HYANNIS POINT, Mass. — Off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, an officer in dress whites carried three brass urns of cremated remains, one by one, down a ladder to the waterline by the tail of the destroyer USS Briscoe.
There on a small steel platform, their next of kin committed to the sea the remains of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette into the waves. The ceremony was performed July 22 about three miles from where Kennedy's plane crashed six days earlier as it approached Martha's Vineyard Airport.
“We commit their elements to the deep,” a Navy chaplain prayed at the ceremony, “for we are dust and unto dust we shall return, but the Lord Jesus Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like his in glory, for he is risen, the firstborn from the dead.
“So let us commend our brother and sisters to the Lord, that the Lord may embrace them in peace and raise them up on the last day.”
The Navy-style service was carried out for the civilians by special permission, and at the families' requests, but with a few changes: a Navy brass quintet played Christian hymns in place of the military “Taps.”
There was no singing, but news reports printed the hymns' words. “Abide with me … fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
Until 1963 cremation wasn't allowed by the Catholic Church. More recently the regulations governing cremation have further evolved.
Burial at sea by choice is allowed by the Church, a U.S. Navy chaplain said. “It's perfectly legitimate according to the life of the Church,” said Capt. Stephen Linehan, a Catholic priest who serves as division director for plans and policies of the Navy's Chief of Chaplains office in Arlington, Va.
Father Linehan, who said he has conducted several burials at sea, likened the practice to the traditional committal service at cemeteries, with some adaptations.
Father Linehan said two Catholic Navy chaplains helped conduct the Kennedy-Bessette committal service, Father Bill Petruska and Father Lou Iasiello. Jesuit Father Charles J. O'Byrne, who presided at John Kennedy Jr.'s wedding, also participated.
According to the Code of Canon Law, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless it is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Canon 1176, Section 3).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (No. 2301).
The Church takes a dim view of any practices that it believes do not show proper reverence for human remains, such as scattering cremains to the wind. Several television commentators referred to the Kennedy and Bessette remains being “scattered,” but Father Linehan disputed that description.
“I'm sure they didn't scatter,” Father Linehan said. “What you do is, whether they're in the urn or not in the urn, you just pour them in the sea directly.”
The key is motivation, Father Linehan said. It is important that the disposal of remains not show any contempt for the resurrection of the body, he said, adding, “Body and soul are important in the life of the Church.”
Matt MacDonald is based in Mashpee, Massachusetts.