A few months ago the death of Osama Bin Laden, and especially the appropriateness of the US government’s decisions on what to do with his body, raised questions about the significance of the deceased human body in Islam, and acceptable practices within the Islamic tradition.  Fair enough.

However, only a small amount of probing of the Catholic tradition shows that there is somewhat of a vacuum of reflection on appropriate ways to treat the deceased human body.  And this needs to be addressed.

Why?  It seems that the more enterprising elements of the funeral industry have for a number of years been proposing a new way to deal with our beloved dead; chemically dissolving them (a process known as ‘alkaline hydrolysis’) and flushing them into the municipal waste water system.  Over 30 US states and some Canadian provinces have been exploring the possibility of legalizing this new way to ‘dispose’ of human bodies.

What has prompted this?   If you look at the funeral “industry” from a business perspective – and the recent rise in funeral home chains like ‘funerals R us’ justifies this – it is basically about providing “value-added” services.  Realistically, it is very hard for the funeral people to break into the burial or cremation side of the business.  With regards to burial, it is hard for the funeral industry to own and control land with the right cache to be an attractive burial spot.  As for cremation, it is very hard now to get permits to open a crematorium near any densely populated area – it seems that everyone is a NIMBY when it comes to crematoriums.  So, if a funeral chain wants to expand its range of services, this allows them to become more full service.  It is also financially lucrative.

What’s involved for a company wanting to get into the alkaline hydrolysis business?  The required investment is only a large pressurized stainless steel tank, and some simple chemicals.  Estimates have the start-up cost at about $30,000.

How did alkaline hydrolysis get going?  It seems to have started as a means to dispose of the carcasses of animals during the mad cow disease crisis in Europe, and was seen to be an efficient and inexpensive way to disinfect mad cow prions.  The practice then spread to a few medical schools (Mayo Clinic and University of Florida included), who found this to be an ‘appropriate’ way to dispose of cadavers used in the teaching of medical students.  In the last fifteen or so years, some in the funeral home business have promoted it.  This has snowballed to where these businesses are pressing various state and provincial legislatures to approve of this as a legitimate way to dispose of human remains.

As might be expected, there has been opposition to the idea of flushing human remains into the sewers, to be treated at waste water plants, with the residual solids from waste-water treatment plants then shipped to landfill sites, incinerators, and farms.  What’s the objection to this?  At minimum, there is the ‘yuck’ factor in the idea of human remains simply added to landfill sites or spread over farms like fertilizer.  The dumping of human remains into landfill sites also conjures up images of mass and/or anonymous graves associated with the bodies of victims of atrocities.

One way in which advocates of alkaline hydrolysis have tried to garner support for the process is to tout its green credentials.   One claim is that it does not take up as much valuable land (although it does involve landfill or farm disposal).  Another claim is that it does not release noxious fumes into the atmosphere (although large amounts of chemicals go into the waste water system).  Advocates of alkaline hydrolysis also focus on the hazardous chemicals involved in the process of embalming bodies, and of the hazardous fumes in cremating bodies which contain e.g. lead fillings or pacemakers, etc.

But, like many products trying to get on the green bandwagon, alkaline hydrolysis is by no means a ‘green’ process.  For one thing, many jurisdictions are trying to reduce the load on wastewater facilities.  Most major cities are already over capacity at their sewage plants.  Ironically, municipalities are banning not only typical hazardous waste  (e.g. motor oil, paints, etc. ) from their wastewater systems, but are also banning things like in-sink disposal units, which merely add vegetable matter to the wastewater system.  Also, a variety of cities are banning rainwater runoff into the sewer systems, requiring residents to direct rainwater runoff towards lawns.  In these contexts, how adding hundreds or thousands of gallons of highly alkaline solutions to the  daily wastewater load seems like anything but a green solution.

But surely the issue of the chemical dissolution of human remains should not come down merely to a debate about choosing between air, soil, and water pollution, and to the relative ‘green’ spin of the different means of disposing human remains.   And it certainly should not be dictated by the push for enhanced profit opportunities in the funeral industry.  It is about how, more deeply, should we think about the significance of human bodies, our relationship to our mortal remains and those of loved one’s, and our culture’s respect for our beloved dead.

What is so striking about the Christian tradition is that it has so resoundingly affirmed burial as THE way to treat human remains.  Inheriting this practice from Judaism, Christianity historically buried its believers in consecrated ground.  With the exception of times of emergency conditions such as war, famine, or plague, Western Christians were almost without exception buried up until the late 19th century.  With its belief in the resurrection of the dead, the Christian tradition held that the Christian community was to do its part to prepare its member for God’s resurrection of that person, respectfully preparing the body and leaving it much as it was when the person died.

Burial as the appropriate rite for the beloved dead is more presumed than argued for in Scripture.  The significance of appropriate burial is displayed in the narratives of the death of Jacob and Joseph and in the life of Tobit, among others.  In the anointing at Bethany, Jesus refers to the significance of her act in relation to his own burial, and in Matthew’s gospel ‘ burying the dead’ is cited as one of the corporal works of mercy.

And burial is presumed by our language regarding those those who have died.  The word ‘cemetery’ has Christian origins, coming from the Greek word for ‘dormitory,’ with its associations of Christians being laid to ‘sleep,’ to be awakened at the last judgment.  We speak of our beloved dead’s “final resting place” and hope that they “rest in peace.”

With rare exception, burial was the norm for Christians and in the West until the late 19th Century, when, in ‘thumbing their nose’ at Western tradition and Christian belief, freemasons and other free thinkers agitated to be allowed to have their bodies cremated and the ashes spread, largely as a symbolic denial of belief in bodily resurrection and/or eternal life.  Freemasons were explicit in their advocacy of cremation to secularize society and to provoke Catholics.   Some held anti-Catholic demonstrations, in which they burned their dead and chanted “There, you see: they won’t rise again!”  In light of that, 19th and early 20th century official Catholic opposition was understandable, even if unfortunately the opposition was usually more reactive than proactive, typically lacking a sophisticated and nuanced rationale.  In any event, the late 19th and early 20th century saw laws in Europe and the Americas prohibiting cremation gradually abolished.

In the 1960s the Church’s opposition to cremation was relaxed, and since then cremation has become a growing practice among Catholics, although both the Church and most Catholics still seem to think that burial is to be preferred.  When the question of whether cremation is acceptable for Catholics, the stock answer (from the Catechism) is “as long as there is no intent to deny the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, then it is acceptable.”  This still smacks of a reactive response, allowing the issue of cremation to consist solely of whether or not one is under the influence of 19th c freemasons.  And so thrifty Catholics will give their  pious ‘nod’ – note that it didn’t occur to them to deny the theological doctrine of the resurrection of the body – and then feel free to pick their disposition of choice.

For those contemplating cremation or alkaline hydration, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body does not seem to be a major consideration.  Rather, they think about things like the cost of burial, the transport of the remains across the country, or simply the cost of a funeral with a body rather than reduced remains.

The one contemporary response by a Catholic moralist to the specific issue of alkaline hydrolysis is by Sr Rene Mirkes in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly in 2008.  Half of her article is a “technical perspective,” which amounts to a comparison of the environmental and public health impact of burial vs. cremation vs. alkaline hydrolysis.  On this count, Mirkes pronounces alkaline hydrolysis as the  environmental and public health winner, though her citations all seem to come from corporate and lobby groups who have a financial stake in the legal acceptance of alkaline hydrolysis for human beings.  And the environmental and public health issues Mirkes focuses on are not the entire environmental story.

The second half of Mirkes’ article, on the morality of the disposition of human bodies, seems to content itself to argue that alkaline hydrolysis is not intrinsically immoral (that’s clearly correct) and that therefore it is basically a matter of prudential judgment concerning “environmental, economic, financial, or psychological” reasons in terms of whether to allow the practice.   Needless to say, this is a rather underwhelming evaluation by a Catholic moral theologian, when dealing with a practice that is a corporal work of mercy and of which the tradition has had a largely unbroken practice for almost 2000 years up until less than 50 years ago.  Suddenly, a practice (cremation, and potentially alkaline hydroloysis) which has been allowed for exceptional circumstances, is now seen by Mirkes to be of little significant theological consequence one way or the other.   With these kinds of evaluations, unless a Bishop bans something in a diocese (which Mirkes acknowledges a bishop might want to do), then the question of burial, cremation or resomation will (and perhaps already is) a matter of affective preference and consumer choice.

Mirkes does acknowledge that the 1963 Vatican document, Piam at constantem, which allowed cremation in some circumstances, emphasized that cremation “does not possess the clarity of theological demonstration that is emblematic of burial and, therefore, despite the morality of cremation in certain situation, “all necessary measures” must be taken to preserve the custom of burial as the normative means of final disposition.”  She also emphasizes that bodies that are cremated or resomated (trademarked term for a body that has undergone alkaline hydrolysis) should have their remains kept in an urn and put in a mausoleum or columbarium, and be marked so that loved one could offer prayers at the site where the remains are kept.

Finally, Mirkes brings out the argument that many people may advocate cremation or resomation for financial reasons.  Surely she is not advocating that the rich should get burials and the poor get cremated!   The high cost of burial seems to be intimately tied up with an industry that encourages inordinate spending on people who are grieving.  This kind of response also assumes that Christians should see the cost of burial as a private expense, not as something which is shared by the Christian community.   One solution to the high cost of burials is for parishes to take back the process of burial, and have it be a ministry of the parish, rather than a service that gets contracted out, often at very high prices.  There are dioceses – such as Oakland, CA – that have bought up funeral homes, and have burial practices and cemetaries available as part of the ministry of the diocese.

There is obviously a lot more to be said about why we should prefer and maintain burial as normative for Catholics.  There will of course be times when this norm will be overridden, but it should not simply be viewed as three options for Catholics.  However, my argument for the moral and theological superiority of burial would already make this long post much longer.