Are Filipino Catholics ready to embrace it?
Death. Mortality. Demise.
At least once a year, as the living remember and honor their dearly departed, they are also reminded that somewhere down this road called life is a final pit stop.
Depending on one’s beliefs and status in life, among other considerations, how to plan for the end of the road can be very confusing. What to do with one’s earthly body, especially if one feels compelled to make that decision and leave instructions with family can be difficult.
Burials have always been tradition, but for practical reasons, cremation, apparently, is becoming an alternative for many Filipinos. Nevertheless, especially among devout Catholics, the debate continues, on whether cremation is acceptable.
In time for All Souls’ Day or the day of remembering the dearly departed, The Sunday Times Magazine will try to shed some light on what is considered to be today’s more practical option in laying the dead to rest.
Cremation is done by laying the remains in a casket or container. This is then placed inside a cremation chamber, where the temperature is raised to approximately 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. After approximately two to two-and-a-half hours, all organic matter is consumed by heat or evaporation. The remaining bone fragments are known as “cremated remains.”
The cremated remains are then carefully removed from the cremation chamber and processed into fine particles. They are next placed in a temporary container provided by the crematory or placed in an urn chosen by the family.
The entire cremation process takes approximately three hours.
Families can choose to place the urns in niches while others choose to bring it home to their altars. In Hollywood movies, ashes of the departed are seen scattered in places memorable to them—say in the ocean or the mountains—though hardly practiced by Filipinos.
In the Philippines, a traditional memorial lot in cemeteries can cost as much as P70,000 depending on location. An additional amount of at least P25,000 is needed for the internment.
Similarly, the cremation process is estimated at P25, 000, while niches can cost anywhere between P35,000 to P50,000. These niches, however, can accommodate multiple urns.
In researching this feature, The Sunday Times Magazine began by finding out if Filipinos are open to the idea of cremation, whether for themselves or their loved ones. This revealed such answers as, “It’s like killing your loved one twice, by burning his/her body in a chamber” or “It feels unnatural; shouldn’t we all return to the ground?”
To shed light on cremation—why it was previously banned among Catholics, or if it actually has any biblical basis as others say—The Sunday Times Magazine sought the expertise of Rev. Father Nonnette Legaspi, Christ the King in Filinvest II’s parish priest.
Fr. Legaspi is an AB Philosophy and Sacred Theology graduate of San Carlos Seminary, Makati, was ordained on November 18, 1989. He obtained his Masteral and Licentiate degree in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1994 as a Magna cum Laude.
“There are no strict biblical supports, as far as I know, for the ‘prohibition’ of cremation in times past by the church. The Catholic Church, however, is not a ‘Bible alone’ church; its sources of Divine Revelation are the Scriptures, as well as Traditions and the Magisterium (or Teaching Authority),” he began.
“While there are no explicit scriptural commands against cremation, the Teaching Authority of the Church—honoring the early Christian tradition of burying their dead, and in keeping too with the fact that Jesus Christ was buried in a tomb—issued decrees, in a more rigid tone than before, that forbade cremation because the enemies of the Catholic Church, particularly, the Freemasons, lobbied for its legal recognition and practiced it openly to apparently taunt or insult the Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body.”
Fr. Legaspi added, “Cremation, hence, became an anti-Church practice, which became a ‘public profession of irreligion and materialism.’ It seemed logical, then, that the only way to counter this subtle doctrinal attack is to prohibit Catholics in participating in such practices.”
Referring to Catholic Encyclopaedia’s text, Fr. Legaspi also cited other possible motives for prohibiting cremation: “Reasons based on the spirit of Christian charity and the plain interests of humanity have but strengthened her in her opposition. She holds it unseemly that the human body, once the living temple of God, the instrument of heavenly virtue, sanctified so often by the sacraments, should finally be subjected to a treatment that filial piety, conjugal and fraternal love, or even mere friendship seems to revolt against as inhuman. Another argument against cremation, and drawn from medico-legal sources, lies in this: That cremation destroys all signs of violence or traces of poison, and makes examination impossible, whereas a judicial autopsy is always possible after inhumation, even of some months.”
When asked to interpret the text, Fr. Legaspi said, “I am not an expert in Canon Law, but I suspect that the 1917 Code of Canon Law had this insidious context in mind when the prohibition law was incorporated. Canon 1203, for example, even specified that even when a person had prescribed that his body be cremated after his death, it would not be lawful to execute his will. It further noted that if it were specified in a contract, a will, or any act, it must be held as naught.”
And so, during the ban, Catholics were prohibited to undergo cremation (except when grave public necessity required rapid disposition of bodies, as in times of plague or natural disaster), and were denied of proper burial rites. This ban, however, was lifted when The 1983 Code of Canon Law was released. In Title III: Church Funerals, it was stated: The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.
Asked what brought about this “change of mind and heart” of the Catholic Church, Fr. Legaspi replied, “The Church listens to the signs of the times. The Masonic doctrinal threat had evidently gone away through the years. More ‘practical, non-theological reasons needed consideration, namely, the growing population and the economics involved in the fast rising real-estate prices of burial lots, especially in lesser developed countries, like the Philippines.
“We should take note, however, that never did the Church change her theological positions. In countering the previous Masonic doctrinal threats, the Church’s prohibition was not directed to the false belief of the Masons that when one is cremated, one would not taste the future resurrection of the body. The prohibition only targeted the practice of cremation just to oppose anything Catholic. Well, that’s my reading of it, anyway.”
The parish priest also reminded that while the Church has been open with cremating the dead, there is an existing Directory On Popular Piety And The Liturgy in 2001 that stated, “The faithful should be exhorted, not to keep the ashes of the dead in their homes.”
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines said in 2007 that Catholics should bury cremated remain in a grave, mausoleum or columbarium.
“The practice of scattering the ashes in the sea or from the air is not in keeping with the Church’s norm regarding the proper disposal of the remains of the dead. Likewise the urn should not be kept permanently at home or family altar. If there is to be a delay in the proper disposal of the ashes, these may be kept temporarily in an appropriate place.” CBCP cited in its website.
While cremation has become more common, statistics indicate that Japan has the highest cremation rate at 100 percent. This is according to the Cremation Society of Great Britain, which reported that Japan is followed by Taiwan Hong Kong, Switzerland and Czech Republic. In the Philippines where 80.6 percent of the population are Catholics, according to the 2010 census of the National Statistics Office, cremation is still considered by some as a taboo.
“Among some Catholics, especially the older generation, I sense that what we have mentioned thus far regarding the shift of the Codes of Canon Law from forbidden to being allowed had not been explained properly if at all. Somehow, something got lost in the translation, so to speak,” Fr. Legaspi theorizes.
Fr. Legaspi further noted from this that it is not uncommon to hear “older” or “pre-Vatican” Catholics, as some refer to them, express their “disgust” with the “modern” Church.
“Some even label Vatican II as ‘the work of the devil,’ and that it ‘deviated from the true will of God.’ These Catholics, for example, still believe, as they were raised and catechized, that the true genuine valid mass is only in Latin, nothing else.
“But, generally,” the priest continued, “the children and grandchildren of this elderly generation seem to exhibit more openness to the logic and practicality of cremation as an option.”
Proof to this line of thinking—that cremation might take away a human’s chance to return to God in whole form—Fr. Legaspi shared one recent inquiry he received from a parishioner.
“The scenario was this: My parishioner has an 85-year old mother who suffered a stroke in 2008. While the mother was in the hospital, she asked where the family will bury her. The parishioner asked if ‘it was OK’ that she be cremated, and the mother’s answer was, ‘No, I don’t want to go back to my Creator burned!’”
To help the parishioner convince her mother that cremation is acceptable, Fr. Legaspi said, “Agreeing to be cremated is not a denial of being resurrected in the afterlife. Indeed, it has nothing to do with returning back to God burnt, because obviously, the body will be corrupted. What is most important is the state of the soul or spirit of the individual. You can tell her that cremation does not mean she will return to the Creator burnt. Because if that were the case, then it implies that to have full-body burial she will return to her Creator as bones!
“No, we do not return as ashes or as bones to God after death; nor do we return to God with all our diseases and illnesses and come back resurrected with the same diseases and illnesses. The physical state we leave this earthly life has nothing to do with the way God will restore us in the Resurrection of the Body.”
To help her even further, the priest consoled, “Ashes or bones, these do not matter in the resurrected state of the body, because the resurrected body is of a spiritual nature not a physical one. God created each of us out of nothing and put his spirit in us, and into “nothing” we shall all return but that spirit He gave us will remain forever—from this spirit He will create us anew!”
Cremation over burial
The Sunday Times Magazine then asked if Fr. Legaspi himself has undergone the same scenario, of choosing between burial and cremation, in the family.
“Both my parents were cremated: my mom in 2000, my dad in 2001. The advantages, aside from the economic issue, actually outweigh the disadvantages. Being the Catholic priest in the family, my role in the discussions was highly important. The advantages I cited were first, it’s practical for all of us, the children and grandchildren, to pay weekly visits or as we desire to the columbaria, and offer prayers for the repose of our parents.
The columbaria are situated in the parish church where we attend Sunday Masses as a family, a familiar place for both my parents too.
“Second, in all likelihood, we will have difficulty re-gathering together as a family once a year (November 1 and 2) at a memorial park, if ever we opted for burial.
“And third, a truism goes: ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ The apparent disadvantage came to me only quite recently. Both my parents were holy, pious and definitely remarkable Catholics. Well, years later, I don’t remember how long, with many funeral masses said in between for many dearly departed, it dawned on me! What if both my parents were incorruptible like St. Bernadette Soubirous, St. Catherine Laboure and St. Agatha? How would we now know?”
During the course of writing this feature, The Sunday Times Magazine also met Therese, a Filipino Catholic who also convinced her family to opt for cremation when one dear family member passed on.
“My dad passed away in 2009. I guess, my family was just in denial that he was going to pass on so we didn’t prepare for anything. So when it happened, my brothers and sisters were wondering if our mom would agree to cremation.
“Two things: I have been to so many burials in the past that I get so affected by the wails of the family when their loved ones were being brought down to the ground. Personally I think that’s just too painful. Another thing is practicality. We thought our mom would want to visit every day and since the columbarium that we were eyeing at that time was near our house, it would be practical,” Therese narrated.
When it dawned on her and her sibling that cremation was the better option, asking their mother to agree to it became the next challenge.
“We were hesitant to bring it up, since she’s a devout Catholic, but when we finally did she actually said yes. When our dad was finally cremated, we were able to see him for the last time and say our goodbyes. The next thing we knew, we already had him again in the urn.
We didn’t have to go in the next days to his grave site and have to imagine he was rotting away. I think cremation really helps to lessen the pain of death for those left behind,” she added.
To round up, Therese described how choosing cremation helped their family, “What I like about the whole experience was that the place we chose for our dad was done so beautifully, within the church’s grounds. We truly felt our dad had found peace.”