Respect for the Body: A Response to Archbishop Jackels

There is a palpable difference between an entombed human body, ashes left over from cremation and effluent remaining from alkaline hydrolysis.

Carl Bloch (1834-1890), “The Burial of Christ”
Carl Bloch (1834-1890), “The Burial of Christ” (photo: Public Domain)

On Oct. 20, Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque, Iowa, published a letter. In his letter, he argues:

  1. that funerary practices are “a significant environmental issue,” with traditional American burial practices (embalming, placement in a usually metal coffin then vaulted and buried) consuming too much land; 
  2. that cremation is “the most popular burial practice” because of cost; 
  3. that in-ground interment and cremation both take environmental tolls for which there are “green options”; 
  4. those “green options” include “green burial,” alkaline hydrolysis, and recomposting; and
  5. despite claims of being “offensive, disrespectful, and undignified” made even by Catholic bishops, those techniques are permitted, provided the “body be treated with respect,” and its ultimate remains somehow buried in “God’s good, green earth” in an environmentally sensitive manner.

As a theologian, I find Archbishop Jackels’ arguments unconvincing and suggest they skirt dangerously near (if not over) some very problematic lines that contribute to the contemporary culture’s denigration of human dignity. 

In his letter, Archbishop Jackels repeatedly speaks about “respect” for the “body,” regardless of whether an intact body is buried or incinerated or liquefied and “laid to rest in a place blessed by clergy, whether in the earth, water, fire, or air, cemetery or not.”

Jackels’ “body” is a rather equivocal term. There is a palpable difference that any child would recognize between an intact human body, ashes left over from cremation, and effluent remaining from alkaline hydrolysis. In saying that “any child would recognize” the difference, I do not intend disrespect for the archbishop, but to underscore a most basic reality that anyone would see before a torrent of words — often stretched far beyond their common meaning—obscures the reality. 

Ashes are not bodies. Effluent is not a body. Bodies do not turn into ashes or effluent days after death except through active and violent human intervention that destroys a human body to turn it into ashes or effluent. 

Our culture tends to see most things through the lens of “technical efficiency” (i.e., processes) but, in doing so, loses sight of what we are doing. Treating the body “with respect” is what we are intending, but what we are doing is burning it or chemically melting it down. Doesn’t that figure into the “respect” equation?

I have no issue with “green burial” if it means “no embalming or vaults, biodegradable burial containers, and no headstones.” That is how most people have been buried for millennia. It is wholly natural. It respects the integrity of the body, which is a human body that was the temple of the Holy Spirit, to decay according to that natural law that governs human mortality. 

But to lump “green burial” and traditional burial into the same basket as cremation, alkaline hydrolysis and recomposting is to yield to the temptation of technical efficiency — i.e., taking a practical problem (what to do with a corpse) and resorting to any technological solution that, in the end, “gets the job done.”

The treatment of “resting place” in this letter strikes me as cavalier. 

A cemetery is not just a “useful” place to put dead bodies. A cemetery is a part of the Church (Ad resurgendum cum Christo). It is a recognition that the “Christian community” is not limited by space and time. A cemetery is a community, of the dead, in which the faithful should be gathered, as opposed to a mantelpiece or closet shelf. A cemetery is a recognition that “respect” is due to the dead in their place. 

Archbishop Jackels’ letter in fact strips the dead of “place,” something his own letter admits when he speaks of “cemetery or not.” The truth is that “water, fire or air” are not “places.” There is no “place” there where one can again encounter the remains of one’s beloved. 

He apparently sees any ongoing relationship to the remains of one’s beloved as optional. That is a far departure from Christian tradition. And, while the Archbishop quotes the Vatican 2016 instruction on cremation, Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo to note the Church tolerates cremation for “sanitary, economic, or social reasons,” his treatment of the document’s perspective on “conservation of ashes” is somewhat fast and loose. 

He does admit that the Church demands the “reverential disposition” of remains. But Ad Resurgendum is explicit that the proper “conservation” of remains entails their being kept together, with interment of ashes in an urn in the ground. The document explicitly rejects the scattering of ashes. 

Archbishop Jackels tries to avoid that problem by speaking of “the body” (which, arguably, is no longer a body) being “laid to rest in a place blessed by clergy.” But, as noted, there is no “place” here and the ashes or effluent “laid to rest” are in reality scattered because (a) “water, fire, or air” are inherently impermanent environments and (b) fluid by its nature inherently runs off.

The archbishop’s overriding concern in his letter appears to be “God’s good, green earth.” But the human person is not just another species inhabiting that earth. Genesis 1:27 makes the creation of man distinct, setting him “over” creation, not just in it, its viceroy, not just its inhabitant.

Ad Resurgendum voices concern about scattering ashes “to avoid every appearance of pantheism.” While garbed in religious language, the perspective of this letter can arguably be deemed quasi-pantheistic, reducing the human person, the sole creature “God wanted for himself” to just another part of nature, implicitly one with a heavy carbon footprint. 

This has been the flaw of “deep ecology” but also remains a challenge for every ecology: human distinctiveness is far more under threat today by disregard than by climate change, with huge implications for how we make social policy. 

The Anglican George Berkeley was famous for the question whether a tree falling in the wood makes a sound if no one hears it. Far more relevant today is the question: what does it matter? Absent man, what’s a world for?