We Are Dust, and to Dust (Not Ashes) We Shall Return

If burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy, where does that leave cremation?

Albert Anker, “Kinderbegräbnis,” 1863
Albert Anker, “Kinderbegräbnis,” 1863 (photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Ash Wednesday is supposed to remind people of their mortality: “Remember man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

The traditional formula for imposition of ashes alludes to Genesis 3:19. There, among the punishments God doles out to the man who has sinned is painful labor to eke out his subsistence from a resistant earth, until he returns to the dust from which God made him (see Genesis 2:7) and whom he endowed with spiritual dignity he chose to forfeit.

English-speaking Christians may also be familiar with the classic phrase from The Book of Common Prayer, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It comes from a phrase in the Anglican Burial Service when, at the graveside, the officiant usually places a trowel of earth on the coffin with that phrase. (Catholics used to do something similar, employing the Ash Wednesday phrase — “remember man, that you are dust …” — but this ritual, which ought to sum up a believer’s lifetime of Ash Wednesdays, has been lost in the current Rite of Committal).

Lent begins by reinforcing the nexus between sin and death and, therefore, the need for repentance. Perhaps, in our Catholic tradition, we should call it “Dust Wednesday.” “Ash Wednesday” stuck because the ashes we use come from last Palm Sunday’s burned fronds. Just as the graveside “you are dust” summarizes a lifetime of Ash Wednesdays, so the use of the burned palm branches connects to the past Lent and looks forward to what Lent is all about: Easter.

So, the ashes of this Wednesday, culled from burned palm fronds, remind us symbolically of the paltry residue that’s left over inside a grave. But what we use on Ash Wednesday are not literally human ashes, which would be an affront to human dignity. But I feel compelled to say that because modernity is often confused about things that used to be quite clear.

I say that because of the growing popularity of cremation among Catholics, whose funeral practices are increasingly indistinguishable from the larger public’s. This downward convergence of views is such that Catholic cemeteries increasingly offer space for burials and urn storage. Yes, the Vatican recently reiterated that Catholics should bury and not scatter ashes, but I fear that will have as much of a following as practice “you-don’t-need-to-abstain-on-Friday-as-long-as-you-do-another-penitential act.” 

The Catholic prohibition on cremation, imposed in reaction to Enlightenment era materialism that promoted it as a statement against “the resurrection of the body,” was rescinded in the early 1960s when those having recourse to cremation seemed driven more by limited land availability than hardcore ideology. That said, in rescinding the ban on cremation, the Church reaffirms that she does not regard burial and cremation as equal options: the Church explicitly affirmed her preference that a Christian be buried, in imitation of his Master, who also lay in the tomb.

  While the Church once forbade cremation because it expressed a false anthropology (and removed that proscription when the ideological motive disappeared), the truth is that another false anthropology is in part responsible for cremation’s contemporary popularity. It is an anthropology that shares common roots with the earlier materialism. It asserts that there is nothing special about man, that his persistent carbon footprint is an offense against the planet, and that even if he has a spiritual side, his departure should let him return to his “common place with creation.”

American behavior is often a strange mix of often not-fully-thought-out ideas, either popular trends we follow or think reflect “modern,” maybe even “scientific” thinking, coupled with “practicality.” That’s the case with cremation. The “scientific” is represented by eco-sensitivity (going all the way to rapid transformation of your deceased body into compost for your favorite garden: see here and here). Finances represent the “practical” side: the Catholics I hear choosing cremation say they pick it because it’s cheaper, and that’s generally true.

Damien Le Guay is a French philosopher who specializes in end-of-life issues. He has written two powerful books on contemporary trends related to the end-of-life and how we mark it: Qu’avons-nous perdu en perdant la mort? [What Have We Lost in Losing Death? – Paris: Cerf, 2003] and La mort en cendres [Death in Ashes – Paris: Cerf, 2012]. Alas, neither is translated. This essay will build off the latter book, which is a critique of cremation. 

Le Guay observes that while some people think of cremation simply in “functional” terms (I’ve got a dead body. What do I do with it?) there is inevitably an anthropological component behind it. Many people may not even reckon with that side of the ledger, although cremation’s true believers are ready to promote it whenever they can. Le Guay’s point is also that, even if individual people don’t necessarily ponder the anthropological issues at stake, the cumulative effect of increasing numbers of people acquiescing in them changes (coarsens) the culture. 

So, a few anthropological points:

Cremation dislocates. As incarnate creatures, human beings are subject to space and time. But cremation depreciates space. While Tolstoy famously answered his own question, “How Much Land Does a Man Need? with “six feet from head to toe,” cremation begrudges man even that. He’s deemed “selfish” for keeping two meters, for laying some claim on this planet to lie in. 

Our language speaks of the grave as a “final resting place.” The truth is that the cremated dead often don’t even enjoy that. Our increasingly mobile society has made them passively mobile. They spend time on a mantelpiece until packed up for the family’s move. Or they’re “scattered” and so no more “resting” than “dust in the wind” (a ditty that once became a certain Ash Wednesday pop “hymn” in some churches). 

The idea of a cemetery as a sacred resting place is rapidly being eroded. Instead of “hallowed ground,” a modern mindset calls it “wasted ground.” Instead of being part of a parish, where the Church Militant and the Churches Suffering and Triumphant touch in this world, they have instead become unvisited venues that merely become vexing legal questions over “perpetual care” and the liability associated therewith. We create a world in which the dead have no place: linger here no more! (Le Guay also observes how the disappearance of social periods of mourning abets that attitude). 

Cremation disconnects from time. Just as the dead have no place, they have no time. A headstone announces the essentials of a human biography: name, dates of birth and death. Ashes floating on the sea are nameless and cast out of time. 

But if time is lost for the dead (who have, after all, entered eternity), for the living it is shrunken down to the present. The past is erased along with those who have passed. The past is eliminated. Even the Church’s annual commemorations of the dead become disjointed: with what concrete body, with what concrete place, does one mark All Soul’s Day or the anniversary of death? The closet shelf? 

Cremation disconnects from society. Nothing in space or time usually remains of the cremated. Funerals lose their urgency, because they are scheduled at the mourner’s convenience rather than the decaying corpse’s need. The dead no longer interrupt us. Our bodily way of interacting with the world is absent. Consider: in the traditional wake, some bodily connection is there. One often hears something like, “He looks so much like himself.” You can’t say that to a sealed ashtray.

A wake with a body connects even as it separates. There is a “good-bye.” There is really no analogue in a crematorium. “Let’s all stand by respectfully as we watch the oven fire burn for the next two to four hours.” That we consider that something we should not watch poses the question: is the violence and barbarism in the watching or in the doing?

When one visits a parish cemetery (which is why I prefer parish cemeteries over diocesan business enterprises) one often also finds the graves of friends and acquaintances. Is somebody going to ask: “Can I come over to your mantelpiece next Sunday?” In erasing space and time, we also erase social memory.

Cremation attacks individuality. Our individuality is expressed through our embodiment, our incarnation. In destroying the body, we symbolically destroy the individual. A corpse still remains the abandoned temple of the Holy Spirit. But this pile of ashes is no different from that pile of ashes, and the total destruction of remains — flesh and bone — represents a symbolic pulverization of individuality into … nothing. No place. No time. No memory. No connection. Nothing.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is a phrase from the Anglican Burial Service. But even if the officiant spoke about “ashes,” it was symbolic — said in the presence of a body, in a coffin, about to be — like the Lord — entombed. Is it a sign of the culture of death that the body, the coffin, and the tomb has disappeared and only the ashes remain? If it is a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead, have we lost the corporal and ceased being merciful?