Stewardship of Our Human Bodies
Sep 21, 2018
Today is Stewardship Sunday. What identifies a steward? According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Safeguarding material and human resources and using them responsibly is one characteristic; so is generous giving of time, talent, and treasure. But being a Christian steward means more. As Christian stewards, we receive God’s gifts gratefully, cultivate them responsibly, share them lovingly in justice with others, and return them with increase to the Lord. We are also obliged to be stewards of the Church—collaborators and cooperators in continuing the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which is the Church’s essential mission. This mission—proclaiming and teaching, serving and sanctifying—is our task. It is the personal responsibility of each one of us as stewards of the Church. All members of the Church have their own roles to play in carrying out its mission.”
You will be asked today to consider your role. Our own body is a gift to us in creation that we are required to use responsibly and return to the Lord. So here is an aspect of Stewardship we cannot avoid considering.
Way back in 1963, Jessica Mitford wrote a book called The American Way of Death. Things have gotten a lot more complicated since then. But the fact remains that death is an inevitable moment in the existence of us all. Different cultures and religions have different ways of dealing with it.
In Ghana, in West Africa, you get a hand-made custom coffin that fits not just your size but your life. If you were a fisherman, your coffin may be a fish. A farmer may get an ear of corn or a pepper, a shoemaker a shoe, a pilot an airplane, a taxi driver a taxi. The coffins are works of art. It’s a whole different approach to the final resting furniture than the basic box we are used to.
Or not so basic. The Trappist monks of New Melleray Abbey in Iowa make caskets for a living. The basic model goes for $1,200. The deluxe model costs $3,500. In the monastery here, we keep a basic model in the basement in case we need one. You can get a less expensive casket from other sources for as little as $995. And of course if you want to go all out, you can spend up to $70,000 on what is still just a burial box.
It’s no wonder then that cremation has become very popular. You could spend up to $1,500 for an urn that is a work of art, but you can find a dignified one for $100. Death is hard enough on survivors without requiring a fortune to be spent on a funeral.
Today a funeral-consumer has so many choices. No cemetery plot necessary; just keep the urn on the mantle. Or divide the remains so that each of the children has a share. Or have the ashes formed into an elegant piece of keepsake jewelry.
Our faith requires that the body of a deceased human being be treated with profound respect and dignity. The living body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; the body of the deceased is a temporarily vacant temple that is destined to be re-inhabited. The resurrection of the body… our body, the bodies of all our loved ones, friends, enemies, and strangers…is an essential component of our faith. In fact, as St. Paul says, if there be no resurrection, then we Christians are the most foolish of people.
So the discipline of the Church forbids dividing remains into different urns, forbids scattering ashes, forbids keeping remains on the mantle or any other such place or turning them into jewelry or keepsakes. Cremated remains are to be treated just as a whole body would be, with the same respect, funeral rites and the same destination…in a grave or mausoleum, there to await the resurrection.
Now you may have read about a new development in the technology of cremation, except it is not really cremation (which requires burning.) It is called “Flameless Cremation” or Alkaline Hydrolysis. Essentially what happens in this process is that the body is dissolved in liquid, and quite literally the material of the body goes down the drain. However eco-friendly this may be (that is one of the marketing hooks), it is quite undignified and inappropriate for a temple of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the Church forbids this practice for Catholics. Please see the enclosed insert in the bulletin, which explains this in detail.
On my vacation this summer, I visited my parents’ graves in our family plot in the Catholic cemetery in Rochester, NY. Not far away from them is a section marked for “Green Burial.” I had to ask what that was. Essentially it means that the body is buried in such a way that it can decompose naturally, in the way that people were always buried for thousands of years, up until recently. It is also called “natural burial.” It’s much the way we monks are buried in our cemetery here on the Abbey grounds. The matter of the body returns to nature so that it can be reused in life by plants and animals. It’s safe to say that you and I are made up of some atoms that once made up other human beings. It is good to see that this even more eco-friendly option is available and is perhaps the best stewardship option for burial.
It may not be for everyone. It’s an option. As stewards, we all have different gifts and different options for using them. But use them we must, in sickness and in health, richer or poorer, until death.
As a first step in using your gifts, please return your stewardship card!