, 2004).” From: http://entomology.montana.edu/historybug/YersiniaEssays/Medrano.htm

    How we treat our dead is merely an extension of how we deal with the living. Omnia vanitas….

    Like

  17. Brother Burrito says:

    I had liver, bacon and onions from the hospital canteen the other day, and as I tucked in to the dry and grizzled offal, I suddenly thought of you, TS 😉

    I shall soon be adding a facility here allowing visitors to go straight for the Spittles.

    Keep them coming. Most welcome, they are, as yoda might say.

    Like

  18. Mundabor says:

    Caroline,
    what I think is bad is 1) the loss of the idea of sacredness, and 2) the idea that Christianity is something you can get rid of, possibly with the willing complicity of the bishops who would never dare to take a stance (oh, they might write a letter to the “Telegraph”, I am informed. How brave).

    You mention Boccaccio, but that was an emergency. In emergency times you do what you have to do to, say, avoid pestilence.

    But this here is entirely different. This is the idea that one could abandon (or consider an optional) something considered sacred since the birth of Christianity! Because of the real estate, and the practicality of avoiding having to buy a coffin! FFS!!!

    Cremation is of course not very different: with cremation you don’t bury the dead, you bury their ashes. Christians of the past knew perfectly well that one could burn a dead body – it is not that the technology was not there – but in mormal times they didn’t do it.
    They were Christians, see.

    M

    Like

  19. Gertrude says:

    Mundabor:
    That many Catholics are not aware of the Corporal Works of Mercy is a good point. I am sure every-one here is fully aware of them, but I will refresh:
    To feed the humgry
    To give drink to the thirsty
    To clothe the naked
    To visit the sick
    To visit the imprisoned
    To bury the dead.

    Ben:

    It is true that Cardinal Newmans grave was opened – and his body ‘exhumed’ – but there was nothing there apart from some cloth fragments. It was explained to me by one of the Oratory Fathers, that Cardinal Newman himself was quite explicit about his burial, and did not want to be buried in the Oratory Church. It is thought that in fact he ordered some ‘substance’ that would dissolve his remains in order that his wishes were carried out. This remains conjecture. The only ‘relics’ of Newman that exist are locks of his hair, and it was a Victorian custom to preserve locks of the hair of the deceased. John Cornwell has recently written a book – Newman’s Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint in which he suggests that the remains might be with his friend (which was his desire – and common in Victorian times) Father Ambrose St. John. But – Newman is another thread!

    Caroline:
    Your points re the Black Death are interesting, and I shall be looking at that at a later date. It should be remembered in that context that the volume of deaths occuring necessitated mass burial – as indeed it does still today (Haiti for example) to contain the spread of disease. There was much ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ attached to burials in this way! All is indeed vanity!.

    Like

  20. toadspittle says:

    Kind of you to think of me while consuming offal, Burro. Must say liver is one of my favourites, but kidneys even more so.
    I have to wait til my wife goes away to eat them. Like most Americans, she is revolted by the like.
    I always make far too much and the dogs and I have a guilty feast. With no veg. And a bottle of Toro.

    Like

  21. toadspittle says:

    (No Toro for the perros.)

    Like

  22. mmvc says:

    German cemetaries have always seemed to me a model of the perfect resting place. The neat little plots often set in tranquil park-like surroundings are like mini-gardens each with its own headstone, lantern and plant arrangements. Wells and watering cans are provided to help loved ones tend the graves. Strategically placed benches allow them to sit a while, to muse, to pray, to heal the wounds of grief. Perfect, I thought, until I learned that these places of rest are recycled. One of my aunts whose daughter died aged 16 and who for twenty-five years drew such comfort from visiting and tending my cousin’s grave, was devasted when the time came for another to be laid to rest there. After a brief wrangle with the authorities, she managed to rescue the head-stone which she now keeps in her little garden.
    Here’s more on the German struggle with corpses:
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,527134,00.html

    Like

  23. Brother Burrito says:

    That particular piece of NHS liver may have fallen off a donor kebab.

    Wherever it derived from, its source had a drink problem, but it was great company while it lasted.

    Like

  24. teresa says:

    I think there is a great difference between the burial rites of Hindus who cremate the bodies and deport the ashes in the Ghanes and this modern, industrialized treatment of the dead mentioned in the article above.

    Though it seems to be the same, if we don’t think about the rites combined with it, but it is that attitude, which sees human life as meaningless beyond the carnal existence, striking for the modern treatment.

    It is not a question about whether the dead are kept in a nice beautiful grave or a mass grave, it is the question whether we see the dead still as dignified of our memory and remembrance.

    Like

  25. teresa says:

    Father Cumanus put it already in a succinct word: it is the desecralization of the world which is appalling. There is nothing left of you after your death, after the doctor signs your death certificate you are only waste.

    In comparison, the hasty burial of the dead during wars and plagues was due to lack of better possibilities, but the dead were still in memory of the living. I read about the Italian custom of visiting the bones of the dead who died during the plague, and which are piled up in a catacomb, and kissing the bones. It makes a great difference to this industrialized, prosaic treatment of the dead. And furthermore, the charnel houses are often a component of the parish church so the difference is clear enough.

    I have seen such a mass grave which contains bones of these died during a plague, it is directly under the choir of the church building.

    Like

  26. mundabor says:

    Gertrude,
    you may have forgotten “to shelter the needy” 😉

    But my real and most aching point was about the priests: how many priests wouldn’t be able to recite the corporal works of mercy, I ask.

    And then there are spiritual works of mercy, and this is where things get complicated and rather tragic.
    How about “to admonish the sinners”, “to instruct the ignorant” and “to give counsel to the doubtful”? How does this square with the modern “be-nice” mentality where every point of faith suddenly becomes being “judgmental” and everyone (the priest as the very first) takes refuge in the poisonous, deadly “niceness” now slowly becoming the new banner of Christianity?

    Is it a surprise that, after one has been “non-judgmental” about pretty much everything going on around us, one should start to react by the proposal of dissolving bodies in acid? Isn’t it more likely that someone will come out saying that “as long as it is done in a respectful way, this is not imcompatible with Catholicism”? Where the frock does the incompatibility with Christianity begins, if we willingly throw into the rubbish bin everything we are, everything we do, everything we think and merely adjust it to the stupid tons of fake-religious molasses fed to us every day?

    I have finished reading Fulton Sheen’s “Life of Christ” and have now received “The Priest Is Not His Own” from the same author.

    You compare him with the public utterances of CMOC and Quisling Nichols and you think that the latter two belong to a completely different religion out of some dope-charged Berkeley campus of the Sixties and trying to masquerade as something having remotely to do with Catholicism.

    M

    Like

  27. Mundabor says:

    Teresa,
    once I visited (in Palermo, Sicily) a religious place with a rather impressive collection of skeletons.

    A rather sobering experience. Tells you more than many sermons.

    M

    Like

  28. Brother Burrito says:

    By golly, M, your words have stirred me well!

    It is their absolute lack of charisma that marks the leaders of the UK Church in their public role, which nowadays is through the MSM.

    Such a pile of mediocre nobodies they are, and ++Vin is the cream!

    Dear God, send us clergymen with the character, wit, presence, wisdom, and courage with which you equipped Abp Fulton Sheen of blessed memory.
    Ease their path into the limelight, and let them LEAD US, your people. Our pastors are lame, or only hirelings. The wolf prowls near.

    Save us, O Lord!

    Like

  29. Gertrude says:

    You are absolutely right Mundabor – I did omit ‘to shelter the needy’ Mea Culpa.
    In mentioning the Spiritual Works of Mercy – I list these too (just in case anyone wonders!). They are:
    To give counsel to the doubtful To instruct the ignorant
    To admonish sinners To comfort the afflicted
    To forgive offences To bear patiently the troublesome
    To pray for the living and the dead.

    I pray that Catholicism Pure (and Simple) plays its part in fulfilling at least some of these.

    Like

  30. teresa says:

    Indeed Mundabor, I heard of this place in Palermo, though I was never there.

    The sight of the mass grave I mentioned above gave me a deep impression which led me eventually to Christianity.

    And a call for help, Mundabor, Gertrude, or someone around, I just wrote an entry, could someone of you please have a look at it before I publish it (saved as draft)? Thanks!

    Like

  31. kathleen says:

    Crematoriums have not really caught on in Catholic countries yet, at least the ones that I know, most people still preferring a Christian burial for their loved ones.

    In Spain for instance, and in spite of all the horrid anti-Catholic laws imposed by Zapatero these last years, I have been told that crematoriums are still largely used only for foreigners or very radical non-believers! Spain has also overcome the problem of lack of space for graves, as coffins are stacked in individual niches in tall deep walls in long rows, one above the other. The families decorate the front of their niches with photos of the deceased, flowers (usually plastic ones of course) and holy pictures. On 2nd November (All Souls) a Holy Mass is celebrated in every cemetery all over Spain with a large crowd of faithful attending…….. for who would not want to be with their departed loved ones’ remains on such a day!

    Cremation is not sinful, and is permitted by the Catholic Church, but for most Catholics this way just seems like we are treating the deceased disrespectfully (or like rubbish, as some would say) and I think the idea still goes against the grain.

    Like

  32. Brother Burrito says:

    Cremation could be more beautiful, but alas, in the UK at least, it has become a parody of even the worst dystopic imaginings.

    I, and our children, accompanied my wife as she attended her mother’s, and their grandmother’s, final journey, to a crematorium. (This was all at my late mother-in-law’s explicit request). Glenys was given a fifteen minute slot in a crowded schedule, by the Crema-factory*. Hearses were queuing up around the block for admittance there.

    Rushed in, we were treated to the uproarious babble of the previous mourners’ party, (just outside the “chapel”‘s exit door, one way traffic, you see), as we tried to concentrate on dear Glenys. Some awful hymn’s were thrown in, to drown out the pandemonium from stage right, I suppose.

    La piece de resistance was the crumby vicar, DJ like, pressing the button that pulled the curtains across, and summoned the workmen in their “boiler suits” to wheel the punter away to the furnace.

    My wife and children bawled and bawled uncontrollably. I was moved to plot: “This won’t happen again in my lifetime, if I can help it”. The other mourners seemed non-plussed, as if it were as good as it can be.

    The coup de grace was delivered some weeks later, when we were all invited back to the crematorium to attend the burial of the ashes. Things were delayed by a computer breakdown concerning which exact square foot of God’s earth was given to her. We all attended to be greeted by a crematorium flunky, who had the consistency of watered down milk, who led us to the little sinkhole, and deposited a small cardboard box-full of ash therein. He muttered some prayers while looking at his wristwatch, and then rushed off. Majorly underwhelming, all round, it was.

    Personally speaking, I think it is better to bury the ashes, than for them to end up in the Dyson.

    * Yes, a crematorium is just like an enormous “espresso” bar, without the coffee.

    Like

  33. teresa says:

    Gertrude, a very nice new avatar!

    Brother Burrito, thanks a lot, Ben told me he looked it through too.

    Like

  34. misericordia2 says:

    This is a sensitive subject for me.

    For reasons too complex to go into here, my husband and I had, for many years, ceased to practise our faith. Three months before he died, my husband was reconciled to the Church, and recieved the Last Rites on the morning of his death. His funeral service was followed by cremation and his ashes are buried in an individual plot, in which my children expect my ashes, in the fullness of time, also to be interred.

    Now, having returned to the Church myself, I bitterly regret the decision to have my husband cremated as I should prefer to be buried: but I know my children will expect me to repose in the same plot as their father. I am finding it difficult to summon the courage to explain my change of heart.

    I want a Requiem Mass according to the Usus Antiquor and am not sure if the Priest will be prepared to do this for me if he knows I am subsequently to be cremated.

    Like

  35. Gertrude says:

    Misericordia

    The Church does, as you know from your dear husband, permit cremation provided it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body and I can see no reason why your Priest should not celebrate a Requiem using Usus Antiquor if that it your wish (and he is able to do so). If I am wrong, then I am sure Father Cumanus will correct – if he looks in. Have you thought of discussing this with your Priest? You should certainly not feel regret, having made the decision you did. The weeks after a bereavement are a very lonely time, and a period of huge adjustment when you have lost your soulmate – but do speak of your fears to your Priest and I am sure this will give you peace in whatever you decide. The bigger problem may be finding a Priest familiar with Usus Antiquor!

    Like

  36. cumanus says:

    Old Cumanus has just looked in, after a complicated day. Gertrude is quite right, there is no reason why a priest even if cremation is planned should not say an EF requiem if asked, if he knows how to.
    That reminds me that an old friar-mate of mine seems to be spending most of his time these days saying EF masses for traditionalist groups (approved by the local diocese). He’s a well-published Church historian and an incredibly garrulous person who insists on having the last word on everything, I should point him to this blog.

    Like

  37. Benedict Carter says:

    Please do! There are at least three of us who are the same!

    On the other hand, we don’t want World War III! 🙂

    Like

  38. Benedict Carter says:

    Someone will come up with this business idea at some point. Bury people one on top of the other, perhaps twenty deep, in the same plot. Provide in the plot next to it a ladder into a hole the same depth as the burial plot. One wall of the hole would be glass and at appropriate intervals you could have viewing platforms.

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  39. misericordia2 says:

    Thank you Gertrude and Father Cumanus for replying to me. I fortunately belong to a parish which has the Traditional Latin Mass every Sunday and this Mass is celebrated by either one of two priests from the ICKSP, so there should be no problem having a traditional Requiem Mass! Nonetheless, as these priests belong to a Traditional order, they might have an aversion to the idea of cremation.

    The solution, as you point out, is to talk to them! I am not intending to die any time soon, by the way!

    Like

  40. Caroline says:

    Cumanus

    If he insists on having the last word, I say point him at Cutley, McNab, and Damian.

    Like

  41. Caroline says:

    And a bit of trivia: the etymology of “bonfire” is bone fire.

    Like

  42. Mimi says:

    How very apposite, as tonight is Bonfire Night where I come from.

    Like

  43. Gertrude says:

    Update.
    The states of Maine, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, and Oregan have recently passed legislation allowing them to use this process. I gather it still has to be determined if the end product can pass into the public water system, which will mean it ultimately will flow from from domestic taps.

    It would be interesting to hear from our American friends if they were aware of this, or if there has been any public consultation?

    Like

  44. toadspittle says:

    Gertrude at 14.31

    We are what we eat, they say. God forbid we will be what we drink as well.
    I might become a Republican or a Mormon by absorption.

    Like

  45. Gertrude says:

    You just never know toady!

    Like

  46. Mundabor says:

    “but I know my children will expect me to repose in the same plot as their father”.

    Misericordia, I might be saying something stupid but: wouldn’t it be possible that – in the fullness of time – you are buried in the usual way and your late husband’s ashes are buried with you?

    Just a thought.

    M

    Like

  47. raduzj says:

    I found that horrific in extreme. Words really fail me in expressing the anguish of soul when I first read that article.

    Like

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