My mother died young at age 53 in 1967, and by her request was cremated. There was a moving memorial service for her at our little church, but the “cremains” remained in a box inside a cardboard box on my father’s dresser for years, since my bereft and broken-hearted Dad either didn’t know what to do with them, or just couldn’t part with them. Some good pastoral care would have been helpful. For years I felt no sense of place to pay my respects to my mother or grieve or do whatever one needs to do at a graveside.
Many years later my Dad remarried a wonderful woman named Virginia, and my Mom’s ashes went along with him to his new household. He was blessed with ten very happy years with his second wife, and then in 1983 he himself died at the age of 69. My wife and I were privileged to be with him for a couple weeks at the time of his death, although I had left for a few minutes to have a swim in the ocean when he actually died. When I saw my wife standing quietly on the shore I knew he was gone.
Later that week I received a phone call that from anybody else but a gracious soul like Virginia might have been extremely awkward. We were preparing for my Dad’s graveside committal (unlike my mother, he had chosen to be buried), and Virginia asked me and my sister and brother, “What should I do with your Mom’s ashes?” He had held onto them all those years.
So we all huddled and decided they should go into the ground alongside my Dad’s body and that’s what we did. So my sister, brother, my Dad’s wife, and I saw both my parents committed to the ground in “The sure and certain hope of eternal life,“ despite the fact that they had died 17 years apart. And it probably wasn’t with those words since it was a Quaker cemetery (Virginia was a Quaker and my Dad had become one), and Quakers are short on liturgy. Nonetheless, now we have a place, even if it is far from where we live.
We know their remains are just that, but rituals and sacred sites have their place in our lives. Once in answer to a question about multiple spouses in heaven, Jesus said that “when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven,” so I anticipate in faith that God will sort it all out on the Great Day of Resurrection.
Cremations were rare back in 1967, and my mother was a practical Christian woman with a proto-Green streak. Today cremations are much more common, but our committal practices have not caught up with that reality.
A friend of mine sent me a link to today’s Christian Century blog. There is a moving and instructive article by Thomas Lynch called The holy fire, Cremation: A practice in need of ritual. Lynch is a writer (a good one) and a funeral director, and I recommend that every pastor should read this piece, which can be found here.